Two men accused of being spies for China have been charged with attempting to “obstruct, influence and impede” a U.S. criminal prosecution of the Chinese-tech giant Huawei Technologies.
The men, alleged to be Chinese intelligence officers, paid a U.S. double agent US$61,000 in bitcoin as they sought details of the U.S. prosecution of Huawei, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in a New York federal court on Monday.
The complaint alleged the scheme began back in 2019.
It named two defendants, Guochun He, also known as “Jacky He,” and Zheng Wang, also know as “Zen Wang,” and alleged they are intelligence officers of the People’s Republic of China “conducting foreign intelligence operations targeting the United States, on behalf of the PRC government.” The complaint said the two men “remain at large.”
Assistant Attorney-General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen said the alleged actions of PRC spies “must be called out for what they are: an extraordinary intervention by agents of a foreign government to interfere with the integrity of the U.S. criminal justice system, compromise a U.S. government employee, and obstruct the enforcement of U.S. law to benefit a PRC-based commercial enterprise.”
The criminal complaint said the two men paid bribes to a U.S. law enforcement agency employee whom “the defendants believed had been recruited to work for the PRC, but who in fact was a double agent working on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Court documents do not name Huawei but the details closely match a case against Huawei. The alleged spies were seeking information about the “criminal prosecution in the Eastern District of New York of a global telecommunications company … based in the People’s Republic of China.” The complaint talks about charges first being laid against the company in January, 2019, and a February, 2020, press release regarding a superseding indictment of the company – which match developments in the case against Huawei.
Huawei was indicted in the United States in 2018 for allegedly misleading HSBC and other banks about its business in Iran, which is subject to U.S. sanctions. In 2020, other charges were added to the case, including conspiring to steal trade secrets from six U.S. technology companies and helping Iran track protesters during anti-government demonstrations in 2009. The company has pleaded not guilty.
In October, 2021, the double agent send the two spies a single page from an internal strategy document purported to be from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. It discussed plans to arrest two employees from the Chinese company. The document carried a banner “SECRET//NOFORN, which court documents say indicated the document is classified at the “SECRET” level and is not to be disseminated to foreign audiences.
Mr. He, the defendant, allegedly responded that the Chinese company “didn’t give me specifically feedback now yet, but they are obviously interested in it, and my boss and they need further information.” Mr. He also said the Chinese company “obviously will be interested” in the agent stealing another part of the strategy memorandum, and “maybe will offer more” for that information.
The Globe and Mail asked communications staff at Huawei’s Canadian and New York offices for comment Monday. The company did not immediately respond.
For years, as it fought proposed bans on Western country networks, Huawei said it had never engaged in espionage. In 2019, founder Ren Zhengfei told CBS News it would never spy. “We never participate in espionage and we do not allow any of our employees to do any act like that.”
Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a former national security analyst, said the allegations undercut Huawei’s no-espionage vows. “The idea that the company doesn’t engage in espionage or insider threat behaviour – this kind of undermines all of that.”
The alleged spying also paints a picture of a company that is being assisted by the Chinese state, despite Huawei’s contention that it isn’t beholden to Beijing.
Ms. Carvin said the criminal complaint makes her wonder if there weren’t similar espionage attempts in Canada to pry into the government’s case for keeping Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
The U.S. government in 2018 asked Canada to arrest Ms. Meng at Vancouver International Airport as part of a case against her and Huawei. She spent three years under house arrest in Vancouver until she reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice and was allowed to return home.
Earlier this year Canada banned Huawei equipment from the country’s 5G wireless network over security concerns, following similar announcements by key Western allies in the United States, Britain and Australia.
China arrested two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and held them for nearly three years in retaliation for Canada’s arrest and detention of Ms. Meng. They were freed when Ms. Meng returned home.
The charges in the complaint are allegations and have not been proven in court. If convicted, Mr. He would face up to 60 years of imprisonment and Mr. Wang would face up to 20 years of imprisonment.
With files from Reuters