A former Chicago graduate student was sentenced to eight years in prison on Wednesday for spying for the Chinese government by gathering information on engineers and scientists in the United States.
Ji Chaoqun, a Chinese national who came to the United States to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2013 and later enlisted in the US Army Reserves, was arrested in 2018 .
The 31-year-old was convicted last September of unlawfully acting as an agent of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) and making a material false statement to the US military.
According to the Justice Department, Ji was tasked with providing an intelligence officer with biographical information about people who might be recruited as Chinese spies. The individuals included Chinese nationals who worked as engineers and scientists in the United States, some of whom worked for American defense contractors.
The spying on Ji was part of an effort by Chinese intelligence services to gain access to advanced aerospace and satellite technologies being developed by American companies, the Justice Department said in a statement.
In 2016, a year after graduating, Ji enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves under a program where foreign nationals can be recruited if their skills are deemed “vital to the national interest”.
In his application to join the program, Ji falsely stated that he had had no contact with any foreign government in the past seven years. He also failed to disclose his relationship and contacts with Chinese intelligence officers during a later interview with a US military officer, according to the Justice Department.
In 2018, Ji had several meetings with an undercover U.S. law enforcement agent who was posing as a Chinese MSS representative. During these meetings, Ji said that with his military identification, he could visit and take photos of “Roosevelt-class” aircraft carriers. Ji also explained that once he got his U.S. citizenship and security clearance through the Army Reserve program, he would seek employment with the CIA, FBI, or NASA, he said. the Justice Department said, citing evidence at trial.
Ji intended to do cybersecurity work at one of those agencies in order to gain access to databases, including those containing scientific research, the Justice Department said in the statement.
Ji worked under Xu Yanjun, deputy division director at the Jiangsu provincial branch of the MMS, according to the statement.
Xu, a career intelligence officer, was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison for conspiring to steal trade secrets from several US aircraft and aerospace companies. Xu was also the first Chinese spy extradited to the United States for trial, having been detained in Belgium in 2018 following an FBI investigation.