The bulletin that crackled over the police radio deep in Iowa corn country began innocuously enough: A farmer had spotted a stranger in his corn field. In a place like Bondurant, population 3,860, the mere presence of a stranger was news. And this one was allegedly in the field wearing a suit; most perplexing of all, the report said, he was Asian. That was unusual because Bondurant was 97 percent white.
When a sheriff’s deputy intercepted the SUV that had dropped the stranger off, a Chinese national named Robert Mo was behind the wheel. He told the officer that this was all a simple misunderstanding - he and his colleagues were conducting agronomy research for a nearby university, he said; that’s why they were walking in the corn fields.
So begins Mara Hvistendahl’s new book, “The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage.” A former China correspondent for Science magazine and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Hvistendahl has written a “whodunit” for modern times - drawing back the curtain on a plot to steal American hybrid corn from fields in Iowa and reverse-engineer it for China. “Real research takes time. Theft is expedient - especially if there is little chance of getting caught,” Hvistendahl acknowledges early in the book. “Chinese leaders are open about their interest in developing technologies in strategic sectors by any means possible.”
The Chinese even have a euphemism for the approach - they call it “indigenous innovation.” Americans have a simpler name for it: theft. The theft of intellectual property has become so rampant in recent years that U.S. officials are starting to convene entire conferences just to explain to private companies the many ways China (and others) are trying to steal their ideas. The FBI and the Justice Department briefed attendees at one recent conference, and FBI Director Christopher Wray told the audience that the bureau had more than 1,000 investigations into Chinese intellectual-property theft open across the country.
“And they’re not just targeting innovation and R&D,” Wray told the gathering. “They’re going after cost and pricing data, internal strategy documents, bulk PII [personally identifiable information]; really just about anything that can give them a competitive advantage.”
Hvistendahl uses Mo’s case as a vehicle to explore the American response to all this. In many respects, Mo was an unlikely industrial spy. A meek man who came to the United States from China as a young graduate student, he and his wife were happy enough scraping by on the research stipends they received. Then, shortly before the birth of his second child, Mo decided he wanted more. So, in Hvistendahl’s telling, he asked his sister back in Beijing if she could help. The sister’s husband happened to be the chief executive of an agricultural concern called Dabeinong, or DBN. In a country where connections, or guanxi, are everything, the familial link was enough to land Mo a job - he became the company’s representative in the United States, and his fortunes changed.
“Three years after he started at DBN, Robert had enough for a down payment on a five-bedroom house in a nice part of Boca Raton, Florida,” Hvistendahl writes. “Their house was walking distance from two golf courses and a country club, and the elegant office building where he rented a suite on behalf of DBN offered a view of a second country club. Working for a large agricultural corporation, he had the whole package: nice house, supportive community, and, when he wasn’t traveling around the Midwest, plenty of free time for tennis, chess matches, and gardening.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Of course, the more Mo received from DBN, the more pressure he felt to prove his worth to the company. Eventually, his boss asked for his help in resolving one of China’s perennial problems: the inability to feed its own people. His boss, a Dr. Li, suggested that Mo help find a shortcut. Li told him to travel to Iowa, find genetically modified seeds on the ground and send them to China so scientists there could use them to create a hybrid seed of their own.
“Dr. Li sought the components for one hundred seed lines,” Hvistendahl writes. “In some cases, he wanted as many as five thousand samples of a single strain of corn.” Mo sent thousands of seeds to China in service of the scheme, though with every shipment, he braced himself for a response from law enforcement. Mo was sure he’d get caught, and it isn’t a spoiler to say that is indeed what happened. Mo as an individual is less important to Hvistendahl’s story than what he represents: a great way for readers to understand the relentlessness of China’s campaign and how the FBI is attempting to thwart it.
Where Hvistendahl is perhaps less successful is in making the case that race and ethnicity have had an outsize effect on the FBI investigations. She seems to suggest that if you are Chinese, you are suspect. And while it has been reported that President Trump told a group of chief executives in 2018 that every Chinese student in the United States is a spy and that the FBI is redoubling efforts to prevent Chinese intellectual-property theft, Hvistendahl’s meticulous reporting on DBN and Mo ends up undermining her assertion, because Mo did exactly what he was accused of doing.
There is no question Mo was dispatched to steal genetically modified seeds. There is no question he was at the wheel of a car that ferried that suspicious man (turns out he wasn’t wearing a suit, the initial report to police was wrong) into a corn field in Iowa. In jailhouse interviews, Mo makes clear that he knew what he was doing was wrong. Eventually, he pleaded guilty to a felony. It is hard to make the case that the FBI is racially profiling suspects when the main character in the book (a Chinese national) and his cohorts are stealing corn in order to steal the intellectual property it may contain.
That said, it is important to note that Chinese nationals aren’t the only ones wittingly or unwittinglysharing secrets with the mainland. Charles Lieber, the chairman of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department, was charged with lying about his alleged connections to one of Beijing’s most important international recruitment drives, the Thousand Talents Plan. The Chinese organization gives salaries, research funding and lab space to individuals engaged in research and development in the United States if they transmit their knowledge and research back to China.
Hvistendahl’s book has the good fortune of arriving just as all of this is becoming front of mind. China and the United States are in a pitched battle to see who will dominate the next generation of technologies. The Trump administration has framed the competition as an us-vs.-them proposition and has made industrial espionage a focal point of the relationship.
If there is any doubt where the administration stands or how it intends to address the issue, just consider Chinese telecom giant Huawei. The Justice Department has charged Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer, with fraud, claiming she helped Huawei violate trade sanctions with Iran. She is currently facing extradition from Canada. And the Commerce Department, for its part, has blacklisted Huawei so it can’t buy American microchips and other technology, which, presumably, officials are worried China will try to reverse-engineer, just like those corn seeds from Iowa.