US-China tensions

Singaporean man pleads guilty as Chinese spy in the US

A Singaporean man living in Washington D.C. has pleaded guilty to being an "illegal agent of a foreign power," prosecutors said Friday, with his acting under the direction of Chinese intelligence officials to obtain sensitive information from Americans.
July 25, 2020 | 14:19
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The FBI has charged an individual with serving as an illegal agent of the Chinese government. Jun Wei Yeo pled guilty to all charges on July 24 in a federal district court in Washington, D.C.

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Yeo Jun Wei, also called Dickson Yeo, pled guilty in federal court in Washington DC as an illegal foreign agent.PHOTO: DICKSON YEO/FACEBOOK

Jun Wei Yeo, also known as Dickson Yeo, worked for Chinese intelligence for four or five years, recruiting Americans with access to sensitive information over the internet and commissioning them to write reports, which he then passed on to Beijing.

Yeo would pay them to write reports which he said were meant for clients in Asia, but which were in reality sent to the Chinese government without their knowledge.

"The Chinese Government uses an array of duplicity to obtain sensitive information from unsuspecting Americans," United States Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement. "Yeo was central to one such scheme, using career networking sites and a false consulting firm to lure Americans who might be of interest to the Chinese government. This is yet another example of the Chinese government's exploitation of the openness of American society."

Yeo enrolled in 2015 as a PhD student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where he researched China’s framework of treatment for small states along its Belt and Road Initiative trajectory, according to the school’s website.

He was recruited in 2015 by China intelligence operatives during a visit to Beijing, where he gave a presentation on the political situation in South-east Asia, according to court documents.

He received over 400 resumes, 90 per cent of which were from US military and government personnel with security clearances, and passed resumes of interest on to a Chinese intelligence operative.

Yeo eventually moved to Washington DC from January to July 2019, where he attended multiple events at think-tanks to network and recruit more people to write reports, said the straitstimes.

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A screengrab of Dickson Yeo's PhD student profile. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM LKYSPP.NUS.EDU.SG

His guilty plea comes amid an ongoing crackdown on Chinese operatives in the US.

On Friday, a Chinese military-linked scientist who had been hiding out in the country's San Francisco consulate surrendered to US authorities. Her arrest followed the shuttering of the Chinese consulate in Houston, which Washington has linked to espionage operations and Intellectual Property theft.

That move sparked a major backlash from Beijing, which has ordered the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu, which it also accuses of being a hub of spying operations, according the CNN.

Recruiting vulnerable individuals

Yeo looked for susceptible individuals who were vulnerable to recruitment, and tried to avoid detection by American authorities, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence assistant director Alan Kohler Jr said in a statement.

He was taught by his Chinese handlers to ask whether his targets were dissatisfied with work, were having financial troubles, or had children to support, for instance.

In one case, Yeo recruited a civilian working with the US Air Force on the F-35B fighter jet programme, who confided his financial troubles to him, and got information about the geopolitical implications of the Japanese purchasing the F-35 aircraft from the US.

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Prosecutors said Yeo targeted information on the US F-35B aircraft. (Photo:CNN)

Set up fake consultancy

Yeo met with his intelligence handlers dozens of times, and when he traveled to China for these meetings he was regularly taken out of the customs lines and brought into a separate office for admission into the country, which he told prosecutors was intended to "conceal his identity when he traveled into China."

As he increasingly targeted the US, Yeo set up a fake consultancy website and began soliciting resumes, receiving hundreds, including many from US military and government personnel with security clearances, which he would pass on to his Chinese handlers.

One person he recruited in this way was a civilian working for the US Air Force on the F-35B military aircraft program, with a high-level security clearance. This person, who has not been identified by prosecutors, was having financial problems, and Yeo commissioned them to write a report for him.

Yeo moved to the US around January 2019, after which his handlers told him not to communicate with them for fear of interception. When he had to get in touch, Yeo was told to do so from a local coffee shop.

Yeo paid US$1,000 (S$1,400) to US$2,000 each for the reports, and was given a bank card by his Chinese handlers to pay for the reports, according to the court documents.

He was also careful about his communications with the Chinese operatives, and was instructed not to take his phone and notebooks when travelling to the US.

He was also told not to communicate with them when in the US for fear that the US government would intercept their messages.

When outside the US, he communicated with his Chinese handlers through the Chinese messaging application WeChat, and was told to use multiple phones and to change his WeChat account every time he did so.

It's unclear how and when Yeo was arrested, but he was charged this year with acting as an "illegal agent of a foreign power without first notifying the Attorney General," and subsequently pleaded guilty.

He is due to be sentenced in October, and faces up to 10 years in prison.

"Today's guilty plea underscores the ways that the Chinese government continues to target Americans with access to sensitive government information, including using the Internet and non-Chinese nationals to target Americans who never leave the United States," Michael R. Sherwin, acting US Attorney for the District of Columbia, said in a statement. "We will continue to prosecute those who use deceptive practices on the Internet and elsewhere to undermine our national security."

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