China sees ethnic bias in U.S. cyber espionage accusations

China is hitting back against U.S. indictments of six of its citizens for economic espionage, with a state-run newspaper on Thursday accusing American authorities of engaging in ethnic persecution by targeting Chinese nationals.

“The U.S. has a history of indulging in persecution of certain groups of immigrants by using the Espionage Act,” wrote Global Times, an arm of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, in an editorial.

“We hope Chinese-Americans won’t suffer from this because of China’s rise.”

The official Chinese government response was less bellicose, but still expressed “strong concern” over the prosecutions. “The Chinese government will ensure that the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens in China-U.S. personnel exchanges will not be hurt,” Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a regular press conference on Wednesday.

U.S. Justice Department officials on Tuesday announced the arrest of a Chinese professor and the indictment of five other Chinese citizens for allegedly stealing microelectronic designs that have commercial and military applications. The indictment was the latest blow to Chinese government claims it’s cracking down on intellectual property theft as the nation attempts to transition to an innovation economy.

It’s also likely to further strain relations between Beijing and Washington, coming four months before Chinese President Xi Jinping has scheduled a U.S. visit to meet with President Barack Obama. The two nations are increasingly clashing over cybersecurity and China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea.

According to the 32-count indictment, three of the suspects – Tianjin University professors Zhang Hao and Pang Wei, as well as electrical engineer Zhang Huisui – were graduate students together at the University of Southern California. Pang and Zhang Hao went on to work, respectively, at chipmakers Avago Technologies Ltd., based in San Jose, Calif., and Skyworks Solutions Inc., which has headquarters in Woburn, Mass.

Both companies specialize in technical components common to GPS devices, cellphones and other mobile devices known as bulk acoustic wave filters, in particular a component known as film bulk acoustic resonators, a thin layer of material that vibrates at known frequencies.

Wei, Hao and other suspects later helped Tianjin University build a facility to produce film bulk acoustic resonators in 2009 that, according to the indictment, depended upon “recipes, source code, specifications, presentations, design layouts” that suspects had stolen from Skyworks and Avago.

Tianjin University has said it is investigating the case and will have a response soon, but as of Thursday, officials had not commented.

Since 2008, the FBI says it has seen a fivefold increase in economic espionage indictments, and several have involved Chinese nationals.

In 2013, two Chinese nationals pleaded guilty to trying to steal plans for insulated natural gas tanks from a Pittsburgh Corning plant in Missouri. Chinese hackers have been accused of stealing documents from defense contractors. Last year, the Justice Department indicted five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army for hacking into the computer systems of U.S. companies to steal technology for state-owned Chinese companies.

In a case that has received far less attention, federal agents in North Carolina this month arrested a Chinese national, Huang Xiwen, 45, for allegedly stealing corporate secrets from two unnamed U.S. companies, one of which is based in Charlotte, N.C. Much of the indictment against Huang remains sealed.

On Saturday, federal agents arrested Zhang Hao, the Tianjin University professor and former Avago employee, after he landed at Los Angeles International Airport to attend a conference. Along with Pang, Zhang is a professor at Tianjin University’s College of Precision Instrument and Opto-Electronic Engineering.

He is likely to be the only arrest in the case, since the other suspects are thought to be in China, with which the United States does not have an extradition treaty. The five PLA officials accused of illegal hacking also are unlikely to be apprehended and tried.

In its editorial Thursday, Global Times suggested that the FBI entrapped Zhang Hao, since the professor had been invited to attend an academic conference in Southern California. The editorial also took note of Chinese-Americans falsely accused of spying for China, including Sherry Chen, a federal hydrologist arrested on espionage charges last year and later cleared.

In the current case, prosecutors say the suspects seem to have taken a devilish delight in the Chinese company they were planning to form. In 2007, Pang Wei allegedly emailed Zhang Hao and Zhang Huisui and suggested they name the new company “Cliffbaw.” According to the indictment, Pang told his former USC classmates that the name was short for “China lift BAW technology.” BAW is the acronym for bulk acoustic wave filters.