In late September 2018, a Chinese citizen was arrested in Chicago by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on allegations of providing information about U.S. defense contracting to the Chinese government. The suspect, Ji Chaoqun, allegedly aided with the attempted recruitment of U.S. engineers and other defense contractors for the Chinese government under the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS). An FBI criminal complaint signed by FBI Special Agent Andrew K. McKay provides more insight into the nature of Ji’s arrest.
Ji first arrived in the U.S. in August 2013 on a student visa to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering in Illinois Tech’s Armour College of Engineering, graduating with the degree in 2015. Reportedly, Ji traveled to China three separate times during his time as a student, with the relevant FBI document claiming that these visits were to meet with MSS contacts. Before graduating, Ji had been asked to purchase background data checks on eight naturalized American citizens from Asia currently working in the science and technology industries.” The FBI document purports that this task was a way of “testing Ji’s skills as a potential asset by tasking him to purchase these background check reports,” which were discretely sent to his MSS handler as “midterm test questions.” Upon graduating in 2015, Ji enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves under a program allowing for immigrants to qualify for U.S. citizenship in exchange for military service.
The primary allegations from the FBI are that Ji has secretly and illegally provided information about American defense contractors to Chinese intelligence officers, with the intent of these contractors being recruited as Chinese informants. More specifically, Ji is charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires that individuals acting as agents of foreign governments must periodically disclose their relationship with the foreign government and provide information about their activities. McKay concludes that “by collecting this information for an arm of the Chinese government while in the United States, Ji knowingly and unlawfully acted as an agent of a foreign power.”
As of the time of this publication, Ji is still held in custody, with no additional hearings currently set beyond an initial 15-minute court appearance on September 25 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Mason. Here, it was stated that Ji could face up to 10 years in federal prison if convicted.
This arrest sends a strong message that American counterintelligence is focusing on Chinese intelligence operations in the U.S. and highlighting its concerns among the FBI and Justice Department. The relationship between Ji and Illinois Tech adds another layer of relevance to the entire ordeal.