In August 2015, an electrical engineering student in Chicago sent an email to a Chinese national titled “Midterm test questions.”
More than two years later, the email would turn up in an FBI probe in the Southern District of Ohio involving a suspected Chinese intelligence officer who authorities believed was trying to acquire technical information from a defense contractor.
Investigators took note.
They identified the email’s writer as Ji Chaoqun, a Chinese student who would go on to enlist in the US Army Reserve. His email, they say, had nothing to do with exams.
Instead, at the direction of a high-level Chinese intelligence official, Ji allegedly attached background reports on eight US-based individuals who Beijing could target for potential recruitment as spies, according to a federal criminal complaint.
The eight – naturalized US citizens originally from Taiwan or China – had worked in science and technology. Seven had worked for or recently retired from US defense contractors. The complaint says all of them were perceived as rich targets for a new form of espionage that China has been aggressively pursuing to win a silent war against the US for information and global influence.
Ji was arrested in September last year, accused of acting as an “illegal agent” at the direction of a “high-level intelligence officer” of a provincial department of the Ministry of State Security, China’s top espionage agency, the Department of Justice said at the time.
He was formally indicted by a grand jury on January 24. Ji appeared in federal court in Chicago on Friday and pleaded not guilty, according to Joseph Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office in Chicago. He is due to appear in court next on February 26 and will remain in detention until then, Fitzpatrick said.
While Ji has not been convicted, the circumstances outlined in his case demonstrate how China is using people from all walks of life with increasing frequency, current and former US intelligence officials tell CNN.
Beijing is leaning on expatriate Chinese scientists, businesspeople and students like Ji – one of roughly 350,000 from China who study in the US every year – to gain access to anything and everything at American universities and companies that’s of interest to Beijing, according to current and former US intelligence officials, lawmakers and several experts.
The sheer size of the Chinese student population at US universities presents a major challenge for law enforcement and intelligence agencies tasked with striking the necessary balance between protecting America’s open academic environment and mitigating the risk to national security.
While it remains unclear just how many of these students are on the radar of law enforcement, current and former intelligence officials told CNN that they all remain tethered to the Chinese government in some way, even if the vast majority aren’t sent to the US to spy.
It’s part of a persistent, aggressive Chinese effort to undermine American industries, steal American secrets and eventually diminish American influence in the world so that Beijing can advance its own agenda, US officials, analysts and experts told CNN.
CIA Director Gina Haspel warned last year that China intends “to diminish US influence to advance their own goals.”
China’s alleged approach to espionage is taking on added urgency as ties between Beijing and Washington sour over trade differences, cyberattacks and standoffs over military influence in Asia.
“We assess that China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means,” according to the intelligence community’s World Wide Threat Assessment released Tuesday.
The problem is with the Chinese government, not the students themselves, a US official told CNN, adding that the counterintelligence issue is making sure those individuals are coming to the US for legitimate purposes and doing so in a way that avoids stereotyping.
“We want to be able to tap into that talent pool and not lose them back to China,” the official said.
Lawmakers are also sounding the alarm.
“There is no comparison to the breadth and scope of the Chinese threat facing America today, as they actively seek to supplant the US globally,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told CNN, noting that Russia and China have taken similar approaches when it comes to nontraditional espionage.
For more than a decade, US law enforcement and intelligence officials have raised internal concerns about US universities becoming soft targets for foreign intelligence services that use students and staff to access emerging technologies, according to multiple former US officials.
But in recent months, senior officials have expressed a renewed sense of urgency in addressing the issue and sought to increase public awareness by highlighting the threat during congressional testimony and while speaking at various security forums.
While US officials stress that they believe the vast majority of Chinese students are here for legitimate purposes, they have also made it clear that the Trump administration continues to grapple with counterintelligence concerns posed by foreign agents seeking to exploit vulnerabilities within academic institutions.
Rather than having trained spies attempt to infiltrate US universities and businesses, Chinese intelligence services have strategically utilized members of its student population to act as “access agents” or “covert influencers,” according to Joe Augustyn, a former CIA officer with firsthand knowledge of the issue from his time at the agency.
Creating this degree of separation allows the Chinese government to maintain some deniability should an operation become exposed, Augustyn said.
“We allow 350,000 or so Chinese students here every year,” William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said last April during an Aspen Institute conference. “That’s a lot. We have a very liberal visa policy for them. Ninety-nine point nine percent of those students are here legitimately and doing great research and helping the global economy. But it is a tool that is used by the Chinese government to facilitate nefarious activity here in the US.”
Chinese students now constitute the largest foreign student body in the US, according to data from the Institute of International Education.
US intelligence officials have taken note of the steady increase in Chinese students entering the country each year and are well aware of the challenges associated with that trend.
Along with cyber-intrusion and strategic investing in American businesses, senior US intelligence officials told CNN on Tuesday that China is tapping into its network of students to compress the time it takes to acquire certain capabilities.
“In a world where technology is available, where we are training their scientists and engineers, and their scientists and engineers were already good on their own, we are just making them able to not have to toil for the same amount of time to get capabilities that will rival or test us,” a senior official in the office of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said.
The Chinese government has pushed back strongly against these accusations, claiming they are rooted in racism and McCarthyism.
Chinese state media has highlighted several high-profile cases of wrongly accused Chinese-American scientists to bolster the government’s claims that US concerns are vastly overstated.
“Such statements are completely untrue and made with ulterior motives. People-to-people exchanges form a basis for the promotion of China-US cooperation in all areas, which is in the common interest of both peoples,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN in a statement.
“We hope to see relevant agencies and people in the US correctly view and actively promote people-to-people exchanges between China and the US and create better conditions for bilateral cooperation and exchanges in all areas – instead of doing the opposite,” the statement added.
‘They don’t just come here to spy’
But addressing that problem is difficult given the large population of Chinese students sent to the US each year.
“We know without a doubt that anytime a graduate student from China comes to the US, they are briefed when they go, and briefed when they come back,” according to Augustyn.
“They don’t just come here to spy … they come here to study and a lot of it is legitimate,” Augustyn said. “But there is no question in my mind, depending on where they are and what they are doing, that they have a role to play for their government.”
In Ji’s case, he was first approached by a Chinese intelligence officer who, initially at least, used a false identity, according to FBI Special Agent Andrew McKay, who filed a criminal complaint against Ji in the US District Court in Chicago.
The complaint charges Ji with one count of knowingly acting in the US as an agent of a foreign government without prior notification to the attorney general. Ji has been detained since his arrest in September, according to his lawyer.
Like thousands of Chinese nationals who come to the US each year, Ji entered the country on an F1 visa – used for international students in academic programs.
Citing immigration records, the complaint states that Ji’s goal, when he landed in Chicago in August 2013, was to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he ultimately earned a master’s degree.
By December, Ji had been approached by the high-level Chinese intelligence official, who presented himself as a professor at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Ji, now 27, eventually realized who this official and his colleagues really were, according to the criminal complaint.
Still, court documents say he would funnel them background reports on other Chinese civilians living in the US who might be pressured to serve as spies – in this case, in the strategically critical US industries of aerospace and technology. And he would lie to US officials about it, according to the complaint filed by FBI investigators.
In their response, the Chinese government did not comment on the current status of Ji’s case.
But in September, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told CNN he was “unaware of the situation” when asked about Ji’s arrest during a press briefing.
According to the complaint, FBI agents discovered about 36 text messages on one iCloud account that Ji and the intelligence officer allegedly exchanged between December 2013 and July 2015. In 2016, after he graduated, Ji enlisted in the US Army Reserve under a program in which foreign nationals can be recruited if their skills are considered “vital to the national interest.”
As part of his Army interview and in his security clearance application, Ji was asked if he’d had contact with foreign security services, the complaint says.
He answered “no.”
The Washington Post previously reported that Ji’s case has been linked to the indictment of a Chinese intelligence officer named Xu Yanjun.
Xu’s indictment was unsealed in October after he was arrested in Belgium for allegedly stealing trade secrets from US aerospace companies. He is the first Chinese intelligence officer to be extradited for prosecution in the US. He has pleaded not guilty.
Complex counter intelligence challenge
FBI Director Christopher Wray, in