Flashpoints | Economy | East Asia

Chinese National Pleads Guilty to Stealing Trade Secrets From US Petroleum Company

Hongjin Tan, a 35-year-old Chinese national, is charged with stealing trade secrets from a U.S. petroleum company.

Ankit Panda
Chinese National Pleads Guilty to Stealing Trade Secrets From US Petroleum Company
Credit: Pixabay

A Chinese national pleaded guilty to stealing trade secrets from a U.S. company, the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Tuesday. Hongjin Tan, who was identified as a 35-year-old legal permanent resident in the United States and a Chinese national, pleaded guilty to several charges, including the theft and unauthorized transition of trade secrets from his employer, a U.S. petroleum company.

“Tan’s guilty plea continues to fill in the picture of China’s theft of American intellectual property,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in a Department of Justice release on Tuesday.

“The Department launched its China Initiative to battle precisely the type of behavior reflected in today’s plea —illegal behavior that costs Americans their jobs — and we will continue to do so,” Demers added.

“China’s economic aggression poses a threat to America’s emerging high-technology industries. Industrial spies like Hongjin Tan engage in espionage to steal American trade secrets and intellectual property born out of the innovation that is innate in our free market system,” Trent Shores, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, said.

“Thanks to a vigilant company and the investigative efforts of the FBI, Hongjin Tan was caught red handed and prosecuted. American ingenuity and know-how are the envy of the international market, and the U.S. Attorneys community will work to protect our economic infrastructure,” Shores continued.

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According to the Department of Justice, Tan pleaded guilty to “theft of a trade secret, unauthorized transmission of a trade secret, and unauthorized possession of a trade secret.“

Tan was alleged to have stolen information that was worth more than $1 billion, the Department of Justice said. The information pertained to the “research and development downstream energy market product.”

The investigation appears to handled as a counterintelligence matter by U.S. investigators. According to the Department of Justice’s release, Tan used a “thumb drive to copy hundreds of files” after which he resigned from his employer. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation found that he had then transferred those files to a personal hard drive.

Tan’s case comes at a time of heightened scrutiny by the U.S. government of Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property. The Trump administration’s Section 301 investigation of Chinese trade practices published in March 2018 emphasized China’s practice of intellectual property theft, including through means of cyber espionage.

The March 2018 report details multiple instances of Chinese government-sponsored corporate espionage. In recent months, the U.S. Department of Justice has prioritized counterintelligence investigations involving Chinese nationals.

Tan’s sentencing is scheduled for February 12, 2020.