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A brief history of US-China espionage entanglements

Spies and blunders
September 3, 2020
Ms Tech

Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, intelligence services in both Beijing and Washington have vied to uncover secrets in one another’s countries, and to safeguard their own secrets, in pursuit of military, economic, and technological advantage. Many bona fide spies on both sides have been caught; many innocents have been unfairly implicated. What follows is a brief history of key events in this conflict.

Qian Xuesen


Qian Xuesen, cofounder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and professor at Caltech, is stripped of his security clearance for alleged connections to the Communist Party. Qian, who had questioned Nazi rocket scientists on behalf of the US government after World War II and worked on the Manhattan Project, resigns from Caltech and asks to leave the US for China, at which point he is held under house arrest for five years. In 1955 the US deports him; Qian is greeted as a hero in China and goes on to become the father of Chinese rocketry, helping jump-start China’s space and missile programs. No substantive evidence has ever been released that he was a Chinese spy. Deporting Qian was “the stupidest thing the country ever did,” according to Dan Kimball, undersecretary of the Navy at the time of Qian’s arrest.

Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping shakes hands with President Jimmy Carter at the White House.

January 1, 1979

The United States normalizes diplomatic relations with China. Three years later there are 10,000 Chinese students in the US, and the FBI begins directing field offices to recruit students for counterintelligence operations.

October 11, 1996

Congress passes the Economic Espionage Act, which makes it a federal crime to steal trade secrets either for the benefit of a foreign power or with the intent of damaging the company.

Protesters demonstrating outside the US consulate in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou carry portraits of Chinese journalists killed in NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

May 7, 1999

US bombers destroy the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, killing three Chinese journalists. US government investigations find the incident to be an accident, a claim the Chinese government rejects.

September 13, 2000

Wen Ho Lee, an American citizen born in Taiwan, pleads guilty to one count of illegally possessing government data related to national security and is released for time served. The government’s case alleging that Lee was a super spy who helped China develop a next-generation nuclear warhead ultimately collapses, and the judge overseeing Lee’s case apologizes for the way Lee was treated (including solitary confinement). Though many of Lee’s actions remain mysterious, few suspect he was ever a Chinese spy. Lee goes on to win a $1.6 million settlement from the government and several news organizations for leaking and publishing his name before he was formally charged. The supposed mole who stole nuclear secrets has never been found.

December 11, 2001

China joins the World Trade Organization, agreeing to adhere to multilateral rules enforced by supranational arbitration panels. The agreement is heralded as China’s full entrance into the global order.

October 28, 2005

Chi Mak, a naturalized US citizen born in China, is arrested after his brother was stopped at Los Angeles International Airport carrying encrypted disks containing information from Chi. In March 2008, Chi Mak is found guilty and sentenced to 24 years in prison for conspiring to export military technology to China, among other crimes. The prosecution argued that Chi was a sleeper agent when he came to the US in the 1970s and worked his way up as an engineer at a defense contractor. Many of the alleged secrets were not revealed, but Mak is believed to have passed intelligence related to quieting submarine propulsion to avoid detection.

February 8, 2010

Dongfan “Greg” Chun, the first person convicted under the Economic Espionage Act, is sentenced to 15 years in prison. Starting in the 1970s, Chun had passed classified information on the B-1 bomber, the F-15 fighter jet, the Chinook helicopter, the US space shuttle program, and the Delta V rocket while working for Rockwell and, later, Boeing. Chun, who was found to have made millions of dollars selling secrets to China, claimed he was merely a pack rat hoarding classified documents.


China unravels the CIA’s network of spies in the country and executes over 20 people for espionage. While a mole may have played a role, a Yahoo News investigation later claims that the CIA’s poorly secured communications network was likely hacked by the Iranians.

The laptop, thumb drives, cell phones, and other items confiscated from Wengfeng Lu during his 2012 arrest as he tried to board a plane to China.

November 2012

Wengfeng Lu is arrested before boarding a plane to China, where he planned to start a company copying medical-device technology he stole from two previous employers. In January 2019 he is sentenced to 27 months in prison.


December 2013

Mo Hailong, a Chinese national working in the US, is arrested for conspiring to steal trade secrets: proprietary seeds made by DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto. He is eventually sentenced to three years in prison.

May 19, 2014

The US Justice Department announces the indictment of five Chinese soldiers, part of Unit 61398, for hacking into US companies’ networks to aid competing Chinese state-owned companies. The soldiers were accused of stealing intellectual property, business plans, and negotiation strategies from companies such as Westinghouse and US Steel.

June 28 2014

Su Bin, a Chinese national who ran an aerospace company in Canada, is arrested in Canada on behalf of the US government for helping two Chinese soldiers steal information on the C-17 cargo plane and F-22 and F-35 fighter jets. Su Bin eventually is extradited to the United States, pleads guilty to engaging in the hacking operations from 2008 to 2014, and is sentenced to 46 months in prison. The Chinese cargo plane Xian Y-20, unveiled in 2014, displays a remarkable resemblance to the C-17.

September 5, 2014

T-Mobile files a lawsuit against Huawei alleging that its employees stole software and hardware from a T-Mobile lab, including a piece of a robotic hand. In 2017 a jury finds Huawei guilty of “misappropriation” of trade secrets but says the theft wasn’t directed by Huawei. The company is ordered to pay $4.8 million for breach of contract. In 2019 the US Justice Department charges Huawei with purposefully stealing trade secrets from T-Mobile and produces emails showing that Huawei offered employees bonuses for stealing tech from other companies.

October 20, 2014

Sherry Chen, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service, is arrested for allegedly stealing secrets about US dams and hiding contacts with Chinese government officials. Five months later all charges are dropped against Chen, who was born in China but became an American citizen. Chen had met with a Chinese government official to help a friend in China with his business, and had sent a few emails to the same official answering a question about how dams were funded in the US.

Xi Xiaoxing and Sherry Chen at a press conference in Washington, DC, on September 16, 2015.

May 21 2015

FBI agents raid the house of Xi Xiaoxing, chair of Temple University’s physics department, for allegedly sending to China schematics of a pocket heater, a key piece of technology used in superconductor research. By September, the Justice Department drops all charges after it is revealed that the schematics were of an entirely different device that Xi had invented. Xi is now suing the lead FBI agent.

June 4, 2015

The Office of Personnel Management announces a massive security breach that eventually is shown to affect over 20 million people who had undergone background checks for federal jobs since 2000. These records included sensitive information like psychiatric history, as well as over 5 million sets of fingerprints. Chinese military unit 61938 is suspected of conducting the hack. The records are highly valuable to the Chinese as a database of government employees to target as informants, aided by the sensitive information on those employees.

June 2017

Ex-CIA officer Kevin Mallory is arrested for passing classified materials to Chinese intelligence agents using a cell phone given to him during a trip to Shanghai. Mallory, who volunteered some information to FBI and CIA agents before being arrested, had claimed to be a double agent helping the US government, but after the FBI cracked his phone, he was shown to have hidden information. Behind on his mortgage and in debt, he had received $25,000 from the Chinese. In June 2018 a jury finds him guilty of espionage, and he is later sentenced to 20 years in prison.

January 2018

Ex-CIA agent Jerry Chun Shing Lee is arrested at JFK Airport and charged with giving Chinese agents classified information from his days at the CIA, including the real names and locations of assets in China. In May 2019 Lee pleads guilty to receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for information and is sentenced to 19 years in prison. According to prosecutors, Lee’s information helped dismantle the CIA’s China network in 2010.

June 2018

Ron Rockwell Hansen, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, is arrested at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport carrying classified information about military readiness plans. In March 2019 Hansen pleads guilty and admits to agreeing to pass military secrets to Chinese agents in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He is later sentenced to a reduced 10 years in prison because he cooperated with the FBI after his arrest.

October 10, 2018

Yanjun Xu, an intelligence officer for the Chinese Ministry of State Security, is arrested in Belgium and extradited to the United States for attempting to steal jet fan blade designs from GE. The FBI had lured him to Belgium to pick up the information.

February 14, 2019

You Xiaorong, a naturalized US citizen, is charged with stealing research on BPA-free coatings for bottles from her employer, Coca-Cola. The Justice Department alleges You was intending to set up a competing firm in China to replicate the materials. The case is ongoing.


April 2019

MD Anderson Cancer Center fires three senior researchers after the National Institutes of Health flags them for failing to disclose foreign ties. All the researchers flagged are Asian, again raising concerns the FBI is targeting Asian-Americans.

May 15, 2019

President Trump issues an executive order effectively banning US companies from selling equipment to Huawei on grounds that it poses a risk to national security.

Harvard University professor Charles Lieber is surrounded by reporters as he leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston.

January 28, 2020

Charles Lieber, head of Harvard University's chemistry department, is charged with lying about accepting money from the Chinese government while receiving $15 million in grants from US agencies. A pioneer in nanotechnology, Lieber is the highest-profile academic to be arrested in connection with Chinese-American technological rivalry .

July 24, 2020

The Trump administration orders the closure of China's consulate in Houston, “in order to protect American intellectual property and American's (sic) private information,” alleging that the consulate is being used to coordinate industrial espionage against the US. China closes the American consulate in Chengdu in retaliation.

Alexander Holt is a writer in Washington, DC.

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