UCLA Professor Faces 219 Years in Prison for Sending U.S. Missile Chips to China

A Chinese WS-600L missile vertical-launching vehicle
Photo: Kin Cheung (AP)

An adjunct professor of electrical engineering at UCLA has been convicted of 18 federal charges in connection with illegally exporting semiconductor chips with military applications to China, The Verge reports.

Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that a California federal court convicted Yi-Chi Shih of all charges on June 26th, including conspiracy to violate a federal law that prohibits certain exports, false tax returns, and wire and mail fraud.

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A news release from the DOJ states Shih and co-defendant Kiet Ahn Mai collaborated to gain access to a computer belonging to a U.S. firm that builds monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs), which are used in military technologies like fighter jets, missiles, and missile guidance systems. The firm was not named, but DARPA, the Navy, and the Air Force are reportedly some of its customers.

The DOJ release says that Mai gained access to the technology company’s system through its online portal by acting as a U.S.-based customer trying to purchase custom MMICs domestically. Shih then purchased MMICs and sent them to the Chinese firm Chengdu GaStone Technology Company, where Shih was president.

According to the DOJ, in 2014, GaStone was put on the Commerce Department’s “Entity List” of companies that U.S. firms aren’t permitted to sell to without government permission, because the U.S. government believed GaStone was obtaining items for military use in China for activities that broke with U.S. foreign policy and national security interests.

Shih reportedly paid for the MMICs using funds that came from China and were funneled through a Los Angeles-based company Shih operated. Shih’s Linkedin states that he began working as an adjunct professor at UCLA in 1994. UCLA did not immediately respond to a Gizmodo request for comment.

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Shih and Mai are expected to be sentenced in September. Mai faces 10 years in prison for smuggling, and Shih faces a maximum 219-year prison sentence. It seems the Department of Justice hopes to make an example of this act of espionage amidst rising tensions between the U.S. and China, which stems in part from accusations that China has been plundering American intellectual property.

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Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo