WASHINGTON - A Singaporean man pleaded guilty on Friday (July 24) to acting under the direction of Chinese intelligence officials to obtain sensitive information from Americans, the US Justice Department said.
Yeo Jun Wei, also called Dickson Yeo, pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington DC to one count of acting within the United States as an illegal foreign agent.
Court documents said that he used his political consultancy in the United States as a front to collect information for Chinese intelligence, targeting American military and government employees with security clearances on professional networking social media sites.
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.
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.
In a “ statement of facts” submitted to the court and signed by Yeo, he admitted he was fully aware he was working for Chinese intelligence, meeting agents dozens of times and being given special treatment when he travelled to China.
“Although these operatives used pseudonyms in their interactions with Yeo, they were open about their affiliation with the PRC government. One of the operatives told Yeo that he and his boss worked for the PRC’s main intelligence unit,” the statement read.
His Chinese handlers asked him to get non-public information about the US Commerce Department, artificial intelligence, and the US-China trade war, even instructing him to create a fake consulting company in 2018.
Yeo did as he was told, using the same name as a prominent US consulting firm that conducts public and government relations. His LinkedIn Profile page lists the company as Resolute Consulting.
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.
He was arrested when he returned to the US in November that year to try and get a US army officer working at the Pentagon to provide more confidential information.
Yeo’s case comes amid worsening US-China relations, with accusations that China runs espionage and trade secret theft operations in the US high on the list of Washington’s grievances.
“The Chinese Government uses an array of duplicity to obtain sensitive information from unsuspecting Americans,” said Assistant Attorney-General for National Security John Demers.
He added: “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.”
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.
In another case, Yeo built a good rapport with an officer in the US army who had sent his resume to him in response to his fake job listings.
The officer said he was traumatised by his military tours in Afghanistan, and wrote a report for Yeo on how the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would impact China.
A third case involved a State Department employee, who wrote a report about an unnamed individual who was at the time a member of the US Cabinet.
The State Department employee told Yeo he feared that his retirement pension would be jeopardised if officials found out that he provided information to Yeo.
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.
Yeo faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail and will be sentenced on Oct 9.
According to Yeo’s LinkedIn profile, which appeared to have been taken down early Saturday, he studied in National Junior College from 1998 to 1999 before getting a Bachelor of Arts in mass communication and media studies from Oklahoma City University.
He then went on to do a Master of Arts in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2011, before heading to the International University of Japan in Niigata for a Master of Arts in international relations.
In 2015, he enrolled for a PhD at LKYSPP. In a statement on the school's website profiling its doctoral candidates, Yeo wrote that he was interested "in the intersection between foreign policy, security and political economy with regards to China's growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region".
While at LKYSPP, he visited Beijing as a researcher at Peking University's National Institute of Strategic communication from June 2016 to January 2019, according to his profile.
Yeo's time at LKYSPP overlapped with that of former LKYSPP professor Huang Jing, who was expelled from Singapore in 2017 "for being a Chinese agent of influence", retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan noted in a Facebook post on Saturday.
"It is not unreasonable to assume he was recruited or at least talent spotted by the MSS (China's Ministry of State Security) there," Mr Kausikan said.
Yeo listed himself as a doctoral fellow "working on the foreign policy of smaller strategic states in light of US-China competition" at the George Washington University in Washington DC from January to July 2019.
This was the same time period during which the court documents said he was in the American capital to recruit individuals to provide China with sensitive information.
In Jan 2018, he set up Resolute Consulting, the political consultancy which the court documents said he admitted to being a front. On LinkedIn, he described it as a business venture "providing analysis and political economy risk consultancy work for Eurasian clients".
He called it a joint venture between himself and clients based in Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing and New Delhi.