On Aug. 21, Pengyi Li walked to his gate at Honolulu International Airport, ready to board a flight to Hong Kong. Before he could get on the plane, federal agents arrested the 33-year-old Chinese national.
Authorities say Li thought the bag of export-controlled electronics he had in his possession had come from rogue US brokers. The transaction was instead part of an elaborate undercover sting operation.
Li’s arrest was the culmination of a two-year investigation into an effort to smuggle sensitive components used in spacecraft and missiles out of the US and into China, according to a sealed criminal complaint obtained by Quartz.
In 2017, Department of Homeland Security investigators offered radiation-hardened microchips and advanced aerospace sensors to an unnamed Hong Kong-based company in exchange for more than $150,000, according to the complaint. The parts in question require export licenses to ship abroad, and many are specifically banned from sale in China because they can be used in missiles and advanced satellites with military applications.