Conviction Under China’s Version of the Economic Espionage Act for Theft of Trade Secrets

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On April 26, 2024, the Shanghai Pudong Court released the “Typical cases of intellectual property judicial services provided by the Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court to ensure high-quality development of new productivity” (上海市浦东新区人民法院知识产权司法服务保障新质生产力高质量发展典型案例), which included a criminal case involving a newer provision of the Chinese Criminal Law that is somewhat analogous to the U.S. Economic Espionage Act. This is believed to be the first case in Shanghai under this provision and may be related to last year’s police raids on Bain and/or Capvision although the Court did not release information identifying the entities involved.

As explained by the Shanghai Pudong Court:

Case 12

Determination of the elements of the crime of illegally providing trade secrets to foreign countries – the first case of spying and illegally providing trade secrets to foreign countries in Shanghai

Judgment Summary

Article 219-1 of the Criminal Law states that “the crime of spying on and illegally providing commercial secrets for foreign countries” should be determined based on the following elements: first, the object of the perpetrator’s infringement is a commercial secret protected by China’s criminal law; second, the perpetrator objectively carried out the act of spying on and illegally providing commercial secrets; third, the commercial secrets were spied on and provided to foreign institutions, organizations, and personnel, and the perpetrator knew it. Among them, foreign institutions and organizations include not only institutions and organizations established in other countries or regions abroad, but also their branch (representative) institutions and branch organizations established in China, as well as institutions and organizations in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. If the perpetrator is not clearly informed that the commercial secrets are spied on and provided to foreign countries, but subjectively should know and takes a laissez-faire attitude, it constitutes knowing.

Basic facts

From August 2017 to 2020, the defendant Zheng worked as a thin film equipment engineer in a storage company. He signed the “Employment Contract” and “Secrecy Commitment Letter on Resignation” and promised to keep the company’s trade secrets confidential. In August 2021, the defendant Zheng accepted the invitation of an information company and became the company’s industry expert consultant. From October 2021 to the time of the incident, the defendant Zheng violated the confidentiality agreement with the storage company where he originally worked, used the information he had mastered and spied on the employees of the storage company, and accepted the arrangement of the information company many times in the name of an expert of the storage company to provide paid consulting services to companies with similar or competitive businesses to the storage company. Among them, Zheng accepted a telephone interview with the consulting company (whose shareholders are foreign companies) in February 2022. Knowing that the actual consulting party was an overseas organization, he still illegally provided the trade secrets of the storage company that he had spied on and learned to overseas organizations and personnel through the information company, and illegally made a profit of 2,062.40 RMB. On September 17, 2022, the defendant Zheng was detained and summoned by the Shanghai National Security Bureau. After being brought to justice, he truthfully confessed the main facts of the crime and, with the help of his family, surrendered the illegal gains of 2,062.40 RMB.

Judgement

After trial, the Pudong Court held that the commercial information of the relevant products accused by the public prosecution agency was the result of a storage company’s creative labor and embodied the wisdom of many R&D personnel. The above-mentioned trade secrets have an important impact on the company’s competitiveness and future development in the international and domestic industries. The company has never publicly released it, and the defendant Zheng also confirmed that the above-mentioned information belongs to the company’s undisclosed information. Therefore, this information is not generally known and not easily accessible to relevant personnel in the field. The storage company has taken reasonable confidentiality measures for the commercial information involved by formulating the “Confidential Information Protection Policy Text” and signing the “Employment Contract” and “Resignation Confidentiality Commitment Letter” with the defendant Zheng. Therefore, the commercial information involved is the company’s trade secrets. After the defendant Zheng resigned, he violated the agreement on keeping trade secrets with the storage company and the company’s confidentiality system. Knowing that the consulting party was an overseas organization, he still provided the trade secrets involved in the case that he illegally discovered from his former colleagues, together with the trade secrets he possessed, to the consulting party. His behavior has constituted the crime of overseas espionage and illegal provision of trade secrets. Based on this, the court sentenced the defendant Zheng to two years and six months in prison and a fine of RMB 10,000 for the crime of spying and illegally providing trade secrets abroad; the illegal gains were confiscated.

After the first-instance judgment, the defendant Zheng did not appeal and the public prosecution agency did not file a protest, and the judgment is now effective.

Typical significance

This case is the first case accepted by the Shanghai court for the newly added crime of “stealing, spying, buying, and illegally providing trade secrets for foreign countries” since the implementation of the Criminal Law Amendment (XI). It involves former employees of key enterprises in China’s high-tech field, who, in the name of expert consultation, leaked important trade secrets they spied on and learned to foreign organizations through consulting companies and made profits, causing serious harm to the development and economic interests of the enterprises. The judgment in this case strictly grasps the constituent elements of the crime, severely cracks down on commercial espionage crimes of foreign organizations against key high-tech enterprises in China, protects the independent intellectual property rights of Chinese enterprises in accordance with the law, helps to enhance international competitiveness, and safeguards China’s national security and national interests.

The original text (with 14 other typical case summaries) is available here (Chinese only).

Author: Aaron Wininger

Aaron Wininger is a Principal and Director of the China Intellectual Property at Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner.

Author: Aaron Wininger

Aaron Wininger is a Principal and Director of the China Intellectual Property at Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner.