Chinese Intelligence Officers Charged with Using Academic Cover to Target Individuals in United States
TRENTON, N.J. – A federal indictment was unsealed today charging four Chinese nationals, including three Ministry of State Security (MSS) intelligence officers, in connection with a long-running intelligence campaign targeting individuals in the United States to act as agents of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger and National Security Division Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen announced.
As alleged in the indictment, from at least 2008 to 2018, Wang Lin, Bi Hongwei, Dong Ting, aka Chelsea Dong, Wang Qiang, and others engaged in a wide-ranging and systematic effort to target and recruit individuals to act on behalf of the PRC in the United States with requests to provide information, materials, equipment, and assistance to the Chinese government in ways that would further China’s intelligence objectives. These recruitment efforts included targeting professors at universities, a former federal law enforcement and state homeland security official, and others to act on behalf of, and as agents of, the Chinese government.
As part of the conspiracy, MSS intelligence officers Wang Lin, Dong Ting, and others used a purported academic institute at Ocean University of China – referred to as the Institute for International Studies (IIS) – as cover for their clandestine intelligence activities. Acting under cover as the purported director of the IIS, Wang Lin, in coordination with other MSS operatives operating under the guise of academics at the IIS, targeted professors at American universities and others in the United States with access to sensitive information and equipment.
“This indictment drives home the fact that the intelligence risk posed by MSS continues to be real, ever-present, and significant,” U.S. Attorney Sellinger said. “Everyone in the United States – and especially those in academic, business, military, or government positions that have access to sensitive information or equipment – should take heed of the risk that the MSS poses to our democracy and way of life.”
“These defendants cloaked themselves and their motives in order to get access to our higher learning institutions and recruit others to betray this nation. All intended to give China a leg up,” Special Agent in Charge James Dennehy said. “The FBI would never let that happen. The safety of the citizens of the United States and the security of our nation are our top priorities. When foreign adversaries threaten either of those two things – whether on our soil or from another country; whether in-person or through cyber channels – we will use every resource at our disposal to uncover their espionage, thwart their malign influence, and bring them to justice.”
According to the indictment unsealed today:
The threat posed by the PRC’s ongoing, wide-ranging, and systematic effort to collect intelligence information from United States sources is significant and ongoing. China’s civilian intelligence agency, the MSS, is responsible for conducting counterintelligence and foreign intelligence activities, as well as political security for the PRC. The MSS and its regional bureaus focus on identifying and influencing the foreign policy of other countries, including the United States, by seeking to obtain information on political, economic, and security policies that might affect the PRC, along with military, scientific, and technical information of value to the PRC. The MSS and its regional bureaus are tasked with conducting clandestine and covert human source operations, of which the United States was and remains a principal target. Chinese intelligence services, including the MSS, utilize a variety of state ministries, societies, academic institutions, and the Chinese military-industrial complex to support intelligence activities, including by providing cover jobs to operatives. The investigation revealed that the defendants used one such purported academic institution – the IIS – as cover for their intelligence activities for the MSS.
MSS intelligence officers Wang Lin, Bi, Dong, and others, acting for and on behalf of the MSS and the Chinese government, systematically targeted United States persons, including but not limited to a coconspirator who was a resident of the state of New Jersey and a second individual who was a former federal law enforcement officer and state homeland security official and a professor at an American university.
Among other things, the conspiracy targeted the second individual by inviting the individual in 2008 and 2018 on all-expenses-paid trips to China sponsored by the IIS. During those trips, Wang Lin, Dong, and others sought to recruit this individual as a human source, requesting that the individual provide sensitive fingerprint technology, information, and assistance with stopping planned protests along the 2008 Olympic Games torch route in the United States, which the conspirators expressed would be “embarrassing” to China. The individual also was requested to sign a contract for purported consulting services with a Chinese company whose “core value” was the “national interest and national security” of China, with an objective to “protect the national interest and Chinese enterprises’ overseas interest[s]” and to “build sources and channels to collect security information.” Recognizing Wang Lin, Dong, and others as Chinese intelligence officers, the individual refused these requests and reported them to law enforcement.
The conspiracy also targeted the coconspirator in New Jersey by tasking the coconspirator to take specific action in the United States in furtherance of the MSS’ intelligence objective. Wang Qiang coordinated a meeting in 2016 between the coconspirator, Wang Lin, and Bi Hongwei in the Bahamas, at which time MSS intelligence officers Wang Lin and Bi directed the coconspirator to obtain United States currency and provide it to a designated individual in New Jersey. The coconspirator returned to New Jersey and did as Wang Lin and Bi instructed. Wang Qiang then visited the coconspirator in New Jersey, at which time Wang Qiang and the coconspirator discussed in detail their and others’ activities taken on behalf of the Chinese government in the United States.
Wang Lin, 59, Bi, age unknown, Dong 40, and Wang Qiang, 55, all are nationals and residents of the People’s Republic of China. They each are charged in the indictment with conspiracy to act in the United States as agents of a foreign government, namely, the People’s Republic of China, without prior notification to the Attorney General of the United States, as required by law, and to direct such unlawful action by others in the United States. The conspiracy charge carries a statutory maximum term of imprisonment of five years and a maximum fine of $250,000.
U.S. Attorney Sellinger credited special agents of the FBI, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge James E. Dennehy in Newark, with the investigation leading to the charges.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys J. Brendan Day, Attorney-in-Charge of the Trenton Branch Office, Joyce M. Malliet, Chief of the Office’s National Security Unit, and Trial Attorney David C. Recker of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section of the National Security Division.
The charges and allegations contained in the indictment are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.