Chinese spy guilty of trying to steal pioneering engine design from GE Aviation

The case is just one example of the People’s Republic of China stealing intellectual property to advance its own interests, officials say.
Chinese spy guilty of trying to steal pioneering engine design from GE Aviation
Published: Nov. 5, 2021 at 4:36 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - A federal jury on Friday found a Chinese intelligence agent guilty of attempting to steal cutting-edge proprietary technology from GE Aviation.

Yanjun Xu is the first-ever Chinese intelligence agent to be extradited to the US to face charges. His trial began Oct. 19 in Cincinnati before US District Judge Timothy Black.

GE Aviation is headquartered in Evendale, Ohio.

The case underscores the threat of Cold War-esque strategies by the People’s Republic of China to modernize its industries through theft of trade secrets, according to DOJ National Security Division Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen.

“But this conviction also serves notice that the United States will not sit by as China, or any other nation-state, attempts to steal instead of researching and developing key technology,” Olsen said. “Instead, and with the support of our allies, we will continue to investigate, prosecute, and hold accountable those who try to take the fruits of American ingenuity illegally.”

FBI Counterintelligence Assistant Director Alan Kohler called Xu’s actions “state-sponsored economic espionage by the PRC designed to steal American technology and put Americans out of work.”

Kohler said the case should dispel doubts about the “real goals” of the PRC and serve as “a wake-up call” that “they are stealing American technology to benefit their economy and military.”

Olsen described Xu as a “card-carrying intelligence officer for economic espionage.” In fact, he was a deputy division director at the Chinese Ministry of State Security, China’s intelligence agency, who engaged in what Patel described as “classic spy techniques” to target US companies at the forefront of aviation research and development.

Beginning in 2013, says Patel, Xu recruited employees at those companies to travel to China, often on the pretense of giving a presentation at a university. The employees were paid stipends, and their travel costs were covered.

Among Xu’s efforts was the attempted theft of technology related to GE Aviation’s exclusive composite aircraft engine fan, which Patel says no other company in the world has been able to duplicate.

A GE Aviation employee was asked to give a report at a Chinese university in March 2017, according to Patel. The employee went to China in May of that year to give a presentation and was introduced to Xu.

In January 2018, Xu requested of the employee “system specification, design process” information, Patel says.

The employee emailed a two-page document from GE Aviation that included a label that warned about the disclosure of proprietary information. At the time, the employee and GE Aviation were working with the FBI.

A month later, Xu talked with the employee about a possible meeting in Europe and asked the employee to send a copy of the file directory for his GE Aviation-issued computer, Patel says.

Xu flew to Belgium on April 1, 2018 to meet with the employee and was arrested.

The DOJ Criminal Divison’s Office of International Affairs successfully extradited Xu to the US with assistance from the government of Belgium as well as the Belgian Federal Police.

Patel announced Xu’s conviction Friday evening on two counts of conspiring and attempting to commit economic espionage, two counts of attempted theft of trade secrets and one count of conspiracy to commit trade secret theft.

“The jury, by its guilty verdict here today, held Xu accountable for his classic spy techniques,” said Patel. “Xu conspired to commit economic espionage on behalf of the Chinese government, and he tried to steal the valuable innovation and trade secrets of industry-leading American aviation technology companies. This Office will continue to seek to protect American innovation and hold accountable those who attempt to steal our nation’s science and technology, regardless of status or affiliation, whether civilian, military, or spy.”

Economic espionage is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $5 million.

Theft of trade secrets carries a potential maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

A federal district court judge will determine Xu’s sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

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