A human rights activist freed from a Chinese prison after the U.S. government interceded on her behalf pleaded guilty Wednesday to illegally selling American high-tech items with potential military uses to China.
Gao Zhan, who was born in China but is a permanent U.S. resident living in McLean, Va., pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful export for selling 80 microprocessors. She also pleaded guilty to tax evasion, as did her husband, Xue Donghua.
"The technology exported in this case is tightly controlled for good reason: It can be used in sensitive military systems," said Kevin Delli-Colli, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. The Defense Criminal Investigative Service also is involved in the case.
Gao could face a maximum of 10 years in prison, with sentencing scheduled for March 5. But prosecutors say she might get a more lenient sentence if she continued to cooperate with investigators trying to identify others involved in exports of sensitive goods to China. Xue, who might face as much as a year in prison, also agreed to cooperate.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Gao gained international attention when she was arrested in China on Feb. 11, 2001, on charges of spying for Taiwan. She and her husband and their 5-year-old son were about to return to the United States following a visit when they were seized by government agents.
Gao was jailed. Xue, who is an American citizen, and their son were detained and separated from each other for 26 days before being allowed to return to the United States without her.
Her release was secured in part by President Bush's phone call to then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin, which came during a time of tense U.S.-China relations after a midair collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. The spy plane made an emergency landing, and no one aboard was hurt. The Chinese plane crashed and the pilot died.
Although court documents lay out the crimes Gao admitted to, U.S. officials were unable to explain why China suspected her of spying if she had been helping the Chinese government for years before that.
According to prosecutors, from 1998 to 2001 Gao helped the Chinese government obtain more than $1.5 million in sensitive items using a false name and a front company.
Court documents say Gao admitted to using the name Gail Heights to order high-tech items to be illegally shipped to China through a front company called Technology Business Services or University Services that she falsely claimed was connected to George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
U.S. customs officials were tipped to the scheme in fall 2000 by a company that had found no connection between the university and the Gail Heights who had placed an order for electronic parts that fall under U.S. government export controls.
A search of Gao's home revealed contracts for similar parts with a variety of Chinese entities with ties to China's military, including China National, Incom Import & Export Co. and Nanjing Institute of Radio Technology, according to court documents.
The plea agreement involves only one of those sales, a July 12, 2000, contract with Incom for the microprocessors. The components operate at low temperatures, making them ideal for aircraft navigation, weapons fire control systems, radar and airborne battle management systems.
Gao was paid almost $540,000 for the microprocessor deal. She agreed as part of the guilty plea to forfeit to the U.S. government $505,000 traced from that transaction and to pay $89,000 in additional taxes, penalties and interest.
"This was a serious crime," U.S. Atty. Paul McNulty said following the pleadings in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. "These defendants illegally sold high-tech components with potential military use to a major foreign power."
Gao was one of several Chinese-born academics, writers and entrepreneurs with ties to America who were detained in 2001 by China, contributing to tense U.S.-Chinese relations at the time.
Following her release, she worked until spring 2002 as a researcher at American University in Washington, giving lectures, working with groups seeking improved human rights in China and advocating for release of political prisoners.
"Before I was just an ordinary scholar, pursuing Chinese studies for my own advance," Gao said in a February 2002 speech. "But now I have a strong sense of a cause -- a noble cause of fighting for conditions in China."