Chinese Spy Caught and Convicted for Plotting to Steal US Aviation Trade Secrets

By Ashok Ramprasad | November 8, 2021
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Xu Yanjun in a photo taken shortly after his arrest. (Image: Butler County Jail)

On Nov. 5, a federal court in Cincinnati convicted Xu Yanjun, a Chinese intelligence officer, over his alleged role in conspiring to steal sensitive aviation trade secrets from the country as well as recruiting spies. 

41-year-old Xu is a deputy division director at the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS). The MSS is China’s top intelligence agency that is responsible for foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security.

According to the Justice Department, Xu has been found guilty on five counts. These include two counts of conspiring and attempting to commit economic espionage, two counts of attempted theft of trade secrets, and a conspiracy to commit trade secret theft.

“This was state-sponsored economic espionage by the PRC designed to steal American technology and put Americans out of work… For those who doubt the real goals of the PRC, this should be a wake-up call; they are stealing American technology to benefit their economy and military,” Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division said in a statement on Nov. 5.

Court documents reveal that Xu had been targeting several companies in the U.S. and other countries since 2013. Using aliases like “Qu Hui” and “Zhang Hui,” Xu not only carried out economic espionage on behalf of Beijing but also sought to recruit employees from top companies for the purposes of employing them as spies. 

Working as a spymaster

Xu portrayed himself as an associate of the Jiangsu Science and Technology Promotion Association to avoid raising suspicion about his work. He would invite the new recruits to China under the pretense of delivering a university presentation or exchanging ideas. 

Apart from providing the experts with stipend, Xu would also cover their travel-related expenses. One of the companies he chiefly targeted was GE Aviation, a unit of General Electric Co. Xu was attempting to steal technological know-how related to GE Aviation’s composite aircraft engine fan that is exclusively made by the company.

In 2017, he managed to persuade a GE Aviation engineer in Cincinnati to make a presentation at a Chinese university. The presentation discussed cutting-edge topics like the company’s engine structure design.

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A General Electric GE9X engine is pictured on a Boeing 777X airplane as it taxis for the first flight, which had to be rescheduled due to weather, at Paine Field in Everett, Washington on January 24, 2020. (Image: JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

In the following year, Xu asked the employee to provide him with “system specification, design process” information. The employee, on the instruction of the company that was already cooperating with the FBI, emailed a two-page document from GE Aviation marked as having sensitive information. 

Xu then discussed his plans to meet with the employee in Europe. On his arrival in Belgium in April 2018, Xu was arrested in a covert operation and extradited to the United States. 

Xu is the first Chinese spy to be extradited to the U.S. and stand trial for espionage. The trial lasted for three weeks, beginning from Oct. 19 and concluding on Nov. 3. The case is being presided over by U.S. District Judge Timothy Black who is expected to announce Xu’s sentence in three to four months. Xu now faces a prison term that could last up to 60 years and fines of over $5 million.

“This is surely among the most significant victories by United States law enforcement against China’s naked ambition to acquire intellectual property by whatever means, legal or otherwise… The answer of the United States to another country’s ambition to gain through theft is simply to hold people accountable under the law. I’m proud to be an American,” former U.S. Attorney Ben Glassman said to WCPO. When Xu was extradited to America in 2018, it was Glassman who initially oversaw the case.

Xu’s conviction comes as U.S. intelligence agencies are increasingly warning American companies about the threats they face from Chinese spies. Beijing has been trying to steal critical trade secrets of U.S. firms operating in areas like quantum computing and artificial intelligence.