Chinese National Accused of Stealing Battery Secrets

TULSA, Okla. (CN) – Federal prosecutors announced Friday the arrest of a Chinese national and Oklahoma resident accused of stealing battery technology trade secrets worth over $1 billion from his American oil company employer.

Hongjin Tan, 35, was arrested Thursday and charged with theft of trade secrets. He allegedly quit his job as a research engineer in the unidentified company’s battery development group on Dec. 12, telling his supervisor that he was returning to China to be with his aging parents. He had lived in the United States for about 12 years.

The company then reported a theft of the trade secrets to the FBI one day later, after Tan’s resignation triggered a review and revoked his access to company systems, according to an eight-page affidavit in support of the criminal complaint.

“The review confirmed that Tan had accessed hundreds of files, including research reports,” the affidavit states. “The reports included not only how to make Product A, which, according to Company A, is a complicated and technically difficult process, but also Company A’s plans for marketing Product A in China and in cell phone and lithium-based battery systems.”

Prosecutors claim Tan stole the trade secrets on a thumb drive and they were meant to benefit a new unidentified employer in Xiamen, China.

They claim that during a dinner with a former co-worker on Dec. 13, Tan said he interviewed with the Chinese company that had been in constant contact with him since he was in graduate school at The California Institute of Technology.

“As our recent cases show, all too often these thefts involve the Chinese government or Chinese companies,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in a statement. “The Department recently launched an initiative to protect our economy from such illegal practices emanating from China, and we continue to make this a top priority.”

Tan traveled to Beijing from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and stayed there for two weeks in September, the affidavit adds.

A LinkedIn profile for a Hongjin Tan that has similar employment and education history as described in the affidavit states Tan was employed at Phillips 66 in Bartesville as “a materials scientist with extensive industrial R&D experience” with interest in materials and systems development for renewable energy storage, among other things.  

When asked for comment, Phillips 66 said Friday afternoon that it is “cooperating with the FBI regarding a former employee at the Bartlesville location.”

Tan will next appear at a preliminary and detention hearing on Dec. 26.

He was arrested the same day federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment against two Chinese hackers who remain at large.

“China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower and they’re using illegal methods to get there,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a Thursday morning press conference.

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