Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

Robert Mo, Wen Ho Lee, and Non-Military Chinese Intellectual Property Theft

The range of technologies China is—and was—interested in varies considerably.

Robert Farley
Robert Mo, Wen Ho Lee, and Non-Military Chinese Intellectual Property Theft
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Not all Chinese intellectual property theft involves military technology. In the Scientist and the Spy, Mara Hvistendahl details the long case of Robert Mo, a Chinese scientist who was convicted of stealing IP-rich seeds from several cornfields in Iowa, and trying to send those seeds back to China.

Why seeds? The relative lack of arable land in China puts crop yield at a minimum, making advanced seeds exceedingly valuable. Chinese agricultural firms, at least at the time of the writing of the book, were well behind the big American and European giants in the development of advanced seed lines, and also in global market share. Robert Mo and other operatives stole experimental seeds from Monsanto and Pioneer test fields in Iowa, sending them back to China through innovative means such as packing them in popcorn bags and smuggling them in luggage. Hvistendahl discusses the long and winding road of how the FBI put together a case against Mo, nearly bringing him to trial before forcing a plea deal. The narrative involves deep discussion of how Big Ag creates and tests new seed lines, how that process interacts with traditional modes of growing corn in places like Iowa, and how the FBI has grown increasingly interested in international economic espionage.

Hvistendahl is clear on how the pursuit of IP thieves undoubtedly has negative externalities, though. As in the case of Wen Ho Lee, an outsized suspicion of Chinese and Chinese-Americans generates a lot of false positives in espionage hunts. Indeed, Robert Mo was initially identified as a threat because Iowa locals weren’t used to seeing Chinese faces in cornfields. As Hvistendahl discusses, the risk of making racist generalizations against Chinese students and Asian-Americans more broadly is serious, especially given the increasing rhetorical hostility between Washington and Beijing. And contrary to the idea that Asian faces are never seen in Iowa cornfields, over 10,000 Iowans were born in China, a population second only to Mexicans. This excludes Chinese-Americans, as well as members of every other Asian-American minority who could be mistaken for Chinese.

Finally, the book cracks open the question of the social utility of intellectual property protection, at least as manifested in modern economies. IP protection is supposed to give individuals and firms an incentive to innovate, and thus produce socially useful inventions (such as seeds with higher yields). With corporate consolidation and an almost monopolistic relationship between Big Ag and farmers, however, IP protection becomes more about producing a legal structure for creating and capturing rents than generating actual innovation.

The irony, as the book points out, is that Monsanto was acquired by a German firm shortly after the events described. This meant that the vast efforts undertaken in the name of “American” innovation were eventually rendered moot by the operation of international finance capital. Still, Hvistendahl sheds light on the vast array of technologies that Chinese firms are interested in, how they go about acquiring American trade secrets, and how U.S. law enforcement and intelligence services are responding to the potential threat.