A Chinese professor was arrested today and five other Chinese citizens indicted for “conspiracy to commit economic espionage” in what U.S. authorities say was a decades-long plan to steal American microelectronics designs. According to the indictment, several of the men studied in the United States and worked at U.S. tech companies, where they obtained secrets and brought them back to Tianjin University, where the professor teaches, to sell them to military and commercial customers.
This is the first big indictment of Chinese citizens for espionage since the Justice Department charged five Chinese military officers with hacking U.S. computers to steal trade secrets last year. However, that was mostly a symbolic gesture, as all the suspects were in China and are unlikely to ever be brought to trial in the U.S. This time, one of the men was arrested at LAX as he arrived for a conference.
(Expect the Chinese government, which denies that it sponsors economic espionage, to issue a furious denunciation of the charge.)
China’s espionage works a bit differently that other countries’ efforts. It relies less on placing undercover officers in sensitive positions than on recruiting and periodically debriefing Chinese businesspeople, academics, and travelers to obtain small amounts of information that can be assembled over years into valuable intelligence. Many of these assets aren’t full-time spies, and some may not think of themselves as spies at all. This type of distributed espionage can be extremely difficult to counteract. It’s believed that the hack of Google’s servers several years ago was aimed at uncovering information about Chinese intelligence assets under U.S. surveillance.
U.S. firms long viewed a certain amount of economic espionage as the price of doing business with China, but have grown more alarmed as the practice has seemed to expand dramatically in recent years. There’s been more pressure on the U.S. government to put a stop to it.
China has been reluctant to discuss the issue with the U.S. It claims that U.S. accusations are unfounded and also accuses the U.S. of hypocrisy, citing documents leaked by Edward Snowden that purportedly show that American and British spy agencies were hacking into Chinese networks.
The U.S. government has sought to draw a distinction between government spying—which all countries do—and espionage for economic gain, a distinction that may not always translate in China, where much of the economy is controlled by the state. Talks between the two governments have been faltering for a while, and today’s arrest may be a sign that the Obama administration felt it wasn’t making much progress on the diplomatic front.