Chinese national sentenced for trying to smuggle military tech from US to China

Export control laws were violated.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

A Chinese national has been sentenced for attempting to smuggle military and space-grade technology from the United States to China without a license. 

On Friday, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) said that Tao Li will spend 40 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, for violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

In what Assistant Attorney General John Demers calls "one of many [cases] involving illegal attempts to take US technology to China," Li worked with co-conspirators in China to try and export sensitive technology without a license. 

See also: European police arrest Dark Web counterfeit currency traders

Between December 2016 and January 2018, the 39-year-old attempted to purchase radiation-hardened power amplifiers and supervisory circuits from contacts in the United States. As these products are able to handle high levels of radiation and heat, the country deems them suitable for military and space applications, and therefore a license is required for export outside of the US. 

However, no license was sought from the US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security, and as these parts could be used in military and space programs, the department already has a policy in place to deny licenses when it comes to China. 

CNET: The best antivirus protection of 2019 for Windows 10

While living in China, Li reached out to private US companies and used multiple aliases in his dealings with them. Li also agreed to pay a "risk fee" in his talks with US contacts, as without a license, attempting to move the products across borders came with heightened danger for suppliers. Money for the purchases was wired from a bank account in China to one located in Arizona.

The scheme fell apart when investigators went undercover, leading to Li's arrest at Los Angeles International Airport as he attempted to visit Arizona to meet a contact -- who happened to be an undercover agent in the sting operation. 

"One of HSI's top priorities is preventing US military products and sensitive technology from falling into the hands of those who might seek to harm America or its interests," said Scott Brown, Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Phoenix. "We will continue to aggressively pursue violators wherever they may be." 

TechRepublic: What is a zero-day vulnerability?

In August, a 44-year-old unrelated Chinese national, Jianhua Li, was jailed for 37 months following an investigation into the trade of counterfeit Apple goods. The man was accused of trafficking fake products from China to the US while working in the country on a student visa. 

Together with co-conspirators, law enforcement says that at least 40,000 counterfeit goods were smuggled and $1.1 million in fraudulent proceeds were generated.

Europol’s top hacking ring takedowns

Previous and related coverage

Have a tip? Get in touch securely via WhatsApp | Signal at +447713 025 499, or over at Keybase: charlie0

Editorial standards