US: Chinese scientist pleads guilty to technology theft

(ST) – A Chinese scientist pleaded guilty on Tuesday (Nov 12) to stealing next-generation battery technology from the American petroleum company where he worked, the Department of Justice said.

Hongjin Tan, 35, a Chinese national who was a permanent legal resident of the United States, was arrested in December 2018 and charged with stealing trade secrets.

The Justice Department said Tan pleaded guilty in US District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma to theft of a trade secret, unauthorised transmission of a trade secret, and unauthorised possession of a trade secret.

The market value of the next-generation battery technology Tan was accused of stealing was more than US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion), it said.

“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 Demers said in a statement.

US Attorney Trent Shores said: “Industrial spies like Hongjin Tan engage in espionage to steal American trade secrets and intellectual property.

“China’s economic aggression poses a threat to America’s emerging high-technology industries,” Mr Shores said.

Tan worked as an associate scientist for the US petroleum company from June 2017 until his arrest, the Justice Department said.

The department did not name the company but a LinkedIn page for Hongjin Tan identifies him as a staff scientist with the disruptive technologies team at Phillips 66.

He previously worked as a research assistant and visiting scientist at the California Institute of Technology, where he earned his doctorate.

The Justice Department said sentencing was set for Feb 12, 2020 but did not say what sentence Tan was likely to receive.