CINCINNATI — To prosecutors, Yanjun Xu is a Chinese spymaster who got caught trying to recruit spies to steal coveted aviation technology.
To defense attorneys, Xu is the victim of an FBI setup and an unfortunate pawn in a trade war between two economic superpowers: the United States and China.
His trial got underway in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati with opening statements on Tuesday morning inside a courtroom that Judge Timothy Black opened to the public after protests from the media about its closure on Monday.
The historic case is being heard here because it centers on Evendale-based GE Aviation and its highly successful gas turbine engine, which prosecutors say China desperately wants to duplicate.
“The defendant got caught,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter said during her opening statement, which outlined the government’s case against the first Chinese intelligence agent ever to be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial.
Xu, who is also known as Qu Hui and Zhang Hui, is a deputy division director at the Chinese Ministry of State Security, which is the Chinese intelligence agency.
Agents arrested Xu in Belgium in April 2018 and extradited him to the U.S., where a federal grand jury indicted him on charges of conspiring and attempting to commit economic espionage and theft of trade secrets.
Glatfelter revealed that a Honeywell aerospace engineer, who already pleaded guilty to an unspecified crime, will testify against Xu. She said Xu tried to recruit the engineer as a spy. He will testify that during a visit to China, while agents were out entertaining him, other operatives copied information from his laptop that he had left in a hotel room.
The trial will also touch on Xu’s alleged role in the malware attack on French aerospace engine-maker Safran in 2013, after an employee’s laptop was infected by a “Trojan Horse" USB device, Glatfelter said.
Prosecutors will call three different types of witnesses to testify during the month-long trial: law enforcement agents; others who allegedly conspired with Xu, and expert witnesses on China.
Prosecutors called their first witness on Tuesday afternoon: Dr. James Mulvenon, who is a general manager for SOS International. He is a Chinese linguist, a specialist on the Chinese military and an expert on Chinese cyber and espionage issues.
He gave the all-white, 15-member jury a detailed lesson on the makeup of the Chinese government and its Communist political power structure.
“Aviation has actively been a key priority for decades, and a key source of frustration,” Mulvenon said, noting that China has been forced to buy Boeing and Airbus planes because they have not been able to develop their own.
Xu’s defense attorney, Ralph Kohnen, also tried to educate the jury on Chinese culture during his opening statement.
“You have to understand him, and his culture, to understand his intentions,” Kohnen said. “He is very different from us in many ways.”
Xu, 41, wore a blue sport coat and pale dress shirt as he listened with interest to testimony on Tuesday. He sat at a table between an attorney and a Mandarin interpreter. U.S. Marshals removed his handcuffs while he sat in the courtroom.
Kohnen urged jurors to keep an open mind as they learned about the cultural differences between the two nations, which would explain some of Xu’s behavior. For example, he said, it is common in China to use aliases and share email addresses.
He also suggested that U.S. companies may be victimizing China by exploiting its cheap labor and lax pollution standards in order to produce goods while refusing to share technology to allow the nation to advance.
“China and its manufacturers … want to advance, but many U.S. companies want to keep China right where it is,” Kohnen said. “GE doesn’t want anything shared about certain products – so it convinces the FBI that some guy is trying to steal trade secrets … there were no trade secrets involved in this case and none were sought.”