US prosecutors have accused two Chinese men of stealing information from computing systems across the world, including those of Hong Kong activists, with “obvious interest” to Beijing’s state security.

On Tuesday, the US Department of Justice revealed that a federal grand jury had earlier charged Li Xiaoyu, 34, and Dong Jiazhi, 33, with orchestrating a global hacking campaign. They stand accused of stealing millions of dollars’ worth of information since at least September 2009. Most recently, they allegedly targeted companies conducting coronavirus research.

Headquarters of the United States Department of Justice. File photo: Wikicommons.

“Li and Dong did not just hack for themselves. While in some instances they were stealing business and other information for their own profit, in others they were stealing information of obvious interest to the [Chinese] government’s Ministry of State Security,” the 11-count indictment on July 7 read.

US officials said the pair provided authorities with the email accounts and passwords of a Hong Kong “community organiser,” a pastor of a Christian church in Xi’an and a former Tiananmen Square protester-turned-dissident – including their correspondence with the Dalai Lama’s office.

They also allegedly shared emails from two Canadian residents advocating freedom and democracy in Hong Kong and probed a webmail service, as well as a British messaging app popular among the city’s pro-democracy protesters.

The charges came amid souring relations between Washington and Beijing as they engage in a tit-for-tat diplomatic dispute over trade and interference. In March, China expelled American journalists from top US publications as “retaliation” for tightening restrictions on Chinese state media staff in the US. Washington is considering a move to effectively deny visas to some 92 million Chinese Communist Party members, according to media reports.

File photo: May James/HKFP.

Li and Dong were said to have worked for Guangdong’s State Security Department in China and targeted companies in the US, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, South Korea, Sweden and the UK, across of a range of industries including technology, defence and pharmaceuticals.

FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said the indictment served as a grim reminder of the consequences of conducting cyber theft: “Cybercrimes directed by the Chinese government’s intelligence services not only threaten the United States but also every other country that supports fair play, international norms, and the rule of law, and it also seriously undermines China’s desire to become a respected leader in world affairs.”

Chinese spokesperson Hua Chunying has previously cautioned against making accusations of cyber theft without evidence, calling such claims “irresponsible.”

If found guilty, the defendants may face decades in prison.

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Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.