It is the latest in a series of federal prosecutions targeting Chinese corporate espionage. On Tuesday, for instance, federal prosecutors in California charged Chinese intelligence officers and hackers working for them with trying to steal information on commercial jet engines. Other cases have involved stolen wind turbine technology and software source code.
“China – like any advanced nation – must decide whether it wants to be a trusted partner on the world stage, or whether it wants to be known around the world as a dishonest regime running a corrupt economy founded on fraud, theft and strong-arm tactics,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a news conference announcing the criminal case and a new China Initiative.
The Micron charges name two companies, one in China and one in Taiwan, and three Taiwanese defendants. A Justice Department spokesman said the defendants were served summonses in Taiwan and that none is in U.S. custody.
The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment Thursday. The Taiwanese company, UMC Microelectronics Corp., or UMC, denied to the Idaho Statesman last December that it had used other companies’ intellectual property.
One of the charged individuals had been general manager and chairman of a company that Micron acquired in 2013 and then went to work two years later for UMC, where prosecutors say he orchestrated the theft.
That man, identified by prosecutors as Chen Zhengkun (known in English as Stephen Chen), recruited both of his co-defendants to join him at UMC. One, according to prosecutors, downloaded more than 900 confidential and proprietary Micron files before he left and stored them in personal cloud storage and on external hard drives so that he could access them at his new job with UMC.
The company partnered with a Chinese-controlled business, Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Co., to mass-produce dynamic random-access memory, or DRAM, one of Micron’s principal products. DRAM is common in computers and other digital devices.
DRAM is something that the Chinese government had identified as an important priority because its own companies could not develop such advanced capabilities and had to rely on companies outside of China, the Justice Department said.
The trade secrets are worth up to $8.75 billion, the department said.
“We appreciate the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to prosecute the criminal theft of our intellectual property,” said Joel Poppen, Micron’s senior vice president for legal affairs, in a statement. “Micron has invested billions of dollars over decades to develop its intellectual property.”
Micron is walking a fine line: It has beefed up operations in Taiwan and has a plant and customers in mainland China. It wants to keep working with China without sharing key technologies. But a Chinese court punished Micron last July by temporarily barring the company’s Chinese subsidiaries from making, selling or importing certain memory modules and solid-state drives.
The latest indictment was announced one day after the Trump administration imposed restrictions on technology exports to the Chinese company that was charged, citing national security concerns. Beijing has spent heavily to build up Jinhua and other chipmakers as part of efforts to transform China into a global leader in robotics, artificial intelligence and other technology industries.
The United States also sued on Thursday to block the transfer of trade secrets and to prevent the companies from exporting to the U.S. any products that they manufacture by exploiting stolen information.
In addition, the Justice Department announced an initiative to target Chinese economic espionage by identifying priority cases and ensuring there are enough resources available.
The administration has characterized China, along with Russia, as a strategic competitor of the United States. The U.S. has taken an increasingly confrontational stance toward what it characterizes as China’s “predatory” economic policies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set the tone in a June speech where he accused China of an “unprecedented level of larceny” of intellectual property.
Tensions over trade in particular have exacerbated relations between the two world powers. President Donald Trump has imposed tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese products in an effort to narrow the U.S. trade deficit with China. China has retaliated with tariff increases on $110 billion of American products.
The tensions have extended into security issues. China has criticized U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, and the U.S. has renewed its criticism of China’s island-building in the disputed South China Sea. In recent weeks, Trump has accused China of meddling in U.S. elections but hasn’t presented substantive evidence of such interference.