Mara Hvistendahl’s nonfiction espionage thriller “The Scientist and the Spy” about Mo Hailong, aka Robert Mo, brother-in-law of a Chinese billionaire executive at DBN, an agriculture giant in China, who was arrested and charged with industrial espionage, as he was caught stealing seed from Monsanto and Pioneer DuPont, two major U.S. corn producers in Iowa.
The story is fascinating as it weaves the increasing hyper-vigilance of the FBI in cases of industrial espionage, stealing IP (intellectual property) and other trade secrets, and exporting that knowledge to China to undercut billions of dollars and years of research and development producing technology, such as genetically-modified corn seed that produce greater yields, are resistant to herbicides used to kill weeds, and purportedly have improved flavor and color.
Where Ms. Hvistendahl’s story diverges from your typical nonfiction espionage thriller, is her assertion that despite Mr. Mo’s conviction and guilty plea, Chinese nationalists in America have been consistently and wrongfully subject to racial profiling by the FBI and law enforcement for decades because of the “thousand grains of sand” theory that the FBI holds in regards to the Chinese espionage program. The theory says that while traditional spy agencies such as Russia develops operatives as the neighbor next door who assimilates into the culture but is really a double agent stealing your country’s top secret documents, every Chinese nationalist, coming to America to study engineering, science, or any other technical field, is actually an agent of the Chinese government, who is enlisting them as a source for high-level IP to reverse engineer, steal, and turn a profit by reselling a knock-off version back to the U.S. at half the price.
Ultimately, the question she poses is, “Does the punishment fit the crime?” If the agent was say a white, Russian spy, and not a Chinese man, would he attract the same attention? Take it another step further, if an American entrepreneur looking to sell “counterfeit” Monsanto seed to a cash-strapped farmer trying to make a living, would they be punished for the crime in the same way?
While the issues involved in these geopolitical affairs are not clear cut, one can’t help but notice the conspicuous racial profiling occurring in this instance and several other cases involving Chinese-born technologists and federal criminal charges of industrial espionage, many of which are later dropped by the prosecution due to unfounded claims and a lack of evidence.