A Singaporean man has admitted being an agent for Chinese intelligence, setting up a fake consulting firm in Washington as part of an elaborate plot to obtain information from US government and Pentagon officials.
Jun Wei Yeo, 39, also known as Dickson Yeo, pleaded guilty to a charge of acting within the United States as an illegal agent of a foreign power.
It was the latest development in an escalation of tensions between the US and China which saw tit-for-tat consulate closures this week.
The US shut China’s consulate in Houston, calling it a hub for spying. Beijing responded by ordering Washington to close its consulate in Chengdu.
According to the US justice department Yeo was recruited by China when he was a PhD student at the National University of Singapore, and went on to be an academic researcher at The George Washington University in the US capital.
After posting online job opportunities at a fake consulting firm he received 400 CVs, 90 per cent of them from people with US government or military security clearance.
He passed some of the CVs to Chinese intelligence, according to court documents filed by the US justice department..
In addition, he searched through LinkedIn looking for people who might have “nonpublic information” and then paid them thousands of dollars to write reports for “clients in Asia” – in reality the Chinese government.
He paid someone with high-level security clearance to write a report about the US Air Force’s F-35B fighter jet, an Army officer at the Pentagon to write about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a state department official to write about a member of Donald Trump’s Cabinet, the US Justice department said..
John Demers, US assistant attorney general for national security, said: “The Chinese government uses an array of duplicity to obtain sensitive information from unsuspecting Americans. Yeo was central to one such scheme, using career networking sites and a false consulting firm to lure Americans.”
An FBI spokesman said: “The FBI urges citizens, especially those holding security clearances, to be cautious when being approached by individuals on social media sites with implausible career opportunities.”
Yeo made frequent trips to China and was arrested at a US airport as he returned.
He will be sentenced in October and the offence carries a potential maximum of 10 years in jail.
Meanwhile, China accused US officials of improperly entering its consulate in Houston.
US officials were seen checking the consulate’s doors, and a locksmith was seen working on a lock, after Chinese diplomats left the building on Friday.
China’s foreign ministry said the consulate was Chinese property and they had no right to enter.
A spokesman said: “As for the US side’s forcible entry into the premises, China expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition. China will make a proper and necessary response to this.”