WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice charged a Chinese state-owned company, its Taiwanese partner and three individuals on Thursday with stealing trade secrets from an American technology company, the latest move by the Trump administration to crack down on China’s “economic espionage.”
The indictments come as the United States remains locked in a bitter trade war with China, which the Trump administration has accused of unfair trade practices, including stealing valuable intellectual property and technology from American companies. The charges filed on Thursday are the latest in a series of indictments that accuse China of elaborate efforts to steal corporate secrets through espionage and hacking.
The Justice Department unveiled charges against Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, United Microelectronics Corporation, a Taiwanese semiconductor company, and three Taiwanese nationals. They are accused of conspiring to steal technology from Micron Technology, an Idaho-based chip maker that does extensive business in Asia.
“As this and other recent cases have shown, Chinese economic espionage against the United States has been increasing — and it has been increasing rapidly,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “I am here to say that enough is enough.”
Earlier this week, the Commerce Department said that Jinhua will be barred from buying American components because it poses a national security threat to the United States.
According to the Justice Department, a former executive of a Micron subsidiary left the company in 2015 and went to work for United Microelectronics Corporation in Taiwan. When he made the switch, the government alleges, he recruited two former colleagues to steal up to $8.75 billion in trade secrets from Micron. United Microeletronics then partnered with Jinhua, transferring the information to the Chinese market.
Jinhua is opening a $5.7 billion factory in China’s Fujian Province and has become increasingly ambitious in its desire to become a global player in the memory chip business.
The Justice Department said the companies could face fines of more than $20 billion and the people accused could face 15 years in prison and $5 million fines.
The Micron case and the other recent indictments show the Chinese government that “we notice what they’re doing,” John C. Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, said during a news conference on Thursday. The ultimate goal, he said, is “not to have a fight with China,” but to get Beijing to use legal methods to improve its economy.
The charges come just weeks before President Trump is expected to meet with President Xi Jinping of China at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Argentina. The White House has been pressing China to lower its trade barriers and stop the theft of intellectual property from American businesses, and has imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports as part of a campaign to get China to change its ways.
Mr. Trump said in a tweet on Thursday that he had “a long and very good conversation” with Mr. Xi and that their discussions are “moving along nicely.” Lu Kang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said on Friday that the discussion was positive.
But the administration has taken an increasingly tough approach to Beijing, which it says is trying to dominate industries of the future through nefarious means, including spying. China’s pattern of incursion, including coercing companies to hand over technology, is what helped form the basis for the administration’s decision to impose tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports and to more closely scrutinize foreign investment from China.
On Tuesday, Justice Department officials unsealed an indictment that accused two Chinese intelligence officers and five hackers of repeatedly penetrating corporate computer systems to steal intellectual property and other information about the aerospace industry.
“No country presents a broader, more severe threat to our ideas, our innovation and our economic security than China,” Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, said in a statement on Thursday. “The Chinese government is determined to acquire American technology, and they’re willing use a variety of means to do that — from foreign investments, corporate acquisitions and cyberintrusions to obtaining the services of current or former company employees to get inside information.”