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U.S. charges Chinese nationals with schemes to steal info, punish critics and recruit spies

Department of Justice announces charges against alleged Chinese spies 05:10

Washington — The Justice Department on Monday unsealed charges in three separate cases accusing more than a dozen defendants, most of them Chinese officials, of participating in schemes to repatriate critics of the Chinese government, obtain secret information about a U.S. investigation into a Chinese telecom firm and recruit spies to act as agents of the Chinese regime in the U.S.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the charges alongside FBI Director Chris Wray and top Justice Department officials. Ten of the 13 individuals charged in the cases are Chinese officials, Wray said.

"As these cases demonstrate, the government of China sought to interfere with the rights and freedoms of individuals in the United States and to undermine our judicial system that protects those rights. They did not succeed," Garland said.

"Beijing may think our adherence to the rule of law is a weakness, but they're wrong," Wray said. "Our democratic and legal processes arm us with weapons that China does not have."

In one of the cases, two Chinese intelligence officers were accused of attempting to obstruct the criminal investigation into a Chinese telecommunications company, with charging documents saying the pair worked with a double agent who fed them information at the direction of the FBI. The two defendants, Guochun He and Zheng Wang, remain at large. Guochun He has also been charged with money laundering based on bribes made to the double agent.

The scheme, which allegedly began in 2019, involved He and Wang directing the U.S. law enforcement official to steal confidential information about the criminal case against the global telecommunications company, including files from the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn. In exchange, the double agent received bribes worth $61,000 in bitcoin.

The affidavit filed in support of the charges does not name the company, but references a press release issued by the Justice Department in February 2020. The department unveiled charges against Huawei, a China-based company that is one of the world's largest suppliers of network equipment used by phone and internet companies, that same month. The telecom giant and its subsidiaries were accused of orchestrating what the Justice Department said was a decades-long scheme to steal trade secrets from U.S. tech companies.

U.S. Attorney General Garland announces the results of operations conducted against alleged attempts by China to steal U.S. technology, at the Justice Department in Washington
Attorney General Merrick Garland announces charges against Chinese nationals at the Justice Department on Oct. 24, 2022. JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS

The charging documents unsealed Monday detail the relationship He and Wang allegedly cultivated with the unnamed law enforcement official beginning in February 2017, during which the agent, acting under the direction of the FBI, provided "purportedly sensitive information" about the Justice Department's case against the telecom company.

The two repeatedly sought information about the Chinese firm beginning in January 2019, when charges were first announced against the company, "in an effort to interfere with the prosecution and the ongoing investigation," federal prosecutors allege.

The indictment cites messages and phone calls between the two Chinese nationals and the U.S. government employee, including a Feb. 4, 2019, phone call during which Wang "expressed interest" in obtaining non-public information about the U.S. government's investigation into the company.

In August 2021, the double agent wrote to He asking for directions about what information he wanted gathered from American law enforcement. He, the Chinese intelligence officer, allegedly responded that he wanted information about the telecommunications company "and all about the trade talk, attitude, analysis, potential measures, targets, offers…are helpful," adding "specific cases of sanction aim to China enterprises are also good." 

Then, in the fall of 2021, the double agent falsely told He and Wang that the official was meeting with the team of government lawyers preparing for the trial against Huawei. In one exchange, according to court documents, He asked the U.S. government employee whether federal prosecutors would "put forward a plea" and whether there was a witness list to share. 

The indictment also cites an interaction between the double agent and the Chinese officers in October 2021, during which the agent sent a single page from a purported internal strategy memo from federal prosecutors that appeared to be classified as "SECRET." The memo discussed a plan to charge and arrest two Huawei employees living in China. One of the defendants, He, replied the document was "exactly what I am waiting for," according to court filings, and then paid the undercover operative roughly $41,000 in bitcoin for stealing the memorandum.

The agent also asked He and Wang for feedback about the document marked "SECRET," and He said that the Chinese telecommunications company "didn't give me specifically feedback now yet, but they are obviously interested in it, and my boss and they need further information." He also told the double agent that the company, believed to be Huawei, "obviously will be interested" in the undercover operative stealing another part of the strategy memo.

Communications between the double agent and He lasted until Oct. 20, 2022, during which time the individuals discussed a reward for the work.

In another case, prosecutors in New Jersey charged four individuals, including three Chinese intelligence officers, for unsuccessfully trying to recruit a former federal law enforcement officer and state homeland security official to act in the U.S. as an agent of China. 

Charging documents unsealed Monday allege that from 2008 through at least 2018, Wang Lin and three co-defendants used an affiliation with a Chinese academic institution as cover to identify, target and direct individuals in the U.S. to act on China's behalf, including trying to pressure the individual to stop a planned protest against China in the U.S. and other allegedly "clandestine" activities." 

The third case announced by Garland involves seven individuals allegedly working on behalf of the Chinese government who were charged with engaging in a multi-year campaign to force a U.S. resident to return to China. Two of the seven people charged were arrested last week, though the remaining five remain at large.

"The PRC has a history of targeting political dissidents and critics of the government who have sought relief and refuge in other countries," Garland said, referring to the People's Republic of China.

The attorney general said the campaign included harassment, threats, surveillance and intimidation aimed at coercing the individual to return to China. Those involved also allegedly harassed the victim's family members.

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