Politics

Former space agency engineer charged by Mounties claimed to have overseen major Canadian projects

Wanping Zheng, who was charged last week in what police are calling "a matter of foreign actor interference," claimed publicly to have overseen a number of major Canadian aerospace projects.

RCMP charged Wanping Zheng with breach of trust last week

The RCMP accuses Wanping Zheng of using his status as a Canadian Space Agency engineer to negotiate satellite station installation agreements with Iceland on behalf of a Chinese aerospace company. (YouTube)

Wanping Zheng, who was charged last week in what police are calling "a matter of foreign actor interference," claimed publicly to have overseen a number of major Canadian aerospace projects.

Last week the RCMP charged the 61-year-old Brossard, Que. man with breach of trust. He's accused of using his status as an engineer at the Canadian Space Agency to negotiate satellite station installation agreements with Iceland on behalf of a Chinese aerospace company. Documents filed in court show the alleged crime happened back in 2018.

"We do consider this to be a matter of foreign actor interference," RCMP Inspector David Beaudoin, the officer in charge of operations for the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) in Quebec, said late last week.

A source with knowledge of the investigation said the company Zheng is accused of helping is called Spacety. It's a Chinese company specializing in satellites that can take high-resolution images.

In 2019, Zheng stopped working for the CSA — which the RCMP described as part of Canada's critical infrastructure and "a strategic asset needing protection."

According to his Spacety biography, Zheng — who sometimes goes by James as a first name — was a vice-president of international business at Spacety as of June 2020.

A number of his fellow executives used to work for the Chinese Academy of Sciences — an arm of the Chinese government — and China's space program.

Zheng's Spacety biography says he led "the establishment and implementation of a number of major Canadian national aerospace projects" while at the Canadian Space Agency.

The biography says he "presided over and participated in large-scale space projects such as the International Space Station, space radar, radar satellite, scientific satellite, and experimental satellite."

His LinkedIn profile said he "participated in most of the recent Canadian space missions as a technical expert or a manager."

Spacety specializes in high-resolution satellites 

Spacety has said publicly it plans to build, launch and operate a constellation of 56 small Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites.

Earlier this year, it published high resolution, wide-coverage images captured by one of its satellites launched on China's Long March 8 rocket last year. The satellite took images over Asia, North America, South America, Europe and Antarctica, according to Spacety's website.

In a press release, the company said its images are comparable to those produced by larger SAR satellites such as Canada's Radarsat-2.

According to the trade publication Space News, that Long March rocket also carried a classified remote sensing technology test satellite developed by the China Academy of Space Technology as part of its payload.

CBC has contacted both Zheng and Spacety for comment.

Earlier this year Spacety, one of China's first commercial space companies, published high resolution, wide-coverage images of Tennessee captured by one of its Hisea-1 satellites. (Spacety )

While much is still unknown about Zheng's case, Canada's spy agency has been warning publicly of the threat of economic espionage and has named Russia and China as two of its main sources of concern.

The FBI in the U.S. also has issued public warnings about economic espionage.

Earlier this year, a former senior scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was sentenced to 30 days in prison for lying to the FBI about working for a China-funded project that has been accused of espionage.

And last year, American police arrested an Arkansas professor who allegedly failed to disclose his ties to Chinese entities while securing funding for a NASA project.

Zheng in court Wednesday 

Akshay Singh, a non-resident research fellow with the Council on International Policy, said China has been seeking to grow its aerospace and aviation industries and has a history of leveraging talent abroad. 

It's not clear whether something similar is at play in this case.

"I think actually this is not, pardon the pun, rocket science in terms of what China is interested in ... Their main goal is to become a world leader in technology and to be competitive with the West," Singh said.

"It's not just always about the organization they work for and the stuff that they're doing specifically. It's not just about the bits and bytes, if you'll forgive me, but it's also about the knowledge, the expertise that these people gain from doing business with various stakeholders."

Singh said not all of China's espionage is done through covertly planted spies. It also relies on what's known as non-traditional collection.

"You might think that you've got a wonderful job offer from [a] country to do some unique research and they might rely on your current knowledge and expertise. You don't mention it to your employer," he said.

"You collect a paycheck and you move on, and you don't realize that perhaps what you've done is you've been recruited by a foreign government to provide materials or act on their behalf. "

Zheng is scheduled to make a court appearance on Wednesday.

WATCH | Space agency employee accused of using status to help Chinese company

Space agency employee accused of using status to help Chinese company

10 months ago
Duration 2:01
A former engineer at the Canadian Space Agency is accused of using his position to benefit a Chinese aerospace company and now faces criminal charges.

With files from Elizabeth Thompson

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