A riveting true story of industrial espionage in which a Chinese-born scientist is pursued by the U.S. government for trying to steal trade secrets, by a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.
In September 2011, sheriff’s deputies in Iowa encountered three ethnic Chinese men near a field where a farmer was growing corn seed under contract with Monsanto. What began as a simple trespassing inquiry mushroomed into a two-year FBI operation in which investigators bugged the men’s rental cars, used a warrant intended for foreign terrorists and spies, and flew surveillance planes over corn country—all in the name of protecting trade secrets of corporate giants Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. In The Scientist and the Spy, Hvistendahl gives a gripping account of this unusually far-reaching investigation, which pitted a veteran FBI special agent against Florida resident Robert Mo, who after his academic career foundered took a questionable job with the Chinese agricultural company DBN—and became a pawn in a global rivalry.
Industrial espionage by Chinese companies lies beneath the United States’ recent trade war with China, and it is one of the top counterintelligence targets of the FBI. But a decade of efforts to stem the problem have been largely ineffective. Through previously unreleased FBI files and her reporting from across the United States and China, Hvistendahl describes a long history of shoddy counterintelligence on China, much of it tinged with racism, and questions the role that corporate influence plays in trade secrets theft cases brought by the U.S. government. The Scientist and the Spy is both an important exploration of the issues at stake and a compelling, involving read.
“A nuanced look at some of the pawns in the U.S.-China rivalry … through her reporting in China and the United States, Hvistendahl recounts the case with the vivid details and pace of a spy thriller.” —Foreign Policy
“A compelling whodunit. . . [A] captivating and well-researched book.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Mara Hvistendahl’s compelling account of the drama reads in parts like a spy thriller, replete with car chases, phone-tapping and aerial surveillance as agents track the shovel-carrying suspects across America.” —The Economist
“If there is a subplot that makes this book essential reading, especially for those working in the sciences today, it is Hvistendahl’s documentation of the disturbing effects that the too-vigorous pursuit of industrial spies has had on Chinese scientists and engineers in the United States.” —Science
“A riveting whodunit.” —The Washington Post
“[A] fascinating story, which speaks to the larger geopolitical tensions shaping our time.” —Bookpage
“A true-crime thriller about a Chinese-born scientist’s agricultural espionage.” –Men's Journal
“[A] compelling tale of industrial espionage. . . This engaging book has something for everyone; it can be read as a spy thriller, an examination of U.S.-China relations, or a case study of agricultural espionage.” —Library Journal
“[A] fascinating and well-researched study. . . . Those looking for insights into the current tensions with China will be rewarded.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Not since Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest has a cornfield produced so much excitement. . . . Hvistendahl makes industrial espionage both understandable and riveting. . . . This is a complex story, but it's presented clearly and vividly, thanks to Hvistendahl’s background as a science journalist here and in China; to her exquisite pacing; and to her narrative skills . . . Hard to put down and harder to stop thinking about.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Before there was a trade war, there was industrial espionage. To understand today’s fight between the United States and China, you need to understand the seeds of the conflict, and this book is on the money. A nonfiction thriller for our times.” —Ian Bremmer, author of Us Vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism
"The Scientist and the Spy is as compulsively readable as espionage thriller and as darkly troubling as any morality tale. Told with empathy, insight, and remarkable detail, the book shines a clear light on the increasingly relentless federal investigation, its Chinese targets, and the powerful government and business interests that drive the story to its fascinating conclusion.” —Deborah Blum, author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Quest for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
About the Author
Mara Hvistendahl covered China’s renaissance in science and technology as a correspondent in Shanghai for Science. She has also written for The Atlantic, Popular Science, WIRED, and other publications. She is the author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A proficient Mandarin speaker and former National Fellow at New America, she lived in China for eight years and now resides in Minneapolis with her family.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Deputy Cass Bollman sped toward the farm, the bright morning sun glaring through the window of his patrol car. To the north was the town of Bondurant, Iowa, where newly built houses huddled together on treeless lots, churches dominated street corners, and the marquee outside Dino's Storage read avoid all negative talk. To the south was a Tetris puzzle of cornfields. God-fearing citizens on one side, vast fields on the other, and two-lane 70th Avenue running like a ruler between the two. A few miles east of town, Bollman steered the patrol car toward the corn.
The fields were a few weeks from harvest, and the corn stretched over seven feet tall. Central Iowa had blossomed into the lingering, pleasant days that make its winter hibernation bearable. Just a few minutes earlier, Bollman had been about to take a coffee break at the Git 'n' Go when an alert came over the radio for an incident out by 96th Street. South of here walking westbound there is an Asian male wearing a suit walking through a farm field. He was dropped off. Nature of incident: suspicious.
Eighteen years in the Polk County Sheriff's Office had taught Bollman to suspend judgment. Bondurant was a sleepy place. Its dramas centered on grass clippings left in the street and holes dug in lawns by stray farm cats. But still Bollman saw his share of action. The area he patrolled included the outskirts of Des Moines, and in addition to making traffic stops, he had worked murders and negotiated for hostages. Once he pursued a meth-fueled driver in a car chase that ended with the driver's girlfriend being flung to her death in a grisly crash. Best-case scenario, he thought, the man in the field was simply an unusually well-dressed farmworker whom a neighbor had mistaken for an intruder. Worst-case scenario, the man was burying a body.
Bollman slowed the patrol car to a stop in a grassy clearing alongside a drainage ditch. About a hundred yards into the field was a thin, neatly dressed man. In the distance, row upon row of stalks lined up like infantry. The corn between the man and the road had been cleared, allowing Bollman a direct line of sight. To his left was a cheery stucco dwelling with a broad veranda. A white picket fence encircled a pasture for grazing horses. Two other deputies arrived around the same time and were on their way out to talk to the man, so Bollman walked over to the house to chat with the farmer who owned the land.
The farmer worked this land with his brother, planting part of it for their own use and part of it under contract with Monsanto. He told Bollman that he'd been out doing his morning rounds when he spotted the unfamiliar man walking on the Monsanto plot.
The corn the farmer grew for Monsanto was genetically modified inbred seed that the company used to produce commercial hybrids, which were sold at great profit to farmers for the next year's planting and eventually turned into food or fuel: perhaps Doritos, perhaps ethanol. The seeds had been spliced with genes that made them resistant to certain pesticides-most likely the Monsanto weed killer Roundup-allowing the farmers who eventually purchased the commercial offspring to freely spray for weeds or insects without killing their crop. The company considered them valuable intellectual property. Monsanto kept the locations of such contract plots secret and enforced this secrecy through aggressive lawsuits. Unlike the fields where farmers grew commercial corn, which sported small guideposts that doubled as advertisements for seed lines (Pioneer 3394, DeKalb 62-55), the Monsanto plot was unmarked. Even the farmer himself knew little about the seed growing on his land.
For part of the season, that was sufficient protection. Only locals who watched the Monsanto truck arrive to measure growth or spray pesticides knew that certain fields grew proprietary inbred seeds. The inbred seeds were planted in a pattern, with one or two rows of seeds designated as "males" for every four to six rows of "females." Then in mid-summer, as the commercial corn in the surrounding fields stood tall, Monsanto sent in machines to detassel the female rows of corn, shearing off their yellow, pollen-laden crowns in a mass spaying, leaving only the male plants intact. Soon after, the males fertilized the females, and then the company mowed down the male rows of corn. The field now looked like a buzz cut with lines shaved into it, making it easy for outsiders to identify. And the man looked like an outsider.
It was his face that the farmer had noticed first. The man had angular features, with a broad forehead framed by a receding flop of black hair. But more important was the way those features combined in the farmer's mind to cancel out other details. Bondurant, population 3,860, is 97 percent white. The man was not.
The man walked with his head down, the farmer reported, as if he were scanning the ground. After considering the man's race, the farmer thought about his clothes-khakis, dress shoes, a short-sleeve collared shirt. And he'd been dropped off by a gray SUV, which had then driven away. Why the hell did the car leave? The farmer knew that after the detasseling process, a few stray inbred ears-what in the industry were called escapes-often lingered on the ground. Thinking that something suspicious might be at hand, he called his wife, who worked as a police officer one town over, and she called Polk County dispatch, which sent out the alert that blaked over Bollman's radio. At some point in this telephone chain, the stranger's business-casual outfit became a suit, and his race became his defining attribute.
As Bollman and the farmer stood outside the farmhouse talking, the gray SUV the farmer had seen dropping the man off zoomed past.
"Well," the farmer said. "There it is."
The other deputies were still talking with the man in the field, so Bollman got back behind the wheel of his patrol car and sped off to pursue the SUV. Flicking on his lights, he soon fell in behind the vehicle. He could see the backs of two heads. The lights worked; a quarter mile or so from the house, the SUV pulled over to the side of the road. The two men ramained still as Bollman approached the driverÕs window.
Bollman asked the men for identification. The driver was Robert Mo, a man identified on his license as Hailong Mo. He was forty-two and lived in Boca Raton, Florida. His head was shaved, and he had broad cheeks that tapered to an undefined jaw. His companion was an older man with taut lips that occasionally shifted into a nervous grin. He was identified on his Chinese passport as Li Shaoming. The man from the field was named Wang Lei.
Robert Mo did the talking, and he was utterly polite.
He explained that his two companions were visiting from China, where they researched agronomy. The men were driving across the Midwest looking at crops.
That they would come to Iowa made sense. Corn was big business, both for the state and for the world. Corn is in the animal feed that fattens cows and chickens, and in the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens ketchup, soda, and salad dressing.
Over 90 percent of the starch and 56 percent of the sweeteners in the American diet come from corn. Fifty-six is also the percentage of a McDonald's chicken nugget that is corn. For many years the fungus that produces penicillin was grown in a corn by-product, and many cosmetics contain corn. Altogether, the crop covers ninety-three million acres in the United States, a swath nearly the size of California. And Iowa, which produces more corn than any other state, is the center of the industry.
Bollman wondered, though, how much could you actually learn by just looking at a field? To Robert Mo he said, "Have you been up to Iowa State and talked to them at the university?"
It was a fair question. Iowa State was a big land grant university with a strong agriculture program, a sort of mecca for the study of corn. At football games in Ames, it was not unusual to see a man in a corncob costume leading cheers. It also received millions of dollars in grants from Monsanto for endowed professorships, large-scale research projects, and graduate student fellowships, so for people looking to learn about Monsanto seed, it was not a bad choice.
But Mo's answer was vague.
Soon Bollman's colleagues showed up with Wang Lei in the back of their patrol car. Bollman returned to his vehicle to run a basic background check. It came up clean on all three men.
He let the men off with a warning. "If you're going to be on somebody's property, you need to let them know," he said.
Before the men sped off, one of the other deputies recommended speaking with some local farmers with extensive crop knowledge. Maybe one of them could help the Chinese visitors with their agronomy research, he suggested. In Iowa, people were nice almost to a fault, especially when it came to an interest in corn.
After the men left, Bollman turned to the friendly deputy. "You know, you don't necessarily need to be telling him that," he said. "About farms to visit."
"Oh, these guys are OK," his colleague replied.
"Something doesn't seem right here," Bollman insisted. "Why haven't they gone up to Iowa State?"
Later that day, the memory of the incident began to bug him. He filed a report, just in case. He filled in the lines at the top of the form, leaving other identifiers blank:
Type of Suspicious Activity: TRESPASSING IN FARM FIELD
Name: HAILONG MO