A former Ford engineer was indicted on federal charges of stealing company secrets and trying to sell them in China, officials said.

Xiang Dong, who went by Mike Yu, was charged on Wednesday with theft of trade secrets, attempted theft of trade secrets and unauthorised access to a protected computer, news agency AFP reported.

Originally from Beijing, Yu was a product engineer for Ford from 1997 to 2007, when he took a job with the Chinese branch of an American company.

The indictment charges that Yu took Ford design secrets to China in 2005 where he shared them with Chinese automotive companies in the hopes of getting a new job.

His efforts failed and a year later he renewed his job search, going to California for an interview with Foxconn PCE Industry.

Foxconn, which manufactures electronic equipment for computers and vehicles, offered Yu a job at its manufacturing hub in China and he accepted on 11 December, 2007, AFP said.

The indictment alleges that three days later, Yu copied some 4,000 Ford documents onto an external hard drive before flying to China to visit Foxconn's facilities.

The documents included system designs for instrument panels, engine and transmission mounting, doors, steering wheel assembly, audio and heat control, interior trim, and the wiper/washer system.

Yu did not inform Ford of his intention to quit until about two weeks later, when he sent his supervisor an e-mail from China, the report added.

A few months after accepting the position with Foxxconn, Yu again began looking for a new job in China, the indictment alleges.

In April 2008, he used the documents he'd stolen from Ford to try to get a job with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, a GM JV partner and one of Ford's key competitors in China.

Those efforts "proved unfruitful" and Yu later accepted a job with Beijing Automotive Corporation, another Ford competitor, the indictment alleges.

The Chinese companies to which he gave the documents in 2005 were not identified in the indictment, AFP noted.

Yu, 47, was arrested on 14 October 14 at a Chicago airport after re-entering the United States following a visit to China.

He remains in custody ahead of a detention hearing set for Tuesday and faces up to 40 years in jail for the theft of trade secret charges and up to five years in jail on the unauthorised access to a protected computer charge, AFP said.

"Protecting the competitive edge technology of our companies through vigorous enforcement of our federal trade secret laws is a top priority of this office," Terrence Berg, US attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, told the news agency.

"Both employees and employers should be aware that stealing proprietary trade secrets to gain an economic advantage is a serious federal offence that will be prosecuted aggressively."