Yanjun Xu convicted of spying and attempted theft of trade secrets from GE

Jurors in Chinese spy case finish deliberations
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan delivers closing statement in trial of Yanjun Xu.
Posted at 7:10 PM, Nov 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-05 22:23:18-04

CINCINNATI — The first Chinese intelligence agent ever to be extradited to the United States was convicted late Friday by a federal jury in Cincinnati for his role in a global conspiracy to recruit spies and steal valuable aviation technology for China.

After deliberating for two days, a jury of 12 Southwest Ohio residents found Yanjun Xu guilty of all four charges: conspiracy to commit economic espionage, conspiracy to steal trade secrets, attempted economic espionage, and attempted theft of trade secrets.

He faces up to 15 years when he is sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black, likely in three to four months.

For now, he is being housed in the Butler County Jail.

The historic espionage trial lasted three weeks in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, where Xuis the first agent of China’s Ministry of State Security to be extradited for trial as an accused spy.

"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," said former U.S. Attorney Ben Glassman, who initially oversaw the case when Xu was extradited to Cincinnati in 2018.

"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," Glassman said.

The case is based here because it involves GE Aviation and a former engineer who cooperated with the FBI to lure Xu to his arrest in Belgium in 2018. In exchange the FBI agreed not to prosecute that engineer, David Zheng, who was fired from GE after he traveled to China for a university presentation.

“The jury, by its guilty verdict here today, held Xu accountable for his classic spy techniques,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Vipal J. Patel. "This office will continue to seek to protect American innovation and hold accountable those who attempt to steal our nation’s science and technology, regardless of status or affiliation, whether civilian, military, or spy.”

The government’s strongest evidence in the case is the volumes of text messages, emails, calendar entries, photos and recordings that FBI agents retrieved from Xu’s phone when he was arrested in Belgium in April 2018.

“The evidence in this case, nearly all of it, came from his own words,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan told the jury in his closing statement. “It shines a light on what his deeds were … and a clear window into his intent.”

Mangan showed the jury a photo that Xu had taken of his resume, which detailed his 15-year career at the MSS. It showed his promotions through the years until he was named deputy division director with the Jiangsu State Security Department, Sixth Bureau, which witnesses said was responsible for science and technology.

Yanjun Xu faces a jury on espionage charges.
Yanjun Xu faces a jury on espionage charges.

The MSS is the intelligence and security agency for China and is responsible for counterintelligence, foreign intelligence and political security.

Jurors also saw a photograph of Xu’s Chinese Communist Party membership card, which was stored on his phone.

Mangan showed jurors the emails he sent using aliases as Qu Hui, aka Zhang Hui, and business cards he had in those names with different jobs.

“It’s part of the con. That’s what it is. It’s a con,” Mangan said. “If you are on the up and up, if you have legitimate reason for what you’re doing, you don’t do this.”

But Xu’s attorney, Ralph Kohnen, tried to poke holes in the government’s case with a sprawling closing statement that questioned everything from their witnesses to criticizing GE Aviation for trying to thwart China’s progress in the aviation industry.

“GE and the FBI are trying to send a message to China and to slow China’s progress at developing composite (engine fan) technology, which we all know will eat away at GE’s market,” Kohnen said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter questions GE Aviation vice president Eric Ridder in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter questions GE Aviation vice president Eric Ridder in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.

Prosecutors accuse Xu of a wide-reaching conspiracy to recruit spies to steal technology from aviation companies across the globe.

Kohnen accused prosecutors of blaming Xu for acts he had nothing to do with, in a “guilt by association” case.

“The government is preying on your patriotism and playing to your fears,” Kohnen said.

Xu’s large defense team opted not to call any witnesses during the three-week trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan questions FBI language specialist Jason Wong in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan questions FBI language specialist Jason Wong in the espionage trial of Yanjun Xu.

Prosecutors called 15 witnesses, including the Belgian chief police inspector who arrested Xu, and an executive from French aviation company Safran, who said his laptop was infected with malware during a visit to China in 2014. Prosecutors attempted to tie that “Trojan Horse” malware to Xu.

Mangan tried the case with Matthew McKenzie, an attorney with the Department of Justice's National Security Division, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter.

Mangan and Glatfelter won another high-profile trial almost exactly three years ago, when a jury convicted Evans Landscaping owner Doug Evans of minority contracting fraud. He is currently serving a 21-month prision sentence.

The next high-profile cases that Glatfelter will take before a jury are the public corruption trials of suspended Cincinnati City Council members Jeff Pastor and PG Sittenfeld, who will face separate trials in the spring of 2022. She is trying those cases with Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer.