This is an economic thriller of a special kind, the details of which have now become public in a long article published by Bloomberg agency. At the center of the plot is Chinese spy, Xu Yanjun, who was exposed by the U.S. and is now serving time in an Ohio prison. On behalf of the Chinese government and to benefit its own Comac aircraft program, he was supposed to scout composite materials used in the world's largest jet engine, the GE9X. A mission that went wrong.
The GE9X turbofan is a gigantic engine, the most powerful commercial aircraft turbine ever conceived and manufactured. It propels the Boeing 777-9 and its smaller sister model B777-8. Developed by General Electric, it can deliver 105,000 lb/f of thrust. The fan blades and casings are made from composites: hardened, resin-infused carbon fibers of extraordinary lightness and strength. Lighter engines mean aircraft can carry more passengers or higher loads of air freight, and cover longer distances while burning less fuel.
Without question, the GE9X is an unprecedented achievement in turbine construction, raising the interest of the Chinese to get hold of the technical features and design specifications of this new generation of aircraft engines. Finally, Beijing wants to rapidly catch up with Boeing and Airbus in civil aircraft construction through its various national Comac programs.
In search of potential informants
Against this background it was convenient that Communist Party member, Xu Yanjun had an acquaintance at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, or NUAA, one of China's most prestigious research institutions. This man, who called himself Little Zha, knew Arthur Gau, an aerospace engineer at General Electric. In 2017, he invited Gau to come to China, appealing on his aeronautical interest by saying that he might be interested in meeting the head of a local lab engaged in helicopter design whom Zha would meet shortly. Gau’s travel expenses would be covered by Chinese sources. So, Gau flew and met Zha, who introduced him to Xu.
At that time, Xu was already known to the U.S. and French security authorities as a Chinese spy. He had been exposed during an attempt to learn industrial secrets by hacking into the laptop of Frederic Hascoet, a project manager for Safran Aircraft Engines in France, during Hascoet’s stay in China. At that time in close cooperation with GE Aviation, Safran was developing an engine called the LEAP for narrowbody jetliners such as the Airbus A320, the Boeing 737, and – eventually – China's Comac C919.
First step: gaining trust
In 2018, Gau came back to China again after – in preparation for his meetings with Xu and Zha – he had emailed slides containing technical information, including algorithms and other sensitive design data for the aircraft auxiliary power units. “Because of the payment, I felt obligated,” he would later tell a judge. To cover the expenses of previous trips and other costs, Zha had paid GE manager Gau more than 9,000 US$. A small amount of money when it comes to obtaining the technical specifications of a huge aircraft motor.
When Gau was planning his next visit scheduled for fall of 2018, FBI agents knocked on his home’s door in Arizona to execute a search warrant. From that day on, Gau cooperated with the U.S. authorities - in close coordination with GE.
Next: Build a network of whistleblowers
A few months earlier, Chinese intelligence had uncovered another potential source of information for the GE9X engine at General Electric; David Zhang, a composites expert who worked at GE Aviation on jet engines. He was also invited to Nanjing, which flattered him since it would be his first presentation in China. To his Chinese hosts, he pointed out that he would not disclose any technical secrets, as he had signed a confidentiality agreement.
No sooner had he returned from China than the FBI appeared on his doorstep and made it clear to him that the Chinese had chosen him as a key informant for engine projects, especially the GE9X. From that day on, the FBI controlled Zheng's activities. They suggested writing a fake letter to his Chinese contact via WeChat. It contained the core message that there would be a restructuring at GE, and that he might lose his job. Before that, he said, he would like to pass on the information on the engine requested by his Chinese partners. For security reasons, however, this could not be done within China, but had to be done on neutral ground. He mentioned Amsterdam or Brussels as options. There, he said, he would be prepared to hand over the requested data.
The trap snaps shut
Xu, who had already considered Zheng a lottery win for himself and his spy unit, actually traveled to Europe and eventually met with Zheng at the Brussels hotel Le Pain Quotidien. But instead of Zhang, officers of the Belgium Federal Police showed up, arresting Xu on the spot. Thanks to the extradition treaty between Brussels and Washington, he was transferred immediately to the U.S.
In the indictment, unsealed when Xu was extradited to the U.S., the Justice Department charged him with conspiring and attempting to commit economic espionage and steal trade secrets. “The evidence in this case, nearly all of it, came from his own words. There’s hardly another case like this,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Mangan said in his closing argument to the jury. “You don’t have to resolve any kind of he-said, she-said dispute. These are his own statements, his admissions.” FBI search warrants to Apple and Google opened up his iCloud and multiple Gmail accounts, and digital forensics experts at the bureau had mined the contents of the phones recovered at the arrest. Last fall, the federal jury convicted Xu on all counts. He faces 50 years in prison and $5 million in fines when he’s sentenced on 15NOV22.
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