A 27-year-old Chinese citizen living in the United States was has been arrested on espionage charges in Chicago.
According to statements provided by authorities, Ji Chaoqun has been charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. Attorney General. The charge stems from allegations that Ji actively gathered intelligence and identified recruitment targets for China’s international intelligence apparatus, working directly with high level officials within the Chinese government. According to the criminal compliant filed on Ji prior to his Tuesday appearance in Federal Court, he entered the United States in 2013 using a student visa. After studying engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Ji went on to enlist in the U.S. Army Reserves.
Ji’s charges may be compounded due to his service, though no statement pertaining to it has been made thus far. However, in an official statement released by the Department of Justice, the U.S. Army 902nd Military Intelligence Group is credited with providing “valuable assistance” in the investigation. The statement goes on to say:
According to the complaint, Ji was born in China and arrived in the United States in 2013 on an F1 Visa, for the purpose of studying electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. In 2016, Ji enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves as an E4 Specialist under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which authorizes the U.S. Armed Forces to recruit certain legal aliens whose skills are considered vital to the national interest.
In his application to participate in the MAVNI program, Ji specifically denied having had contact with a foreign government within the past seven years, the complaint states. In a subsequent interview with a U.S. Army officer, Ji again failed to disclose his relationship and contacts with the intelligence officer, the charge alleges.
The 17-page criminal complaint states that Ji met with an undercover FBI agent in April and May of this year, during which he revealed his ties to Chinese intelligence, explaining that he had been recruited in school while still in China. He also reportedly told the undercover agent that he had gathered information on eight U.S. citizens born in either Taiwan or China that might be suitable recruits for the Chinese government.
All eight individuals either currently worked in or were recently retired from a career in the science and technology industry, including several individuals specializing in aerospace fields,” the complaint says. It goes on, “at least seven of the eight individuals worked for, or had recently retired from, cleared U.S. defense contractors.”
This arrest comes immediately after newly appointed CIA Director Gina Haspel referenced China specifically in statements about a shift in emphasis within her organization. For nearly twenty years now, the CIA has been devoted to counter-insurgency and anti-terror operations the world over, but Haspel is now overseeing a renewed emphasis on nation-level opponents like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Earlier this year, it was revealed that most of America’s intelligence gathering apparatus in China had actually been compromised due to a breach of a secure communications system utilized by intelligence officials and assets within the nation. After a slew of arrests and executions, America’s spy network within China is said to be weaker than it’s been in decades. According to statements made by senior law enforcement officials in recent months, the same can’t be said about Chinese intelligence gathering efforts in the U.S.
Earlier this year, FBI Director Christopher Wray drew fire from some when he claimed that many Chinese intelligence operatives were studying and even working at universities all across the country.
“I think the level of naiveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues,” Wray said. “They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it.”
Chinese students make up more than one third of all international students studying in the United States, with an estimated 350,000 currently enrolled in programs all across the country. In July, another Chinese citizen smuggled research pertaining to Dr. David Smith’s research into metamaterials that are believed to one day serve as the basis of a kind of “invisibility” cloak for military applications. Ruopeng Liu, a Duke University student turned billionaire, took the research with him back to China — prompting an investigation into whether or not his actions constituted espionage of the corporate or government variety.
“We know that the Chinese have a shopping list of intelligence and technology that they target every year,” Former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Frank Figliuzzi said at the time. “We know that the research he took from Duke University was on that collection list.”