According to the prosecution, Shanshan Du stole information which GM values at over $40 million and gave it to her husband, Yu Qin, who sought to use in conjunction with GM's competition in China.
"This case is about theft as well as deceit," prosecutor Michael Martin said during the opening statements of the Detroit trial, according to Bloomberg. The defendants are "partners in life, partners in business and partners in crime."
This is not the first time automakers have allegedly caught employees spying for Chinese companies. Last year, ex-Ford Motor Co. engineer Xiang Dong Yu was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to stealing secrets from Ford. He'd copied 4,000 Ford designs worth millions of dollars the night before he quit the automaker. He then went to work for Beijing Automotive Industry Corp.
Espionage involving China has been seen in other industries as well. Last August, a former Motorola employee, Hanjuan Jin, was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing trade secrets. The FBI has also recently alleged that Coca-Cola was the target of a cyber attack from a Chinese company after a failed acquisition, according to Bloomberg.
In this most recent case of stolen trade secrets, U.S. attorneys have alleged that Du provided the information for her husband and the company that they started together, called Millennium Technology International. The plan was that she would provide the secrets and her husband would work on business ventures for selling hybrid vehicles in China with GM's competition.
During her time at GM as an electrical engineer -- from 2000 to 2005 -- Du purposefully found assignment on a hybrid research project with the intent of stealing secrets, according to the U.S. GM sought Du's resignation in 2005, which accelerated the process of the theft.
"Approximately five days after GM offered defendant Shanshan Du a severance package, defendant Shanshan Du copied thousands of GM documents, including documents containing GM trade secrets," the U.S. alleged in its indictment of the couple.
The defense argued that the items at issue weren't trade secrets and were "completely useless" for other companies, Bloomberg reported. According to Robert Morgan, who is Du's lawyer, the government tried to create dubious links that would add up to a story of espionage. Morgan said that the allegations came up at a time of great financial concern for the company and that Du faced racism, sexism and language barriers during her time with GM.
Morgan said that of 16,000 files, only 18 were in question. None of the files in question, he argued, contained any actual trade secrets.
The Du trial is currently ongoing in Detroit, Mich., and comes at an interesting time. China and the U.S. auto industry has been a hot button issue as of late. Chinese companies ripping off trademarks and patents of American companies has been a talking point for Mitt Romney during his presidential campaign. Romney also aired an ad in Ohio that claimed, falsely, that Chrysler was shipping jobs overseas and building Jeep products in China.
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