The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage
By Mara Hvistendahl
Penguin Random House, 2020
Mara Hvistendahls Scientist and the Spy offers, as the subtitle suggests, a true story of US-China relations. The truth, in this case, could help rid us of a conspiratorial notion of China as America’s new enemy in the world. Hvistendahl tells the story of Robert Mo, a Chinese living in the USA who employed the Chinese agribusiness Dabeinong or DBN. Part of Robert’s work with DBN was sourcing proprietary hybrid corn seeds for the company from the Midwestern Corn Belt states. Robert stole corn seeds from experimental grain fields in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. The FBI took up Robert’s activities and launched a two-year investigation that culminated in Robert’s conviction under the Foreign Espionage Act of 1996. That is the essential story of the book that Hvistendahl describes in detail.
Why should IR students care about a Chinese national rummaging around in a grain field in the Midwest? Hvistendahl answers this question by exposing the transnational context in which this story unfolded. At the center of this story is the FBI, which has been investigating Chinese nationals in the United States since the 1949 Chinese Revolution. During the Cold War, this research was geopolitical, focused on nuclear weapons, and aimed at the employment of Chinese nationals and Americans in university departments, government agencies, and defense companies. In all of them, ethnicity was viewed as a sign of possible infidelity; Individuals of Chinese origin were considered suspect as a class.
After the end of the Cold War, the FBI’s concerns shifted from geopolitics to geoeconomics. Chinese students flocked to US universities and many continued to take tribe-oriented jobs in industry. According to the so-called theory of Chinese espionage (p. 101), these students and high-tech workers were viewed by the FBI as carriers of foreign influence. Through an army of amateur spies, China would theoretically be embroiled in US intellectual property theft and thereby accumulate the economic power that – presumably – can challenge US hegemony in the world.
One of the dangers of geoeconomics is identifying US national security interests with corporate interests. Hvistendahl wonders if corporate intellectual property rights are really becoming a serious national security concern. General Motors was the victim of an intellectual property theft for one of its car designs. However, this does not change the fact that GM sells more cars in China than in the US (pp. 25-6). More to the point of Hvistendahl’s narrative, Robert Pioneer Seeds and Monsanto stole intellectual property. Even so, Pioneer controls 12% of the Chinese seed market. Hvistendahl comments: “[p]The only people who haven’t made any money from China’s rise are American wage laborers and farmers, starting with the farmers who grow inbred seeds. Efforts to find a Chinese accused of stealing corn would not help them either ”(p. 26).
Monsanto, in turn, was taken over by the German Bayer company in 2018. Bayer then dropped the Monsanto name to avoid negative publicity about Monsanto’s cancer-causing weed killer Roundup. Prior to the merger, Monsanto had acquired smaller seed companies, consolidated the companies’ supply chains, doubled the price farmers paid for seeds, and used the courts to harass farmers to meet their growing intellectual property claims ( P. 22) 44). But when it came to Robert, Monsanto was the victim (p. 50). Robert received his sentence – 36 months in federal prison – but was a larger national interest served?
Kevin Montgomery, Ph.D. in agricultural science and an FBI informant in Robert’s case doubts the DBN had the expertise to reverse engineer proprietary hybrids from Monsanto and Pioneer (p. 169). Even if this were the case, long-term competitive success in the global seed market would require long-term development of the DBN’s research and development capabilities. The point that Hvistendahl suggests here is that the competitive advantages associated with intellectual property theft are typically exaggerated. She argues that estimates of the extent of intellectual property theft in China are inaccurate, poorly documented, and branded by organizations – from McAfee to the FBI – whose revenue and budget depend on promoting the perception of China as a national security threat (p. 22 ). 187-9).
This is a point in the text that could be argued more forcefully. An article in the Harvard Business Reviewnotes, for example, that “[i]In fact, more money is lost to software piracy in the US than in any other country. Losses in the US were $ 8.6 billion in 2016, compared to $ 6.8 billion in China and $ 277 million in Hong Kong. On a per capita basis that is around 5 US dollars in China and 26 US dollars in the USA ”(Section 7). A stronger argument is important to counter one of the most common reasons Americans are likely to believe China poses a national security threat to the United States – because China is stealing “our” intellectual property and “our” wealth. Hvistendahl criticizes this point, but such criticisms are difficult to spot because they are deeply embedded in the story it tells, rather than systematically developing it. Consequently, one must pay attention to both the narrative of Hvistendahl and the critical reflections that it formulates on its margins.
One of the strengths of this book is Hvistendahl’s concern about the way ordinary people are affected by the US government’s defense of corporate intellectual property rights. Finally, the Trump administration’s trade war with China was also waged to protect these rights. For Iowa farmers, the losses suffered as a result of the trade war far outweighed the losses associated with the theft of some seeds. These losses were also not offset by increased state aid to farmers (p. 251). Hvistendahl also focuses on the costs that Chinese Americans and nationals bear. Suspicions of intellectual property theft have left them working and living under a permanent cloud of suspicion. At an FBI public relations event with the Minneapolis chapter of the Sino-American Alliance, the FBI warned viewers that they might be approached by people searching for trade secrets in China. An audience inquired about the role of the FBI in interning Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and suggested that Chinese Americans might face the same fate (p. 241). The Trump administration has done very little to address these concerns. The State Department’s new director of external planning warned that China is the USA’s first “non-Caucasian” competitor and that Trump adviser Steve Bannon has revived the Cold War Danger Committee with China as the main enemy (p. 254).
Hvistendahl’s book is a poignant and detailed case study that reminds us to be careful about the relationship between corporate interests and US national security interests. We should not think lightly – as the FBI would no doubt encourage – that what is good for American corporations is naturally good for America. Hvistendahl’s book is readable and easily accessible. Instructors can use it as a supplemental text in courses on national security, international political economy, and courses on specific topics related to US-China relations. In general terms, Hvistendahl’s book deserves attention as an example of how journalistic writing can shed light on the day-to-day reality of international relations, not only for political elites but also for ordinary people we might meet in a cornfield somewhere.
Further reading on e-international relations