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Chinese national Ji Chaoqun was arrested in Chicago in September 2018. Photo: Ji Chaoqun via Facebook

Former Chicago graduate student Ji Chaoqun convicted of spying for China part of larger plan: analysts

  • One-time US Army reservist Ji Chaoqun targeted by Jiangsu Province state security apparatus before moving to Illinois for school, prosecutors say
  • Analysts describe ‘fish-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean’ operation in which seemingly ordinary recruits are nudged into positions of usefulness

A former Chicago graduate student and member of the US Army Reserve convicted of acting as an illegal agent for China appears to be part of a “fish-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean” operation in which seemingly ordinary recruits are nudged into positions of usefulness by Beijing’s state security apparatus, analysts said.

Ji Chaoqun, 31, worked on behalf of a “high-level intelligence officer” in the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, identifying individuals for potential enlistment, according to evidence presented at his two-week trial. The US Department of Justice said targets for recruitment by Ji and the Jiangsu MSS included Chinese nationals working in the US as engineers and scientists, such as those at defence contractors.

Ji was found guilty late Monday of both conspiring to and acting as an unauthorised agent for a foreign government and for making false claims to the US Army. He was acquitted on two other wire fraud charges. In a statement, Damon Cheronis, Ji’s lead lawyer, said they were “pleased” the jury returned the two not-guilty verdicts.

According to prosecutors, Ji was targeted by Jiangsu MSS agents in China soon before travelling to Chicago in 2013 to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. When he returned to China for winter break, Ji was “wined and dined” by MSS handlers. This led to a top-secret contract after he swore an oath to “devote the rest of my life to state security”.

Ji Chaoqun studied electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Photo: TNS

Ji’s case appears to fit a common “fish-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean” approach China uses in which it approaches ordinary nationals based in foreign countries and works with them for years as their career advances or is nudged in a promising direction by their spymasters, said Nick Eftimiades, a former Pentagon official and senior Atlantic Council fellow.

Generally, the American military only allows US citizens or permanent residents to join its ranks. But Ji joined the US Army Reserve in 2016 a year after graduation under a special programme that bends the rules under special circumstances.

The Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or Mavni, programme, opens the door to a few thousand recruits who possess skills the Pentagon needs. They include doctors, nurses and people with special language skills and cultural insights.

Intelligence and legal experts said early evidence and cases like Ji’s suggested the FBI and Department of Justice were starting to edge away from earlier controversial China Initiative indictments.
That 2018-2022 programme, which ended officially in February, intended to prosecute spies at US universities and industry. But it was criticised as ineffective, racially biased and too often focused on paperwork violations rather than genuine espionage cases.

Despite dropping the programme’s name, however, some cases remain in the pipeline, and investigations can go on for years, leaving a huge shadow over academic careers, according to critics.

Courts in separate rulings over the past week invalidated some of the most serious charges or handed down relatively lenient sentences for lesser violations involving chemist Franklin Tao, materials scientist Zhengdong Cheng, and mathematician Xiao Mingqing. All were indicted under the China Initiative.

“Catch the real spies,” said Jeremy Wu, founder of APA Justice, a civil rights activist group. “Don’t use scientists as a way to scapegoat innocent people.”

Ji’s espionage case appears to be standard operating procedure for China, said Paul Heer, an East Asia fellow with the Centre for the National Interest, who was formerly a CIA analyst and national intelligence officer.

“Technology acquisition has been their target for decades,” Heer said. “This is what they target and this is how they do it.”

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The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

China’s intelligence efforts are often broader and more sweeping than those of other nations, involving everything from national secrets and economic data to trade intelligence, company secrets, diplomacy and the activities of Chinese diaspora communities overseas, requiring an “all-of-society” intelligence effort, analysts said.

Jiangsu MSS has emerged as a specialist in collecting technology and advanced engineering intelligence within China’s intelligence bureaucracies, they added.

While China’s espionage capabilities and use of sophisticated tools have increased markedly over the past decade, the quality of its tradecraft still varies, Eftimiades said, with one part of a spy agency at times using dead drops and encrypted software as other sections of it communicate on unscrambled lines.

“Sometimes on open emails or text messages they’ll say something ridiculous like, ‘from now on, you call the MSS a banana,’ and then on the next text they will say, ‘I was talking to the banana’,” said Eftimiades, who maintains a database of over 700 Chinese espionage cases.

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“Is this a game show?” he added. “Their quality control is not always where it should be.”

When entering the US Army Reserve, Ji lied in his application and in a follow-up interview falsely stated he had not had contact with a foreign government or a Jiangsu intelligence agent within the past seven years, according to the Justice Department.

Ultimately Ji was able to gather background reports on eight US citizens born in Taiwan or China, seven of whom worked for defence contractors, employed in various science and technology sectors, including in the aerospace field, prosecutors said in court.
Ji’s case was part of a wider national security investigation involving the arrest, extradition and conviction of his handler, Xu Yangjun, a senior intelligence officer and the first Chinese spy brought to the US to face criminal prosecution.

Xu is awaiting sentencing later this year after being found guilty in an Ohio federal court last November of trying to steal trade secrets from GE Aviation, a military contractor.

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Ji, who faces up to 10 years in prison on the illegal agent charge and up to five years for the conspiracy and false statement offences, has not received a sentencing date.

While cases involving cyber theft and MSS-directed espionage garner considerable attention, the US suffers far greater damage from extralegal transfers of data and technological know-how, according to William Hannas, formerly with the CIA and now an analyst at Georgetown University’s Centre for Security and Emerging Technology.

Vulnerabilities that largely escape scrutiny, Hannas said, include “technology transfer centres”, “returned scholar parks”, and Beijing’s “Thousand Talents” programme, which recruits leading international experts in areas like scientific research.

China’s theft of intellectual property and tech secrets is a global problem, but Hannas also warned against overreacting.

“No one I know, in any country, wants Chinese students excluded. Quite to the contrary, we all value their contributions,” he said. “A very small minority are problematic to varying degrees. So you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”