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Chinese spy sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for conspiracy to steal GE Aviation trade secrets

Yanjun Xu was a regional Deputy Director of China's spy agency.
Yanjun Xu faces a jury on espionage charges.
Posted at 8:29 PM, Nov 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-16 20:32:38-05

CINCINNATI — The first Chinese spy extradited for trial in the United States was sentenced on Wednesday to 20 years in federal prison for conspiring to steal GE Aviation's trade secrets for China.

"On behalf of the United States, justice was served for this country," United States Attorney Kenneth Parker said following the hearing in Cincinnati.

Yanjun Xu, a Deputy Regional Director for China's Ministry of State Security (MSS), had recruited a GE engineer to steal the Evendale-based company's exclusive composite aircraft engine fan technology, according to federal prosecutors.

Convicted Chinese spymaster Yanjun Xu listens to testimony with help from Mandarin interpreter during his trial in 2021
Convicted Chinese spymaster Yanjun Xu listens to testimony with help from Mandarin interpreter during his trial in 2021

At his trial last year, Xu, 42, was convicted of four counts; Conspiracy to Commit Economic Espionage, Conspiracy to Commit Trade Secret Theft, Attempt to Commit Economic Espionage, Attempt to Commit Trade Secret Theft.

Prior to being sentenced, Xu read a written statement in Mandarin that was translated and read in English by his translator.

"I'm just an ordinary Chinese citizen," Xu told United States District Court Judge Timothy Black. "All the U.S. government has done is use the legal system as a weapon" against China.

Xu's arrest and conviction were reported around the world. Evidence obtained during the Cincinnati-based investigation provided rare insight into how Chinese spies operate and prompted additional criminal cases that involved Xu's contacts with targets in the U.S.

The trial was here because it involved a crime committed against a local company, and local FBI agents conducted the investigation.

Cincinnati FBI Special Agent in Charge J. William Rivers said Xu's sentencing was a "landmark achievement."

"It sends a clear signal," Rivers said. "We're serious about keeping counter espionage and counter intelligence a high priority threat for us."

Court records show Chinese spies used LinkedIn to identify and initially contact Xu's target, former GE Aviation engineer David Zheng.

Zheng was born and raised in China, spoke fluent Mandarin and was an expert on aviation technology coveted by the Chinese.

He accepted an offer for a free trip to China in 2017 to present information about GE Aviation engines at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, according to court records

Diagram of GE Aviation turbine engine with fan blades
Diagram of GE Aviation turbine engine with fan blades

Court records show Zheng was unaware his free trip and $3,500 fee were part of a Chinese effort to recruit him as a spy. Prosecutors said Zheng didn't share protected company information with the Chinese.

The FBI learned about Zheng's trip after he returned to Cincinnati and notified GE Aviation. The company fired Zheng.

The former engineer began to tell his story to the FBI in November 2017, according to a sealed FBI affidavit mistakenly uploaded to PACER, the federal courts website.

The sealed affidavit, discovered and downloaded by the I-Team before it was removed, disclosed that Zheng was still under federal investigation in early 2018 "for taking technical information from GE Aviation without authorization."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter questions former GE engineer David Zheng in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter questions former GE engineer David Zheng in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.

Federal agents promised not to prosecute Zheng if he cooperated with their investigation, according to testimony presented at Xu's trial.

The former GE Aviation engineer convinced Xu to meet him in Belgium in April 2018. When Xu arrived, police arrested him.

"Mr. Xu was expecting to take home a treasure trove of information," Parker said. "He was expecting to be aggressive in his activities to get that information. He brought photographs of the individual (Zheng) he was going to extort."

Much of the evidence against Xu came from a phone seized during his arrest. That evidence included his work history and resume, calendar entries and text messages dating back to 2013, emails, photos, and even recorded conversations that were backed up on the iCloud account for the phone.

It was a gold mine for American intelligence agencies that used the information to learn more about Chinese espionage, how spies communicated, and the identities of some Chinese intelligence officials.

Evidence seized during Xu's arrest in Belgium in April 2018
Evidence seized during Xu's arrest in Belgium in April 2018

"This case is like no other across the country," Asst. U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter told Judge Black during the sentencing hearing. "And it might be the only one this country ever sees."

Court records show the Cincinnati-based investigation also provided key evidence in criminal cases in Arizona and Illinois.

In September, a federal jury in Chicago convicted a Chinese national of conspiracy for acting as a spy for China.

Ji Chaoqun, 31, worked at the direction of Xu and other MSS officials in China, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois.

Xu's messages presented at trial also revealed more about the personal lives and frustrations of the veteran spy and his Chinese confidants.

"Are you still with State Security?", someone asked Xu in a message.

"Yes, nowhere to go," Xu wrote.

In an exchange of messages with someone else, Xu acknowledged that he was feeling "a lot of stress" to get information.

Xu's defense didn't present any witnesses during his trial.

At the sentencing hearing, one of Xu's defense attorneys asked Black to sentence him to "time served." Xu has been in jail or prison since his arrest in April 2018.

"He's no James Bond," defense attorney Florian Miedel said. "Mr. Xu should be sent home."

Miedel said Xu was trying to help his country and not acting out of personal greed.

"Every country tries to discover another country's secrets," Miedel said. "Are we trying to discover China's secrets? Of course we are."

In his statement, Xu said that his prosecution was "political."

The spy told Judge Black he'll appeal.

This story was orignally published by WCPO in Cincinnati, Ohio.