The spy balloon’s flight over U.S. territory was the daring raid that exposed Beijing’s campaign to steal American secrets.
In March 2017, an engineer at G.E. Aviation in Cincinnati whom I will refer to using part of his Chinese given name — received a request on LinkedIn. Hua is in his 40s, tall and athletic, with a boyish face that makes him look a decade younger. He moved to the United States from China in 2003 for graduate studies in structural engineering. After earning his Ph.D. in 2007, he went to work for G.E., first at the company’s research facility in Niskayuna, N.Y., for a few years, then at G.E. Aviation.
The LinkedIn request came from Chen Feng, a school official at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (N.U.A.A.), in eastern China. Like most people who use LinkedIn, Hua was accustomed to connecting with professionals on the site whom he didn’t know personally, so the request did not strike him as unusual. “I didn’t even think much about it before accepting,” Hua told me. Days later, Chen sent him an email inviting him to N.U.A.A. to give a research presentation.
Hua had always desired academic recognition. “When I did my Ph.D., I initially wanted to be a professor in China or in the United States,” he says. But because his studies were focused more on practical applications than pure research, a career in the industry made more sense than one in academia. At G.E. Aviation, he was part of a group that designed containment cases for the rotating fan blades of jet engines. The use of carbon-based composites in fan blades and their casings, instead of metal, means lighter engines and commercial advantage.
“I felt honored to be invited to give a talk,” Hua says. Being recognized back home was especially fulfilling for Hua, who grew up poor in a small village and was the only child there from his generation to go to college. Beyond the prestige, the invitation also provided a free trip to China to see his friends and family. Hua arranged to arrive in May, so he could attend a nephew’s wedding and his college reunion at Harbin Institute of Technology. There was one problem, though: Hua knew that G.E. would deny permission to give the talk if he asked, which he was supposed to do. “Since G.E. is a high-tech company, it is difficult to get approval even to present at conferences in the United States,” he says. The company was concerned about giving away proprietary information.
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The regime has conducted illegal data gathering on U.S. defense strategies and sowed discord among American citizens through cyberattacks and disinformation efforts, which is just one of China’s several spy campaigns against America.
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If your work contract includes required approval for outside presentations, then doing otherwise should get you canned if not blacklisted. Did Hua think a PRC researcher would give a U.S. talk without permission? This is a matter of honoring a paid deal, not national loyalties or legalities.