A former graduate student was convicted of spying for the Chinese government by gathering information on scientists and engineers in the United States with expertise in aerospace and other technologies.
Ji Chaoqun, 31, was convicted on Monday by a federal jury in Chicago of conspiracy to act as an agent of China’s Ministry of State Security without informing the US attorney general, acting as a spy in the US, 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 US Army when he applied to be a reservist in 2016.
Ji, a Chinese national who has been detained since his arrest in September 2018, appeared unconcerned 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 faces up to ten years in prison for acting as an unregistered Chinese agent.
According to the charges, Ji was targeted by agents from the Ministry of State Security (MSS) shortly before coming to the United States in 2013 to study engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Prosecutors claimed that after returning to China for the winter break, Ji was “wined and dined” by his MSS handlers. According to prosecutors, he was eventually given a top-secret contract in which he swore an oath of allegiance to the agency’s cause and agreed to “devote the rest of my life to state security.”
Prosecutors said Ji was eventually able to obtain background checks on eight US citizens, all of whom were born in Taiwan or China and worked in the science and technology industries, including several who specialized in aerospace. Seven of them worked for US defense contractors.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas, he sent the reports back to his handlers in a zipped attachment labeled as “midterm exam” questions.
Ji enlisted in the United States Army Reserve in 2016, a year after graduating from the Illinois Institute of Technology, through a program designed to recruit foreigners with skills considered vital to the national interest.
Prosecutors claimed Ji lied about having contact with intelligence officers during his Army background check, but the jury found him not guilty on both counts.
However, the jury found him guilty of lying on a government background check form when asked if he had ever had contact with foreign intelligence agencies, including the MSS.
Damon Cheronis, Ji’s lead attorney, said in a statement following 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,” he continued, “we respect the jury process and the hard work they put into deciding this case.”
Cheronis noted in his closing argument on Friday that Ji was never accused of stealing any government secrets, only of gathering background information that anyone looking to research a neighbor or potential date could pay for on the internet.