Jun Wei Yeo, an ambitious and newly enrolled Singaporean PhD student, was undoubtedly elated when he was invited to give a presentation to Chinese academics in Beijing in 2015.
His doctoral research was in Chinese foreign policy, and he was poised to experience firsthand how the rising superpower seeks influence.
After his presentation, Jun Wei, also known as Dickson, was, according to US court documents, approached by several people who said they worked for Chinese think tanks. They said they wanted to pay him to provide “political reports and information”. Later, they would spell out exactly what they wanted: “scuttlebutt” – rumors and insider knowledge.
He soon realized that they were Chinese intelligence agents but kept in touch with them, according to a sworn statement. He was initially asked to focus on Southeast Asian countries, but later their interest turned to the US government.
This is how Dickson Yeo embarked on the path of becoming a Chinese agent – one who would end up using the professional networking website LinkedIn, a bogus consultancy firm and pose as a curious scholar to attract American targets. .
Five years later on Friday, amid deep tensions between the United States and China and a determined crackdown by Washington on Beijing spies, Yeo pleaded guilty in a US court to being an “illegal agent of ‘a foreign power’. The 39-year-old faces up to 10 years in prison.
Alumni of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), which trains some of Asia’s top officials and government officials, were shocked by the news that their former peer had confessed to being a Chinese agent.
“He was a very active student in the classroom. I always thought of him as a very intelligent person, ”said a former graduate student who did not wish to be named.
She said he often spoke about social inequalities – and that his family struggled financially as a child. She said she had a hard time reconciling the person she knew with her guilty plea.
A former staff member at the institution painted a different picture, saying Yeo appeared to have “an exaggerated sense of his own importance.”
Yeo’s thesis supervisor was Huang Jing, a top Chinese-American professor who was expelled from Singapore in 2017 for being an “agent of influence from a foreign country” who has not been identified.
Huang Jing has always denied these allegations. After leaving Singapore, he worked first in Washington DC and then in Beijing.
According to court documents released with Yeo’s guilty plea, the student met his Chinese masters on dozens of occasions in different places in China.
During a meeting, he was asked to specifically get information about the US Department of Commerce, artificial intelligence, and the Sino-US trade war.
Bilahari Kausikan, the former permanent secretary of the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he had “no doubt that Dickson knew he was working for the Chinese intelligence services.”
He was not, he says, “an unwitting useful fool.”
Yeo made his crucial contacts using LinkedIn, the job and career networking site used by over 700 million people. The platform has been described only as a “professional networking website” in court documents, but its use has been confirmed to the Washington Post.
Former government and military employees and contractors do not hesitate to publicly post details of their detailed work history on the website in order to secure lucrative private sector jobs.
This presents a potential gold mine for foreign intelligence agencies. In 2018, US counterintelligence chief William Evanina warned of “super aggressive” action by Beijing on the Microsoft-owned platform, which is one of the few unblocked Western social media sites in China.
Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer jailed for 20 years last May for leaking military secrets to a Chinese agent, was first targeted on LinkedIn.
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In 2017, the German intelligence agency said Chinese agents used LinkedIn to target at least 10,000 Germans. LinkedIn did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but previously said it was taking a series of steps to stop the harmful activity.
Some of the targets Yeo found while trawling through LinkedIn were tasked with writing reports for his “consulting firm,” which had the same name as an already large company. These were then sent to his Chinese contacts.
One of the people he contacted worked on the US Air Force’s F-35 fighter jets program and admitted he had money issues. Another was a US Army officer assigned to the Pentagon, who was awarded at least $ 2,000 (£ 1,500) to write a report on the impact of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan on China.
To find such contacts, Yeo, who was based in Washington DC for part of 2019, was helped by an invisible ally – the LinkedIn algorithm. Every time Yeo looked at someone’s profile, it suggested a new list of contacts with a similar experience that he might be interested in. Yeo described him as “relentless”.
According to court documents, his managers advised him to ask targets if they “weren’t happy with the job” or “had financial problems.”
William Nguyen, an American former student of the Lee Kuan Yew school who was arrested during a demonstration in Vietnam in 2018 and then expelled, said in a Facebook post on Saturday that Yeo tried to contact him “on several occasions” after being released. prison and his case made headlines around the world.
In 2018, Yeo also posted fake job postings online for his consulting firm. He said he had received over 400 resumes, 90% of which were from “members of the US military and government with security clearances.” Some have been passed on to his Chinese masters.
The use of LinkedIn is cheeky, but not surprising, said Matthew Brazil, co-author of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer.
“I think a lot of intelligence agencies around the world are probably using it to research sources of information,” he said. “Because it’s in everyone’s best interest on LinkedIn to put their entire career on it so that everyone can see it – it’s a particularly valuable tool in that regard. ”
He said the commissioning of consultant reports is a way for agents to get “hooked” on a potentially valuable source that may later be convinced to provide classified information.
“It’s a modern take on the traditional craft, really. “
US Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said the case was an example of how China is exploiting “the openness of American society” and using “non-Chinese nationals to target Americans who do not. never leave the United States ”.
Singapore, a multicultural society of 5.8 million people where ethnic Chinese make up the majority of the population, has long had close ties to the United States, which uses its air and naval bases. But he also sought and maintained positive relations with China.
Mr Kausikan said he did not believe the spy case – the first known to involve a Singaporean – would damage the country’s reputation with the US government, but he feared Singaporeans could face more. great suspicion in American society.
Singapore’s Home Office on Sunday said investigations had revealed no direct threats to the country’s security arising from the case.
LKYSPP Dean Danny Quah wrote in an email to faculty and students quoted by the Straits Times newspaper that “no faculty or other students from our school are known to be involved” in the case. Yeo.
A spokesperson for the school told the BBC that Yeo got leave from his doctorate in 2019 and his candidacy has now been canceled.
Dickson Yeo does not appear to have gone as far with his contacts as his managers would have liked. But in November 2019, he traveled to the United States with instructions to turn the army officer into a “permanent vector of information,” his signed statement said.
He was arrested before he could ask.