Chinese University Denies Any Involvement in ‘Economic Espionage’

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BEIJING (WSJ)—A Chinese state-run university named in a U.S. indictment as being linked to suspected economic espionage has denied being involved in inappropriate activity, calling the allegations an attempt by American authorities to politicize a technical dispute.

Tianjin University’s comments, reported Thursday by the state-owned China Youth Daily, follow this week’s indictment by U.S. prosecutors alleging that six Chinese citizens—including three professors at the university—conspired to develop stolen wireless technology to benefit their commercial venture with the school.

In response to the claims that Tianjin University was involved in “activity that yielded inappropriate benefits, the university administration expressed resentment and issued a strong denial,” China Youth Daily said in an article on its website, citing the university, without further identifying sources.

In the report, the unnamed university officials were quoted as describing the matter as a “technical dispute,” saying that “the politicization of the professors’ scientific research, elevating it to the level of ‘economic espionage,’ would harm normal academic exchanges.”

The research by the three professors and their team, the report said, is “public and conforms with international standards in scientific research and ethical norms in academia.” The school reserved the right to use legal means to protect its reputation, the report added.

A Tianjin University spokesman, who gave his name only as Wang, confirmed the content of the China Youth Daily report. He didn’t elaborate.

Experts said the case signals Washington’s stiffer stance over the pilfering of commercial secrets—an issue that already has frayed ties with Beijing. The case also marks the latest instance of the U.S. accusing Chinese nationals of stealing corporate secrets.

Among the six defendants, three are professors at Tianjin University’s Precision Instrument Engineering Department. Two of the professors had studied at the University of Southern California, where they received graduate degrees in electrical engineering, before going on to work for U.S. technology companies Avago Technologies and Skyworks Solutions Inc.

They are accused of stealing trade secrets from Avago and Skyworks and then, with their co-conspirators, developing the technology to benefit ROFS Microsystem, a joint venture they founded with the university, according to the Justice Department indictment. The film bulk-wave-resonator technology is used in wireless devices to filter out unwanted signals. ROFS made use of the technology to win contracts from commercial and military clients, according to the indictment.

ROFS—founded in 2011 in the northeastern city of Tianjin—designs, develops, manufactures and sells chips and components for micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS, its corporate records and website showed. Its website wasn’t accessible Thursday, but a cached version said that the company is helmed by a “core team with doctorate degrees from the U.S. and more than 10 years of work experience at renown semiconductor companies abroad.”

ROFS had applied for four patents with China’s State Intellectual Property Office, a search of the agency’s patent database showed. One of the patents was related to film bulk-wave-resonator technology, though it wasn’t clear whether it contained any of the technology covered by the indictment. Avago and Skyworks supply components based on the technology to Apple Inc. for its iPhone, among other devices.

Phone calls to ROFS on Thursday were answered by a receptionist, who declined to comment on the case, or transfer the call to other company officials.

One of the Tianjin University professors, Zhang Hao, was arrested by U.S. authorities on May 16 after arriving in Los Angeles from China. Mr. Zhang was described as chief scientist at ROFS in a brief biography on the agenda of an industry conference he attended. The other five defendants were believed to be in China.

Attempts to reach the six men for comment were unsuccessful.

Tianjin University said it would closely monitor developments in the case, and would provide humanitarian and legal assistance to Mr. Zhang and his family in the U.S., according to China Youth Daily.