Two U.S. sailors arrested on suspicion of espionage, selling information to China

A man stands behind a lectern, with two people standing near him.
U.S. Atty. Randy S. Grossman for the Southern District of California, center, speaks during a news conference in San Diego on Aug. 3, 2023.
(Meg McLaughlin / Associated Press)

Two U.S. sailors based in Southern California have been arrested and indicted on suspicion of accepting bribes in exchange for passing sensitive military information to intelligence officers from China, federal authorities announced Thursday.

The sailors were in direct contact with Chinese officers who paid them thousands in bribes to provide national defense information, including technical manuals on assault ships, critical technology and radar systems, according to officials with the U.S. attorney’s offices in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Jinchao Wei, 22, and Wenheng Zhao, 26, are naturalized American citizens who were born in China and were communicating with intelligence officers in China, though it’s unclear if they were speaking to the same intelligence officer, prosecutors said. Zhao is a resident of Monterey Park, according to authorities.


“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 [People’s Republic of China] government,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department’s national security division said during a news conference.

“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 in a statement that accompanied the indictment announcement.

After worsening ties between China and the U.S., Blinken aims to find common ground in Beijing, the first U.S. secretary of state to visit in five years.

June 17, 2023

Wei, also known as Patrick and who was stationed on the USS Essex in San Diego, was arrested when he arrived for work at the naval base there Wednesday, authorities said. Wei worked as a machinist’s mate and had access to sensitive national defense information about the ship’s weapons, propulsion and desalination systems.

The Essex resembles an aircraft carrier, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a news release. He is accused of transmitting information over encrypted channels to a Chinese official. Prosecutors allege he was approached in February 2022 by the Chinese officer, who was interested in the workings of the Essex. Wei provided the officer technical and mechanical manuals that detailed the operations of multiple systems on the Essex and similar ships, including power, steering, aircraft and deck elevators, according to prosecutors.

The Chinese officer confirmed to Wei that at least 10 of the documents were useful to him and paid him $5,000, according to court documents. Wei continued to send documents and photographs describing the layout of the Essex and location of certain departments on the ship.

The Justice Department alleges that Wei knowingly violated the the International Traffic in Arms Regulations by transmitting a technical manual without obtaining a required license. Wei was approached by a Chinese intelligence officer while his application to become a U.S. citizen was pending, prosecutors said. He also admitted to this officer that he knew this activity would be viewed as spying and could affect his pending citizenship application but did not report the offer, according to court documents.


In a separate investigation, Zhao, who is also known as Thomas and was based out of Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, was also arrested Wednesday and accused of similar charges.

The balloon incident has become a serious obstacle to one of President Biden’s top foreign policy goals: stabilizing the prickly U.S. relationship with Beijing.

Feb. 12, 2023

Zhao is accused of recording and sharing the specific location and timing of naval force movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support, beginning in August 2021 and continuing through May, prosecutors said.

Zhao is also suspected of taking photographs of radar systems in Okinawa, Japan, at the naval base in Ventura County and on San Clemente Island, officials said.

Zhao worked as a construction electrician and was responsible for installing and repairing electrical equipment on U.S. military installations, according to prosecutors. He had access to unclassified information and information on the Navy’s operation security, but he was not allowed to transmit that information and was required to report suspicious incidents, including attempts by non-Navy personnel who sought that sensitive information.

He had a security clearance and was able to access material up to and including the secret level, according to court documents.

“By sending this sensitive military information to an intelligence officer employed by a hostile foreign state, the defendant betrayed his sacred oath to protect our country and uphold the Constitution,” U.S. Atty. Martin Estrada said in a statement. “Unlike the vast majority of U.S. Navy personnel who serve the nation with honor, distinction and courage, Mr. Zhao chose to corruptly sell out his colleagues and his country.”


A federal judge on Friday granted a motion by prosecutors to dismiss charges against a cancer researcher who had been accused of lying about her alleged membership in the Chinese military on a visa application to work UC Davis. Prosecutors are seeking dismissals in four similar cases.

July 23, 2021

Zhao is accused of sharing information about a “large scale” military exercise in the Indo-Pacific region throughout August 2021. From November 2021 through March, Zhao received bribes in Chinese currency, prosecutors said, including a year-end bonus.

“The Department of Justice will continue to use every tool in our arsenal to counter threats from China and to deter those who aid them in breaking our laws and threatening our national security,” Olsen said.

Stacey Moy, special agent with the FBI’s San Diego field office, said the announcement is not an indictment of Chinese or ethnically Chinese American people.

“This is solely based on individuals, regardless of national origin or ethnicity, conducting criminal activity, violating the rule of law,” Moy said during the news conference.

Bryce Miller, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent, said the acts carried out by the sailors threatens Navy “readiness and capabilities.”

After a lengthy investigation, a U.S.

April 11, 2016