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Judge slaps ex-Chicago college student who spied for China with 8 years in federal prison

By Jason Meisner - Chicago Tribune

January 25, 2023

Ji Chaoqun is seen in a photo from his Facebook page. Federal authorities allege the Illinois Institute of Technology student was secretly working for a Chinese spy agency. He's being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. (Ji Chaoqun / Facebook)

A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced a former Chicago college student to eight years in federal prison for spying on behalf of the Chinese government, saying it was clear that his ultimate goal was to become a “sleeper agent” and infiltrate some of the United States’ most sensitive operations.

Lawyers for Ji Chaoqun had asked U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman for a sentence of time served, portraying Ji as a young and idealistic student manipulated by far more sophisticated members of China’s espionage recruitment agency, and noting he never actually provided his home country with any sensitive U.S. secrets.

In handing down the 96-month term, however, Guzman said he was disturbed by Ji’s “long-range” plans for the future, which included joining the U.S. Army to earn a fast track to citizenship, gain access to sensitive bases and ultimately parlay it into a job with the CIA, FBI or NASA.

“He had much more in mind,” Guzman said, as Ji sat at the defense table in an orange jail jumpsuit listening through a Mandarin interpreter. “It was his intent to become a long-term Chinese sleeper agent.”

The sentence Guzman issued was far longer even than the roughly five-year term requested by federal prosecutors. Once he’s done serving his time, Ji will face deportation back to China, though Guzman said it’s unlikely anyone there will consider him a criminal.

“The defendant who sits before me is likely considered to be an exemplary citizen in the country from which he came, and that is sad,” Guzman said.

Ji, 31, was convicted by a jury in September of spying for the Chinese government by gathering information on scientists and engineers in the U.S. with valuable knowledge about aerospace technology, artificial intelligence and even aircraft carriers.

The jury, which deliberated about six hours over two days, acquitted Ji of two other wire fraud counts alleging he lied to the Army when he applied to become a reservist in 2016.

His attorney, Damon Cheronis, asked for time served, noting that Ji had already suffered much in his almost 4½ years in custody since his arrest. Ji had two bouts of COVID-19 while awaiting trial and had to endure the misplaced ire of other inmates who accused him of bringing it into the facility simply because he was Chinese, Cheronis said.

“No one would think that coming to the United States, getting arrested and sitting in jail for five years is a slap on the wrist,” Cheronis said.

Before he was sentenced, Ji issued a brief apology to his family and the court for his actions, saying in thickly accented English that he will “never do it again.”

Ji’s case was profiled in the Tribune in 2019 as a symbol of a growing area of worry for U.S. authorities: a sophisticated and far-flung mission by the Chinese government to have spies and foreign agents steal ideas and technology from firms and defense contractors across the country.

The charges against Ji were part of a wider national security investigation that also led to the arrest and unprecedented extradition of his handler, Xu Yanjun, a senior intelligence officer in China’s main spy agency.

Xu, the first Chinese spy ever brought to the U.S. to face criminal prosecution, was convicted in federal court in Cincinnati in November 2021 of trying to steal trade secrets from military contractor GE Aviation. He was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison.

The charges against Ji alleged that he was targeted by agents with China’s Ministry of State Security shortly before coming to Chicago in 2013 to study electrical engineering at IIT, a small private school just east of the Dan Ryan Expressway that had forged educational ties with Chinese universities and colleges.

After traveling back to China during winter break, Ji was “wined and dined” by MSS handlers and eventually given a top secret contract where he swore an oath of allegiance to the agency’s cause, agreeing to “devote the rest of my life to state security,” according to prosecutors.

A photo snapped surreptitiously by Ji of the contract was later found on his cellphone, though it was unsigned. Ji also took photos of $6,000 given to him by the MSS for living expenses in the U.S., prosecutors said.

Five days later, Ji returned to Chicago and immediately reached out to a friend who was studying aeronautics and aviation at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas told jurors in summing up the evidence in the trial in September.

Ji sent the friend photos of the contract and cash and offered to share some of his “operational expenses” with him if he helped him track down leads for the MSS, Jonas said.

Jonas told jurors that sending his friend the photos was “maybe not the brightest thing” for Ji to do, but it didn’t make him any less of a spy.

“There’s no requirement that you find that he be James Bond,” Jonas said.

Ultimately, Ji was able to gather background reports on eight U.S. citizens, all born in Taiwan or China, with careers in the science and technology industry, including several who specialized in the aerospace field. Seven worked for U.S. defense contractors, according to prosecutors.

Ji sent the reports — which were publicly available for purchase — back to his handlers in a zipped attachment that was falsely labeled as sets of “midterm exam” questions, according to Jonas.

Ji graduated from IIT in 2015, and the following year enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve through a program to recruit foreigners who have skills considered vital to the national interest.

Prosecutors alleged Ji concealed during his Army background check that he had been in contact with the intelligence officers, but the jury found him not guilty on both of those counts.

The jury convicted him, however, of giving false answers on a government background form that asked if he’d ever had any contact with foreign intelligence agencies, including MSS.

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