“The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage” by Mara Hvistendahl


In 1876, Englishman Henry Wickham smuggled rubber tree seeds out of the Amazon ultimately dooming Brazil’s rubber boom. The stolen seeds were successfully germinated, leading to the British establishing rubber plantations in Malaya that broke Brazil’s monopoly and sent the states of Amazonas and Pará into rapid decline. The Opera House in Manaus, capital of Amazonas, is a melancholy reminder of the luxury rubber profits once afforded. Much as rubber seeds once were, genetically-engineered (or modified, ie GM) corn seeds have become valuable enough in the 21st century that some will resort to anything to get them. 

Mara Hvistendahl’s The Scientist and the Spy is a riveting true crime read that uses the case of Robert Mo, an employee of the Chinese agricultural company DBN, to investigate how the theft of trade secrets is now a major battlefield in the Cold War between China and America. The book raises a number of questions which do not have simple answers. Do these thefts across a range of industries constitute threats to national security? How can one prevent rational reactions to theft from spiraling into panic and xenophobia?


The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage, Mara Hvistendahl (Riverhead, February 2020)
The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage, Mara Hvistendahl (Riverhead, February 2020)

The story starts in 2011 when an Iowa farmer spots a Chinese man in a field owned by agri-giant Monsanto and calls the police. American companies Monsanto and Dupont Pioneer have developed hybrid seeds that produce bumper crops, are resistant to pesticide and, of considerable commercial importance, only germinate once (requiring farmers to repurchase seed each season). In 2010, indeed, China limited the import of GM seeds partly to stop American companies from dominating the Chinese domestic market. Corn is big money in China:  as people get richer and eat more meat, there is more demand for corn as animal feed. If Chinese companies like DBN could develop quality hybrids, they could gain control of the domestic market and offer cheaper alternatives to western strains in the international market.

As hybrid corn seeds are the result of some serious research and development, they arguably qualify as intellectual property, something the FBI and the Justice Department are tasked with protecting; whether GM seeds qualify as a national security interest is another topic. On the Chinese side, food is a matter of national security; when it comes to science and technology, the government has shown little compunction about taking short-cuts.


No wonder, then, that some companies hire hackers to tunnel into the servers of their American competitors and then swipe designs for their latest product, or that some researchers are tempted to steal work from elsewhere, particularly if it has commercial potential.


DBN needed the inbred parents of a strain. The female inbred can be reverse-engineered, but the male needs to be collected from the field; this is where Robert Mo comes in. Should DBN’s hair-brained scheme be considered  “espionage” as the corn giants and the FBI call it, or just one company stealing from another? This issue was debated in Robert Mo’s trial, but the answer is still not clear cut: seeds are not weapons.


Robert, whose Chinese name is Hailong, grew up in a tiny village in Sichuan Province. In America, despite having two PHDs, he can’t make ends meet in an academic research job and so, through a family connection back in China, gets a well-paid job at DBN. Along with the legitimate part of his work, sourcing pig feed, he is tasked with stealing corn seeds and sending them back to China marked with code numbers. Hvistendahl builds the tension nicely. Mo first becomes a person of interest for the FBI and as they begin to close in she works scientific and judicial details into a narrative that has just enough action to hook the reader.

The FBI continues a cat and mouse game with the Chinese driving through Iowa filching seeds and the rural Midwest comes to life through Hvistendahl’s descriptions:


They passed diners the served sandwiches smothered in Thousand Island dressing, drinking establishments with neon signs in their windows that simply said BAR and corn paraphernalia of all kinds.


Agent Mark Betten is in charge of the investigation codenamed Purple Maze that uses local police, border patrol and customs officers. The other DBN employees leave for China, but Roger, whose life in America, is trapped. He is not street smart enough to save himself; his ruthless boss Dr Li sees him as expendable. The author visits Robert in federal prison and adds to her nuanced portrait of him by including a translation of one of the poems he wrote there.


Hvistendahl’s story is not so much about China stealing but also about America’s problematic reaction. The post Cold War Clinton administration passed an industrial espionage act, but after 9/11, the war on terror took the FBI’s attention away for another decade. When the FBI got around to dealing with Chinese espionage, the approach was troublesome.


One trope in particular cropped up again and again. This was the idea that China commanded an army of amateur intelligence collectors of which Robert was just one part—or, as Newsweek columnist Jeff Stein put it, that Robert was among the “locusts in a swarm feasting on American technological secrets.”


Hvintendahl takes exception to this blanket labeling—the majority are not “locusts”—and so she investigates the history of the FBIs approach to Chinese espionage. Hvistendahl includes a number of dubious cases brought against Chinese scientists. America relies on Chinese talent in its labs and so the possible risk here is that the FBI is playing into the Chinese government’s hands and forcing these scientists back to China as they feel persecuted in the US. The FBI has, in her view, been overzealous in suspecting Chinese scientists and students in the USA, the agency’s rationale being that the Chinese government targets all ethnic Chinese to collect information. In the 1990s, FBI analyst Paul Moore came up with the  thousand-grains-of-sand theory to describe Chinese intelligence gathering. Moore claims that while Russia and the US use James Bond style tactics, the Chinese utilize a large number of amateurs loyal to the motherland sending through tidbits of information that are somehow pieced together. However, the truth is the Chinese incentivize a small number to become agents through money and sex like any other country’s intelligence operation.

Nor is American interest clear. Not only has the Monsanto name been retired as it carries negative connotations brought about by its cancer causing pesticides, but the company itself was recently bought by Bayer, a German firm. So Monsanto is not even American anymore. Nor is it clear that corporate profits brought about by higher seed prices is in the public interest.

The Scientist and the Spy is broken down into thirty-nine short chapters, which leads to readability but some fragmenting of the many strands of the Mo case.

However, this is a fascinating, well-written and well-researched book. In the end it teaches us more about America—its institutions and what big business can get away with—than it does about China, this perhaps being a welcome surprise.

Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.