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US government charges alleged Chinese spy with aviation espionage

An alleged Chinese intelligence officer has been extradited to the USA to face criminal charges related to a scheme to steal trade secrets from leading US aviation companies, including GE Aviation, says the US Department of Justice

Other unnamed US aerospace companies were also targeted by the conspiracy, which the US government says was directed by the government of China.

The alleged Chinese spy, Yanjun Xu (who goes by aliases Qu Hui and Zhang Hui), has been arrested by US officials after being extradited from Belgium, the US government says.

"This unprecedented extradition of a Chinese intelligence officer exposes the Chinese government's direct oversight of economic espionage against the United States,” assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's counterintelligence division Bill Priestap says in a US Department of Justice media release.

Xu's attorneys, who work for Cincinnati law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, did not immediately respond to telephone calls requesting comment.

The FBI's Cincinnati division conducted the investigation. GE Aviation is based near Cincinnati.

Xu faces charges of conspiring and attempting to commit economic espionage and to steal trade secrets. Court documents suggest the alleged theft targeted technology related to engine fan blades and "containment structures".

"Xu targeted certain companies inside and outside the United States that are recognised as leaders in the aviation field. This included GE Aviation," says the Department of Justice release. "He identified experts who worked for these companies and recruited them to travel to China, often initially under the guise of asking them to deliver a university presentation."

The US government says Xu is a deputy division director within a regional division of the Chinese Ministry of State Security. That agency conducts domestic and overseas espionage and is "responsible for counter-intelligence, foreign intelligence and political security".

GE Aviation insists no military technology was targeted.

"For months, GE Aviation has cooperated with the FBI investigation which has resulted in a federal court case. The Chinese official in this case targeted a former GE Aviation employee," says GE Aviation in a statement. "The impact to GE Aviation is minimal thanks to early detection, our advanced digital systems and internal processes, and our partnership with the FBI."

"No sensitive information relating to military programs was targeted or obtained,” GE adds. "The case did not involve a hack of GE information systems."

The indictment says Xu represented himself as associated with the Jiangsu Science & Technology Promotion Association.

He sought specifically to obtain information related to advanced materials used in aviation engines, "engine structural design analysis technology and manufacturing technology development", says the US government's indictment.

"This case is not an isolated incident. It is part of an overall economic policy of developing China at American expense. We cannot tolerate a nation’s stealing our firepower and the fruits of our brainpower," says US assistant attorney general for national security John Demers in the release.

The US government filed a criminal complaint against Xu in March, and he was arrested by Belgian officials on 1 April. The USA unsealed the charges against Xu on 10 October following his extradition to US soil, says the US government.

The economic espionage charges carry a maximum statutory penalty of 15 years in prison, while charges for stealing trade secrets carry 10 years prison time, the US government says.

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