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Intellectual property in China

Chinese battery expert Hongjin Tan is charged with stealing trade secrets from US employer, as he prepared to join mainland firm

  • Hongjin Tan allegedly downloaded confidential files to a flash drive, relating to a proprietary product worth US$1 billion
  • But an FBI agent said that when Tan’s suspicious US employer inspected the drive, it found the confidential files had been deleted the day before Tan resigned
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2018, 6:55am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2018, 7:11pm

The US Justice Department said on Friday a Chinese national had been arrested and charged with stealing trade secrets from the American petroleum company that employed him, in a theft relating to a product worth more than US$1 billion.

The Chinese national, Hongjin Tan, allegedly downloaded hundreds of files related to the manufacture of a “research and development downstream energy market product,” which he planned to use to benefit a company in China that had offered him a job, the Justice Department said. Tan is an expert in battery systems and energy storage.

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He was arrested on Thursday and will next appear in court on Wednesday, the department said.

Assistant US Attorney General for National Security John Demers said: “The theft of intellectual property harms American companies and American workers. As our recent cases show, all too often these thefts involve the Chinese government or Chinese companies.

The theft of intellectual property harms American companies and American workers. As our recent cases show, all too often these thefts involve the Chinese government or Chinese companies
Assistant US Attorney General for National Security John Demers

“The Department recently launched an initiative to protect our economy from such illegal practices emanating from China, and we continue to make this a top priority.”

Tan, an engineer with a physics degree from Nanjing University and a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, has lived in the United States as a legal resident for the past 12 years, according to the Department of Justice.

A LinkedIn profile says that Tan has worked for the Texas-based energy multinational Phillips 66 since May 2017. He previously spent more than 11 years at the California Institute of Technology as a visiting scientist and research assistant.

His expertise is described in the profile as “materials and systems development for renewable energy storage”.

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According to an FBI agent’s affidavit, which has not been tested in court, Tan had in his possession a flash drive that contained deleted and undeleted confidential files relating to the US company’s intellectual property. He had no reason to access the files, according to the company.

The agent said Tan handed the flash drive over to the US company, and the firm found that the deleted files would have allowed his new employers to recreate the product in question. The files had been deleted from the flash drive the day before Tan resigned, the affidavit said.

Additional reporting by SCMP staff