The Justice Department announced charges Wednesday against a Chinese government operative who authorities say tried to steal tried secrets from U.S. aviation and aerospace companies, including GE Aviation.
At a press conference Wednesday, Justice Department officials said they believed this is the first time a Chinese government spy has been extradited to the United States to face charges. Mr. Xu was arrested in Belgium in April and returned to the United States on Tuesday.
Beginning in 2013 and continuing through his arrest in April, Mr. Xu recruited the executives to travel to China under the guise of delivering a presentation on their companies’ technology at a top Chinese university, even paying travel costs and a stipend, officials said. In reality, the presentations were part of a scheme to steal trade secrets, according to Justice Department officials.
“We cannot tolerate a nation’s stealing our firepower and the fruits of our brainpower,” said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.
The indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Ohio details the interaction between Mr. Xu and two employees of U.S. companies.
In one instance, Mr. Xu, using an alias, contacted a GE Aviation engineer asking him to give a presentation on engine structure design at a Chinese University, according to the indictment. The engineer, who was paid $3,500 for the speech, put five corporate documents on his personal laptop, which he brought to the presentation, the indictment said.
After the presentation, Mr. Xu and the employee remained in communication, authorities said. In early 2018, the employee, at Mr. Xu’s request, sent a menu of files on work his computer that had been edited to remove sensitive materials and sent with his company’s approval.
Mr. Xu followed up and asked if he could dump information on his computer onto a portable laptop ahead of a planned meeting in Europe, according to officials.
The indictment does not say if the employee was aware Mr. Xu was a spy or if they ever met in Europe.
At a press conference Wednesday, Justice Department officials declined to say if the unnamed employee will face charges.
A GE Aviation spokesman confirmed that the employee no longer works for the company, but declined to say if the departure was related to the investigation.
In a statement, GE Aviation said it cooperated with the FBI investigation and the impact to its business is “minimal” and information related to sensitive military programs were not targeted.
“The FBI has commanded GE Aviation for the effectiveness of its systems and its cooperation throughout the process,” the statements said. “GE continuously update its systems and processes to detect and deter internal and external threats. The case did not involve a hack of GE information.”
Mr. Xu will appear before a federal judge on Wednesday and is charged with conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, attempted theft of trade secrets by taking or deception and attempted economic espionage by theft for fraud.
If convicted, Mr. Xu could face as much as 25 years in prison.
The charges come as the Trump administration takes a harder line toward China. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence delivered as a blistering attack on the country, accusing it of predatory economic practices and military aggression toward the United States.
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