A Chinese national who came to the US on a student visa and enlisted in the army reserves has been arrested in Chicago and accused of helping Beijing attempt to recruit American scientists and engineers.
Ji Chaoqun was allegedly tasked with providing Chinese intelligence with information from background checks on about eight American citizens – some of whom were US defence contractors.
The arrest comes as the US and China are locked in a high-stakes trade war and US counter intelligence step up efforts to combat Chinese espionage. China’s ministry of state security operates a large network of spies both inside China and around the world, and Chinese student groups in the US have been accused of coordinating with government departments.
The 27-year-old, who first arrived in Chicago in 2013 to study electrical engineering on a student visa at the Illinois Institute of Technology, was charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires individuals working for foreign governments to register with the US Attorney General.
“By collecting this information for an arm of the Chinese government while in the United States, Ji knowingly and unlawfully acted as an agent of a foreign power,” Andrew McKay, an FBI agent, wrote in an affidavit.
At his first appearance in court, Ji asked the Chinese consulate be informed of his arrest and told the judge he understood his rights at the end of the 15 minute hearing. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted and was led away in handcuffs after US magistrate judge Michael Masonthe ordered that he remain in custody.
According to a court affidavit, Ji was working at the direction of a “high-level intelligence officer” in China’s ministry of state security, which “handles civilian intelligence collection and is responsible for counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence, as well as political security.”
All eight of the people Ji allegedly researched were naturalised American citizens who were born in Taiwan or China, according to authorities. The targets either currently worked or were recently retired from a career in the science and technology industry.
An affidavit filed in federal court by an FBI investigator specializing in espionage, claims among the people targeted was an engineer at one of “the world’s top aircraft engine suppliers for both commercial and military aircraft.”
After one of Ji’s handlers was arrested, he met with US undercover agents in April and May, and admitted to his work, which included collecting background checks, the affidavit said.
He allegedly told the undercover agents: “They just wanted me to purchase some documents on their behalf. Their reason was just because it was inconvenient for them to make payments from China.”
Ji also enlisted in the US Army Reserves, according to the US attorney’s office, but failed to disclose his foreign contacts to the military.
Ji’s arrest comes after a CIA officer was charged with spying for China earlier this year, possibly in connection with the unravelling of US spy networks in China.