A Chinese intelligence officer convicted of conspiring and attempting to steal sensitive trade secrets from a U.S. company was sentenced Wednesday to 20 years in federal prison.
The Justice Department had asked that Yanjun Xu, 42, get 25 years behind bars for his "very extensive" yearslong scheme to steal secrets from U.S. aviation companies.
Xu “used a range of techniques to attempt to steal technology and proprietary information from companies based in both the U.S. and abroad,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
He said the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Timothy Black “demonstrates the seriousness of those crimes and the Justice Department’s determination to investigate and prosecute efforts by the Chinese government, or any foreign power, to threaten our economic and national security.”
Xu is the first Chinese intelligence officer to be extradited to the U.S. to face criminal charges, Justice Department officials said. He was arrested in 2018 in Belgium, where he had gone to meet with an employee of GE Aviation, a subsidiary of General Electric. Prosecutors said the company had been working with the FBI.
Court filings described Xu as an official of China's Ministry of State Security, responsible for foreign intelligence and political security. Prosecutors said he used networks of underlings to pry secrets out of U.S. and other companies but also acted directly himself.
"Xu targeted multiple employees at multiple international aviation companies over multiple years. He used aliases, front companies, and false documents. He leveraged human intelligence sources, as well as cyber techniques," prosecutors said in their sentencing memorandum, adding that he recruited and duped assets, "namely ethnic Chinese insiders at Western aviation firms," into helping him.
In one of the schemes, he invited the employees to China and then "worked with others in the MSS to hack or copy the computers in hotel rooms while the aviation employees — his 'guests' — were taken to dinner by the MSS," prosecutors said.
He was convicted last November of conspiracy to commit economic espionage, conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, attempted economic espionage and attempted trade secret theft.
FBI Director Christopher Wray cited Xu's case in an interview this year as he described the scope of China's espionage activities.
“The scale of their hacking program, and the amount of personal and corporate data that their hackers have stolen, is greater than every other country combined,” Wray said.
Xu's attorneys had asked the judge to sentence him to four years — the time he has already spent behind bars in the U.S. They noted that his scheme to steal secrets from GE wasn’t successful and said he was just following his country's orders.
“Mr. Xu was working to further his country’s interests. He was not a rogue operator, or criminal mastermind or, in fact, in any way operating outside the scope of his employment. He did not allegedly seek proprietary information in order to monetize it for his own greedy purposes, or to start his own company, or to sell it on the black market. He was working on behalf of China, trying to obtain information that would be helpful to the aerospace industry in the People’s Republic of China," they said.
Xu's lawyers also argued in a court filing that the feds were asking for the lengthy prison sentence solely to send China a message that wouldn’t be received: "The government suggests that the prosecution and harsh punishment of one alleged Chinese intelligence officer will 'deter' an entire nation, an entire government structure, an entire political agenda. That is nothing more than wishful thinking."