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A Chinese-American engineer was convicted by a federal court in California yesterday of conspiring to supply military technology to the People's Republic.

Chi Mak, a 66-year-old naturalised US citizen born in Guangdong Province, China, was found guilty of conspiracy to violate export regulations and of failing to register as a Chinese [import] agent after a six week trial. He now faces a maximum sentence of 35 years' imprisonment.

According to the Washington Times, Mak and his defence attorney shed tears after the verdict was read out. Sentencing is set for 10 September.

Mak's trial was only the first of a series involving members of his family and their alleged involvement in the plot to sell secrets to the communists. Prosecutors are also pursuing cases against Mak's brother Tai, both the brothers' wives, and Mak's son Billy.

Despite not having charged him with espionage, prosecutors said in court that Chi Mak had been "spying for China". He had been employed as an electrical engineer at Power Paragon, a defence contractor, and had worked on the US Navy's Quiet Electric Drive programme. This project is intended to equip new generations of American nuclear submarines with electric motors for their propellers, rather than drive shafts directly driven by reactor turbines. This could greatly increase the subs' ability to run silently, and confer other important benefits (article here for those interested).

Mak had apparently supplied his brother Tai with quiet-drive related documents which were then put on disc in order to be taken to China. The documents were unclassified, but were proprietary and export-controlled.

But at the last minute the feds stepped in, snapping the bracelets on Tai Mak and his wife at LAX in October 2005 as they were preparing to leave the US. Prosecutors allege that the pair intended to pass the information to Pu Pei-liang, a researcher at the Chinese Centre for Asia Pacific Studies at Zhongshan University, an organisation close to the People's Republic military. Chi Mak and his wife were collared subsequently at home.

It emerged during the trial that China also seeks to snaffle the secrets of the Space Shuttle - perhaps indicating that modern-day commie spies aren't fussy about the freshness of their stolen knowledge. Apparently another Mak relative, Gu Wei Hao, rashly tried to recruit an undercover fed as a go-between. Gu, a Chinese government official, had tried to obtain space shuttle tech from a Boeing engineer named Greg Chung. Gu was also involved in handling Chi Mak and the submarine-blueprints caper.

It was thought that after yesterday's success, prosecutors could be in a stronger negotiating position in plea bargaining with the remaining members of the Mak family spy ring.

The trial provided an insight into the ongoing efforts by the People's Republic to acquire sophisticated military technology from overseas. This will probably not be the last case of its type to come before Western courts. ®

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