In This Review

The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage
The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage
By Mara Hvistendahl
336 pp, Riverhead Books, 2020
Purchase

The theft of intellectual property is not just about computer chips and pharmaceutical formulas: some of the most valuable targets are seeds. To feed a growing population with shrinking arable land, China needs hardy, high-yield seeds but cannot afford to spend the many years it takes to develop them. That’s why a police officer in Iowa in 2011 found a Chinese businessman named Robert Mo wandering around in a cornfield where he didn’t belong. The book offers a fly-on-the-wall procedural of the resulting case that involves spies, informants, FBI agents, customs officials, and bugged phones and cars. Along the way, Hvistendahl delves into seed breeding, the antitrust investigation of the agribusiness giant Monsanto, the differences between security espionage and intellectual property theft, and the problem of racial profiling in U.S. investigations in these areas. Although most ethnic Chinese scientists and businesspeople in the United States are not spies—and most who are spies are not amateur collectors such as Mo—in this case, the suspect was indeed guilty. But he was the only person convicted in a case that involved many bad actors, and while he sat in prison, the Chinese company ChemChina legally acquired a huge amount of seed technology by purchasing the Swiss agriculture firm Syngenta.