The suspect, Ji Chaoqun, is 27 years old and was arrested Tuesday in Chicago, according to the Justice Department. He is accused of secretly carrying out the orders of an officer in the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, a branch of China's Ministry of State Security.
"According to the complaint, Ji was born in China and arrived in the United States in 2013 on an F1 Visa, for the purpose of studying electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. In 2016, Ji enlisted in the US Army Reserves as an E4 Specialist under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which authorizes the US Armed Forces to recruit certain legal aliens whose skills are considered vital to the national interest," the Justice Department said in a press release.
When applying to the MAVNI program, Ji specifically denied having had contact with a foreign government within the past seven years, and later failed to disclose his relationship and contacts with the Chinese government in an interview with a US Army officer, the charge alleges.
Prosecutors claimed during his hearing that Ji used his position to spy on US engineers and defense contractors. The Justice Department complaint alleges that Ji targeted eight individuals for possible recruitment, among them Chinese nationals working as engineers and scientists in the US, some for defense contractors.
The US Army's military intelligence unit, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the US Attorney's Office in Illinois worked on the case. Ji was due in court at 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday. While Ji remains innocent until proven guilty, he could face up to 10 years in prison, the Justice Department noted. Ji is being charged with one count of acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the Justice Department.
According to an FBI special agent's affidavit, Ji scouted eight "naturalized US citizens born in Taiwan or China now living in the United States. All eight individuals either currently worked in or were recently retired from a career in the science and technology industry, including several individuals specializing in aerospace fields." Ji also obtained background reports from Intelius, Instant Checkmate and Spokeo before sending these reports to an unknown email address, which was then forwarded to an unnamed Chinese intelligence officer. Ji described this information as "eight sets of midterm test questions for the last three years," the affidavit noted.
"Based upon my training and experience, it appears that Ji was tasked by Intelligence Officer A to provide him with biographical information on eight individuals for possible recruitment… Ji attempted to cover up the work he was doing on behalf of Intelligence Office A by misrepresenting the contents of the attachments, calling them 'Midterm Test Questions' rather than stating the true contents of the email — background checks on ethnic Chinese working as engineers and scientists, including for cleared US defense contractors," said the FBI special agent investigating the case.
"It is typical tradecraft for Chinese intelligence officers to instruct their US assets to conceal information they are providing to their handlers in China in order to protect that information, the asset and the intelligence officer," the FBI agent noted.