Skip links

US Navy sailor swaps sea for cell after accepting bribes from Chinese snoops

A US Naval sailor will face more than two years behind bars after pleading guilty to taking bribes from Chinese spies in exchange for sensitive military information.

Wenheng Zhao, 26, also known as Thomas Zhao, was sentenced on January 8 to 27 months in prison and ordered to pay a $5,500 fine for one count of conspiring with an intelligence officer and one count of receiving a bribe.

The punishment is significantly less than the maximum possible sentence of 20 years, which includes up to five years for conspiring with a foreign intelligence officer and up to 15 years for accepting bribes, as determined in an October plea hearing.

Based at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, Zhao accepted at least 14 different bribe payments from Chinese intelligence between August 2021 and May 2023, totaling at least $14,866, according to court docs.

During this time, the petty officer used “sophisticated encrypted communication methods” to transmit the information back to an intelligence contact. This included information about US Navy operational security, military training and exercises, and critical infrastructure.

“Zhao transmitted plans for a large-scale maritime training exercise in the Pacific theatre, operational orders, and electrical diagrams and blueprints for a Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR) system located in Okinawa, Japan,” the US Justice Department said.

Zhao also entered restricted areas to gather the material and took steps to destroy evidence of his activity, all while concealing his relationship with Chinese intelligence.

“Mr Zhao betrayed his solemn oath to defend his country and endangered those who serve in the US military,” said assistant attorney general Matthew G Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

“Today, he is being held to account for those crimes. The Justice Department is committed to combating the Chinese government’s efforts to undermine our nation’s security and holding accountable those who violate our laws as part of those efforts.”

Larissa L Knapp, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, said China’s efforts to undermine the national security of the US and its allies have been “aggressive” and at times illegal.

“The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly shown it will freely break any law or norm to achieve a perceived intelligence advantage,” she said. “Today’s sentencing demonstrates, yet again, the inability of China’s intelligence services to prevent the FBI and our vital partners from apprehending and prosecuting the spies China recruits.”

Tensions between the US and China have deteriorated over many years, but especially so over matters such as alleged espionage, trade, Taiwan, and the free flow of fentanyl into the US.

The most recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, held in November and hosted at a San Francisco country estate, reportedly eased those tensions some, with the two countries announcing the re-establishment of military-to-military communications.

China dismantled the direct line between the two countries’ forces in 2022 following a visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She was the highest-ranked visitor to the land China views as its own in 25 years.

China has previously threatened to reclaim Taiwan by force and responded to Pelosi’s visit by launching a weekend’s worth of military drills in the Taiwan Strait, both in the sea and air.

Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping reportedly committed to improving relations between the two countries, building more bridges between them, and ensuring the lines of communication do not break down again, despite the fundamental issues still dividing the two nations.

Underlying those issues, Biden was reported to have responded to a journalist’s question during the summit saying Xi is a dictator, adding that China’s government is entirely different from the US. ®