Daily US Times: It was perhaps very delighted moments for Jun Wei Yeo, an ambitious and freshly enrolled Singaporean PhD student when he was invited to give a presentation to Chinese academics in Beijing in 2015. He did not know that this would be his path to become a Chinese agent.
His doctorate research was about Chinese foreign policy and he was about to discover firsthand how Beijing seeks to attain influence.
According to US court documents, after his presentation, Jun Wei, also known as Dickson, was approached by several people who said they worked for Chinese think tanks. They said they wanted to pay Mr Jun to provide “political reports and information”.
They would later specify exactly what they wanted: “scuttlebutt” – insider knowledge and rumours.
A sworn statement says, he soon realised they were Chinese agents but remained in contact with them. He was first asked to focus on countries in South East Asia but later, their interest turned to the US government.
That’s how Dickson Yeo set off on a path to becoming a Chinese agent. He then ended up using the professional networking website LinkedIn, a fake consulting company and cover as a curious academic to lure in American targets.
Five years later, on Friday, amid deep tensions between China and the US and a determined crackdown from Washington on Beijing’s spies, Mr Dickson Yeo pleaded guilty in a US court to being an “illegal agent of a foreign power”. The 39-year-old now faces up to 10 years in prison.
Alumni at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), which trains some of Asia’s top government officials and civil servants, were left shocked by the news that their former peer had confessed to being a Chinese agent to the US.
One former postgraduate student who did not wish to be named, said: “He was a very active student in class. I always viewed him as a very intelligent person.”
She said that his family struggled financially when he was a child and he often talked about social inequality. The former student said she found it difficult to reconcile the person she knew with his guilty plea.
A former member of staff at the institution drew a different picture, saying Mr Yeo seemed to have “an inflated sense of his own importance”.
Yeo’s PhD supervisor had been Huang Jing, a high-profile Chinese-American professor. In 2017, Mr Jing was expelled from Singapore for being an “agent of influence of a foreign country” that was not identified.
Huang Jing always denied those allegations. He first worked in Washington DC after leaving Singapore and now Beijing.
The court documents released with Yeo’s guilty plea, says the student met his Chinese handlers on dozens of occasions in different locations in China.
During one meeting he was asked to specifically obtain information about the artificial intelligence, US Department of Commerce and the Sino-US trade war.
The former permanent secretary at Singapore’s foreign ministry, Bilahari Kausikan, said he had “no doubt that Dickson knew he was working for the Chinese intelligence services”.
He was not, he said, “an unwitting useful fool”.
Yeo made his crucial contacts using LinkedIn, the job and careers networking site used by more than 700 million people across the globe. The platform was described only as a “professional networking website” in the court documents, but the Washington Post confirmed that website is LinkedIn.
Former military and government employees and contractors are not shy about publicly posting details of their work histories on the website in order to obtain lucrative jobs in the private sector.
This presents a potential goldmine to foreign intelligence agencies. In 2018, US counter-intelligence chief William Evanina warned of “super aggressive” action by China on LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned platform, which is one of few Western social media sites not blocked in China.
Last May, Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer jailed for 20 years, for disclosing military secrets to a Chinese agent, was first targeted on LinkedIn.
Germany’s intelligence agency said in 2017 that Chinese agents had used LinkedIn to target at least 10,000 Germans. LinkedIn has not responded to the latest revelations but the company has previously said it takes a range of measures to stop nefarious activity.
Some of the targets that Yeo found by trawling through LinkedIn were commissioned to write reports for his “consultancy”, which had the same name as an already prominent firm. These were then sent to his Chinese contacts.