Cover image for 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
1st edition.
Physical Description:
321 pages ; 24 cm
"A riveting true story of industrial espionage in which a Chinese-born scientist is convicted of trying to steal U.S. trade secrets, by a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. In September 2011, sheriff's deputies in Iowa encountered three neatly dressed Asian men at a cornfield that had been leased by Monsanto to grow corn from patented hybrids. What began as a routine inquiry into potential trespassing blossomed into a federal court case that saw one of the men -- Mo Hailong, also known as Robert Mo -- plead guilty to conspiracy to steal trade secrets from U.S. agro-giants DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto on behalf of the China-based DBN Group, one of the country's largest seed companies. The Mo case was part of the U.S. government's efforts to stanch the rising flow of industrial espionage by Chinese companies -- some with the assistance of the Chinese government itself -- on American companies. And it's not an isolated one. Economic espionage costs U.S. companies billions of dollars a year in lost revenue. As former Attorney General Eric Holder once put it, "There are only two categories of companies affected by trade secret theft: Those that know they've been compromised and those that don't know it yet." Using the story of Mo and of others involved in the case, journalist Mara Hvistendahl uncovers the fascinating and disquieting phenomenon of industrial espionage as China marches toward technological domination. In The Scientist and the Spy, she shines light on U.S. efforts to combat theft of proprietary innovation and technology and delves into the efforts to slow the loss of such secrets to other nations. As technology and innovation become more and more valuable, government agencies like the FBI and companies around the world are growing increasingly concerned -- and are increasingly outspoken about -- the threats posed to Western competitiveness. General Keith Alexander, the ex-director of the National Security Agency, has described Chinese industrial espionage and cyber crimes as "the greatest transfer of wealth in history." The Scientist and the Spy explains how the easy movement of experts and ideas affects development and the important role that espionage plays in innovation, both for the spies and the spied-upon. She also asks whether the current U.S. counter-espionage strategy helps or harms the greater public good. The result is a compelling nonfiction thriller that's also a call to arms on how we should rethink the best ways to safeguard intellectual property"--


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Book 364.168 HVI 0 1

On Order



A riveting real-life thriller about the rise of economic espionage from China, seen through the case of Mailong Ho, who tried to steal secrets from U.S. companies. For readers of Michael Lewis, John Carreyrou, and Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

This fascinating and well-researched study from Hvistendahl (Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men) centers on Robert Mo (aka Mo Hailong), who, as an executive for the Chinese agribusiness DBN, routinely engaged in spying. In a somewhat bumbling scheme, Mo and others from DBN spent weeks driving through central Iowa, stealing corn seeds from farms that used proprietary seeds by giants Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer and shipping them to China. In 2011, a call from a farmer to a sheriff's deputy to report three Asian men in an SUV hanging around a field sparked a two-year FBI operation that crisscrossed the country and involved an informant consulting for DBN. The stakes were high, Hvistendahl notes, as intellectual theft was costing American companies millions, but, according to the author, there was also racism in the FBI, which had long tracked Chinese scientists in the U.S. Ultimately, only Mo paid a price, pleading guilty to theft of trade secrets and spending three years in prison. His sentence served, he's currently awaiting deportation to China. Those looking for insights into the current tensions with China will be rewarded. Agent: Gillian MacKenzie, MacKenzie Wolf Literary. (Feb.)

Kirkus Review

Chinese spying meets American incompetence in a story of several gangs that couldn't shoot straight.Practitioners of industrial espionage don't just skulk around factories photographing blueprints and machinery. In the case that journalist Hvistendahl (Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, 2011), a former Shanghai correspondent for Science, brings to light, a Chinese national was found wandering in an Iowa cornfield, looking for samples of Monsanto's genetically modified corn to take home and decode. Iowa was a natural ground zero for a crop that covers more than 93 million acres, "a swath nearly the size of California." The would-be spy was a disaffected researcher who had lost a job in an American lab and been recruited by his sister, who in turn was married to the CEO of a giant Chinese agribusiness, part of an effort to make China the undisputed leader in exporting food around the world. Arrested in the U.S., the sister went free over botched police procedures. Her brother wasn't so lucky even though helpful police officers who found him in that Iowa field referred him to local farmers and agricultural extension agencies with any questions he might have about the corn in question. As Hvistendahl observes, connecting many dots, the case had numerous implications, fueling Donald Trump's nativist threats of trade war with China and China's retaliation with a 25% tax on American corn. "When the measures finally took hold," she writes, "it was clear that farmers in Iowathe same people who helped to elect Trumpwould be hard hit." And so they were, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The author doesn't diminish the presence of Chinese spies, who have been exposed in numerous enterprises; she also digs deep into the rather nefarious business of genetic modification, which so tarnished the Monsanto name that the brand name is being retired under new ownership, "an unusual move in the acquisition of an established firm."A capable work of cat-and-mouse espionage that suggests that industrial spying is just business as usual. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

Not since Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest has a cornfield produced so much excitement. Science writer Hvistendahl writes about how the sighting of an Asian man wearing a suit and bending over corn in an Iowa farmer's field led to a two-year, multifaceted FBI investigation into industrial espionage by China. This book centers on corn its value to the U.S. and the world, the rivalry between Monsanto and DuPont to develop designer hybrid seeds, and the on-the-ground kidnapping of seeds by spies for the Chinese agronomic corporation DBG, whose goal was to develop and market their own seeds after stealing U.S. trade secrets. Hvistendahl makes industrial espionage both understandable and riveting, chiefly by focusing her narrative on two scientists (one Chinese, one American, both manipulated by DBG) who, wittingly and unwittingly, are forced into collecting seeds and information for DBG. 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. Unlike many current spy books, which focus on long-ago espionage, this one examines an investigation into the pressing, ongoing problem of industrial espionage. Hard to put down and harder to stop thinking about.--Connie Fletcher Copyright 2020 Booklist

Library Journal Review

In 2011, three Chinese scientists were apprehended in a cornfield in Iowa, suspected of stealing genetically modified seeds. This encounter was the catalyst for Hvistendahl's (Unnatural Selection) compelling tale of industrial espionage. A Midwest native, Hvistendahl spent several years working in China, and her knowledge of that country's politics and economics adds depth to the narrative. Hvistendahl centers on Robert Mo, a Chinese scholar working in the United States, following him from a failed academic career to his employment by DBN, a Chinese agricultural company. He also becomes the focus of a two-year investigation by the FBI. Some of those FBI agents are profiled in the book, as are Mo's sister and the judge who sentenced Mo. Hvistendahl writes about broader issues with force and clarity: an overview of China's intelligence agencies, the use and misuse of the FISA law, and anti-Chinese persecution by the FBI. She brings the story up to the present day with a brief discussion of the U.S.-China trade war and the impact of tariffs. An informative afterword explains her sources. VERDICT 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.--Thomas Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA