A former Canadian Space Agency (CSA) engineer has been charged with breach of trust for allegedly working on behalf of a Chinese aerospace company, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) says.
Wanping Zheng, 61, was charged by a public officer on Dec. 7, after an investigation by the RCMP pointed to “illegal activities” carried out alongside his duties at the CSA.
“According to the facts, Mr. Zheng allegedly used his status as a CSA engineer to negotiate agreements for the installation of satellite station facilities in Iceland,” the RCMP said in a statement on Dec. 8.
“He allegedly acted on behalf of a Chinese aerospace company.”
According to the charge sheet filed at the courthouse, the alleged crime took place between July 1, 2018, and May 30, 2019, at the CSA headquarters in Brossard and St-Hubert, as well as in Toronto, Ottawa, and elsewhere in Ontario and Quebec.
The RCMP said Zheng, who is a resident of the Montreal suburb of Brossard, was arrested on Dec. 7 and released on a promise to appear in court in Longueuil, Que., on Dec. 15.
In a statement on Dec. 7, the CSA said Zheng’s employment was ceased in 2019 after concerns about his private activities outside his employment came to light.
“The CSA takes the security of information and people very seriously,” the space agency said. “The CSA took actions, including an internal inquiry and restricting access to information. As measures increased, the employment ceased, in 2019.”
The RCMP said after being alerted by CSA’s internal security team, their Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) began an investigation in October 2019. The INSET probes activities carried out by or on behalf of foreign actors that put Canada’s economy and institutions at risk.
The allegations against Zheng have not been tested in court. The CSA said they “cannot comment further on a matter before the court.”
The intelligence community has repeatedly warned about the increasing threats posed by foreign state actors—particularly China and Russia—against Canada’s national security.
In the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) annual report published in April, director David Vigneault said that in 2020, “CSIS observed espionage and foreign interference activity at levels not seen since the Cold War.”
“In 2020, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and other foreign states continued to covertly gather political, economic, and military information in Canada through targeted threat activities in support of their own state development goals,” the report states.
In September 2019, Cameron Jay Ortis, former director general of the RCMP’s National Intelligence Co-ordination Centre (NICC), was taken into custody for allegedly leaking secrets to an unnamed recipient and planning to give additional information to an unspecified foreign entity.
As director general of NICC at the time, Ortis had access to some of the most classified information in Canada. He is facing ten counts of offences under the Criminal Code and the Security of Information Act, and is being held in an Ottawa jail as his complex case proceeds.
The United States faces similar threats as evidenced in the recent case of Xu Yanjun, a Chinese intelligence agent convicted over his role in a scheme to recruit spies and steal sensitive U.S. aviation technology for Beijing.
Xu, a deputy division director at a provincial branch of Beijing’s top intelligence agency, the Chinese Ministry of State Security, was found guilty on all counts, including conspiracy to commit economic espionage and to steal trade secrets, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
The federal prosecutors said Xu had been recruiting employees from leading U.S. and foreign aviation companies since 2013, and would pay the recruits to travel to China, often under the guise of exchanging ideas or giving a presentation at a university.
In 2017, Xu solicited a GE Aviation engineer in an attempt to steal the company’s exclusive composite aircraft engine fan design for the benefit of the Chinese regime.
Xu was arrested in April 2018 after the engineer worked with the FBI in devising a plan that lured him to Belgium with the promise of receiving sensitive information related to the engine fan. Xu was later extradited to the United States. He faces up to 60 years in prison along with more than $5 million in fines. No sentencing date has been set.
The DOJ’s effort in combating espionage from China includes convicting electrical engineer Yi-Chi Shih for “conspiring to illegally export to China semiconductor chips with missile guidance applications.”
Shih, 66, of Hollywood Hills, was sentenced to 63 months in prison by U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt in July.
He and California resident Kiet Anh Mai, a former employee of a U.S. defence contractor, were arrested in 2018 for allegedly buying microchips that can be used for military applications from a U.S. company under the pretence that they were for domestic use, while scheming to send the technology to China.
According to the DOJ in July 2019, Mai pleaded guilty for his role in the scheme and was scheduled for sentencing in September that year.
Shih’s brother, Ishiang Shih, who until 2018 was associate professor in the faculty of engineering at McGill University, is also suspected of helping in the scheme.
The United States has been asking for Ishiang Shih’s extradition since October 2018, but the Canadian justice system has not yet ruled on his fate, reported LaPresse in March.
With files from The Canadian Press and reporting by Eva Fu, J.M. Phelps, Isabel van Brugen, and Omid Ghoreishi