CHICAGO (AP) — A former graduate student has been convicted of spying for the Chinese government by gathering information on scientists and engineers in the U.S. who had knowledge about aerospace technology and other technology.
A federal jury in Chicago convicted Ji Chaoqun, 31, on Monday of conspiracy to act as an agent of China’s Ministry of State Security without notifying the U.S. attorney general, acting as a spy in the U.S., and lying on a government form about his contacts with foreign agencies.
The jury, which deliberated for about six hours over two days, acquitted Ji of two other wire fraud counts alleging that he lied to the U.S. Army when he applied to become a reservist in 2016, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Ji, a Chinese national who has been in custody since he was arrested in September 2018, appeared to have no reaction as he listened to the verdict on headphones through a Chinese interpreter.
A federal judge did not immediately set a sentencing date for Ji, who could face as many as 10 years in prison for his conviction for acting as an unregistered Chinese agent.
The charges alleged that Ji was targeted by agents with the Ministry of State Security, or MSS, shortly before he came to the U.S. in 2013 to study engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
After traveling back to China for the winter break, prosecutors said, Ji was “wined and dined” by his MSS handlers. He was eventually given a top secret contract in which he swore an oath of allegiance to the agency’s cause, agreeing to “devote the rest of my life to state security,” according to prosecutors.
Ji was ultimately able to gather background reports on eight U.S. citizens, all born in Taiwan or China, with careers in science and technology industries, including several who specialized in the aerospace field, prosecutors said. Seven worked for U.S. defense contractors.
He sent the reports back to his handlers in a zipped attachment that was falsely labeled as sets of “midterm exam” questions, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas.
In 2016, a year after Ji graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve through a program to recruit foreigners who have skills considered vital to the national interest.
Prosecutors alleged Ji concealed during his Army background check that he had been in contact with the intelligence officers, but the jury found him not guilty on both of those counts.
However, the jury convicted him of giving false answers on a government background form that asked if he had ever had any contact with foreign intelligence agencies, including the MSS.
Ji’s lead attorney, Damon Cheronis, said in a statement after the verdict that he was “pleased that the jury returned not guilty verdicts on both wire fraud counts.”
“While we are obviously disappointed with the remaining counts, we respect the jury process and the hard work they put into deciding this case,” he added.
In his closing argument Friday, Cheronis noted that Ji was never accused of stealing any government secrets, only of gathering background that anyone wanting to research a neighbor or potential date could pay for on the internet.