CALIFORNIA— On Thursday, August 3, in two separate cases, two active-duty United States Navy servicemembers were arrested for leaking sensitive military information to the People’s Republic of China. The U.S. Department of Justice arrested U.S. Navy sailor Jinchao Wei, 22 – who was born in China and stationed at Naval Base San Diego – and Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26 – a Monterey Park resident and stationed at Naval Base Ventura County – on espionage charges.
“These individuals stand accused of violating the commitments they made to protect the United States and betraying the public trust, to the benefit of the PRC government,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said.
According to a federal indictment, Wei – a machinist mate responsible for the maintenance and operational status of the amphibious assault ship, the U.S.S. Essex – began communicating with a PRC intelligence officer back in February 2022, who requested that Wei provide information about the U.S.S. Essex and other U.S. Navy ships. Wei held a security clearance and had access to sensitive national defense information about the ship’s weapons, propulsion and desalination systems.
In February 2022, Wei reportedly told a fellow U.S. sailor that he was “being recruited for what is quite obviously (expletive) espionage,” the Associated Press reported. Wei was applying to become a U.S. naturalized citizen at the time.
From March 2022 to present, Wei provided the PRC intelligence officer with photos, videos and documents concerning U.S. Navy ships and their systems, in exchange for money. The two hid their communications by deleting records and using encrypted forms of communication. Wei was reportedly paid $10,000 to $15,000 throughout his role in the conspiracy.
In the second case involving Zhao – who worked at Port Hueneme and held a U.S. security clearance – he conspired with a Chinese military officer posing as a maritime economic researcher, to collect bribes in exchange for non-public sensitive U.S. military information.
From August 2021 to at least May 2023, Zhao sent the Chinese military officer self-made recordings, photographs, videos and operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region, which detailed the specific location and timing of Naval force movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support, the indictment said.
Zhao also photographed electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.
Over the course of the scheme, the Chinese military officer reportedly paid $14,866 to Zhao for his efforts. The two made a collective effort to conceal and destroy evidence of their relationship.
If convicted, Zhao potentially faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
“These arrests are a reminder of the relentless, aggressive efforts of the People’s Republic of China to undermine our democracy and threaten those who defend it,” Assistant Director Suzanne Turner of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division said.
China “stands apart in terms of the threat that its government poses to the United States,” Olsen said. “China is unrivaled in its audacity, and in the range of its maligned efforts to subvert our laws.”
Wei pleaded not guilty in a San Diego courtroom and Zhao pleaded not guilty in a Los Angeles courtroom. Both have been assigned federal public defenders.