Field of Dreams

Science & Health
Credit: Illustration by John Oquist

Mo Hailong stole corn and went to jail for it. But — as documented in Mara Hvistendahl’s new book The Scientist and the Spy — his story is about so much more: Greed and compliance, political and corporate self-interest, a transnational struggle between two superpowers, and the failure of the American promise.

 

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In the closing days of 2012, I visited Iowa for the first time, and stayed with a family friend in a suburb outside Des Moines. On Christmas Day, my host suggested that we take a drive to explore the state capital. “Any place in particular you would like to visit?” he asked.

“The billboard for the Des Moines Register, where Mitt Romney said ‘Corporations are people’!” I answered without missing a beat. I had moved to the U.S. from China three years earlier, and was mesmerized by its politics, in particular the general election. Eager to witness democracy in action, I followed every primary and every debate, and spent many hours volunteering at a phone bank for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.

My kind host stared at me, baffled. “I have no idea what or where that is.”

“But,” he flashed a big smile, “I can drive you to the state capitol building.”

We braved two feet of snow and took photos beneath the iconic golden dome. “Sorry it’s not Chicago,” my host apologized, thinking his hometown couldn’t compare with the bustling metropolis where I was based. As we drove along frozen lakes and open fields, I could not have imagined that deep inside these tranquil stretches of farmland, an international spy operation was taking place between my birth country and my adopted home.

In December 2013, the Justice Department announced the arrest of Mò Hǎilóng 莫海龙, a Chinese national and U.S. permanent resident, following a multi-year FBI investigation that involved wiretaps, surveillance planes, and a warrant reserved for foreign agents and terrorists. Mo was charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets, pled guilty, and received a three-year prison sentence. Trained as a physicist with two doctoral degrees, Mo worked for the Chinese agriculture company DBN, whose CEO is his brother-in-law. With little knowledge of plant science, the former academic who specialized in fluid dynamics spent months in the cornfields of Iowa digging up genetically modified seeds, which his Chinese employer intended to reverse engineer and produce seed lines of its own.

The course of events, at turns hilarious, tragic, and absurd, is masterfully narrated by journalist Mara Hvistendahl in her new book The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage (Riverhead, 2020). A Pulitzer finalist for her earlier work, Unnatural Selection (PublicAffairs, 2011), and a former China bureau chief at Science magazine, Hvistendahl grew up in the American midwest, and lived in Shanghai for eight years, where she reported on the country’s technological rise and the thorny issues it revealed. The author’s personal background and professional experience help situate Mo’s case in a broader historical and political context; her compassionate observation and thoughtful analysis add laudable dimensions to the compelling prose. The result is a fascinating book that reads like a detective novel, while prompting the audience to reflect on the state’s role in science and business at a time when these issues are more urgent than ever.

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If Mo Hailong were a character in a children’s tale, the lesson would have been simple: The corn thief went to jail. When I was three years old, my parents made a point of bringing me to the kindergarten teacher, to whom I returned a scrap of plastic I had found in the classroom and promised to never again take what was not mine. Not long after, my mother had to temper her rules, as I was refusing candy from uncles and grandparents with a stubbornness that foretold the choices I would make in adulthood.

It is only in the eyes of a young child that “Thou shalt not steal” can be interpreted and followed by the letter. As the child grows older and becomes aware of the many injustices in the world, the massive disparities in wealth, she will also hear stories of Robin Hood and the Outlaws of the Marsh, the romanticized rebels who stole from the rich to aid the poor. In a society where power protects the powerful, the types of theft or robbery that do the most harm are often committed not against but in the name of the law. The child, now in adolescence, will learn how the police can seize property with little cause, how the government can force people out of their homes to repurpose the land, and how big corporations can eat up lesser-sized rivals, spit out the bones, and leave livelihoods in ruins.

During the 2012 campaign, Obama’s team used Romney’s experience in private equity to paint him as a “vulture capitalist,” an image that resonated with many middle- and working-class voters, reinforced by the governor’s many gaffes. For years, corporate giants like Monsanto have driven smaller seed growers out of business. By the time the FBI started tracking Mo’s activities in the cornfields operated by Monsanto, the Bureau had also been pursuing an antitrust case against the controversial firm. The case against Monsanto was dropped.

When companies steal from each other, the prize is not so much the goods themselves but the ideas behind them: a secret recipe, the design of a car, the genetic code of corn that is resilient to pesticides. As Hvistendahl writes in her book, “industrial espionage is as old as industry itself”; throughout history, it has occurred within the country and across state lines.

In the U.S., as in most of the world, disputes over intellectual property were usually litigated in civil suits, where the companies themselves bore the legal fees and the burden of proof. This changed in 1996 with the passage of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA), which made trade secret theft a federal crime. Nevertheless, enforcement of the EEA varies, as the Justice Department notes that “the EEA is not intended to criminalize every theft of trade secrets for which civil remedies may exist under state law.” Reasons to consider prosecution include “evidence of involvement by a foreign government, foreign agent or foreign instrumentality,” and “the potential deterrent value of the prosecution.”

During his State of the Union address in 2012, President Obama declared that he “will not stand by when our competitors don’t play by the rules.” There’s no ambiguity whom the competitors were, as the president went on to boast how the rate of trade cases against China had doubled in his administration, and “a surge in Chinese tires” was stopped to protect American jobs.

Many Chinese companies have bent, evaded, or violated international rules and norms, often with Beijing’s tacit endorsement if not direct orders, and the Chinese government is not shy about favoring domestic enterprise over foreign competitors. On the other hand, the U.S. government’s spotlight on China’s shady deals is also motivated by political and corporate self-interest. In an election year, pointing fingers at a foreign foe is an effective strategy to redirect popular discontent over stagnant wages and rising inequality. When he swiped seeds of corn from American companies for his Chinese employer, Mo, in the eyes of federal authorities, was no longer a petty thief, but an enemy combatant in the battle for economic and technological dominance between two superpowers.

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Mo Hailong’s Chinese ethnicity has affected almost every aspect of his case. Had he not been working for a Chinese firm, a job he got through nepotism, charges might never have been brought in the first place. Had they been of European origin, he and his colleague’s presence in the cornfields might have gone unnoticed by white Iowans who recalled little more than their Asianness. Because he is Chinese, and indeed guilty, Mo’s conviction has been and will continue to be touted by U.S. politicians and law enforcement as a success story and further justification for being “tough on China,” never mind that the federal resources spent and aggressive tactics used appear comically disproportionate to the transgression. For Chinese and other Asian communities in the U.S., Mo’s lengthy sentence over something that, in slightly different circumstances, wouldn’t even be considered a crime at all can be another reminder of the country’s long history of discrimination against their people.

 

For years, corporate giants like Monsanto have driven smaller seed growers out of business. By the time the FBI started tracking Mo Hailong’s activities in the cornfields operated by Monsanto, the Bureau had also been pursuing an antitrust case against the controversial firm. The case against Monsanto was dropped.

 

In the book, the fraught issues of race and racial bias are treated with lucidity and nuance. As a white American, Hvistendahl acknowledges her privileges and limited exposure to the subject; in the meantime, eight years as a China correspondent helped her understand what it feels like “to have my race and nationality overwhelm other aspects of who I am,” and to be suspected as a member of foreign intelligence.

When the Chinese government enacted a new National Intelligence Law in 2017, obliging individuals, organizations, and institutions to assist the state in a wide array of “intelligence” work, the legislation is often cited as proof that every Chinese person abroad is a potential spy, which misses the point that while Beijing does keep a close eye on the Chinese diaspora, it is first and foremost for ideological control, to monitor dissent and other political activities. With their ethnicity appropriated by both governments, Chinese people in the U.S. are double-victimized, by an overreaching ancestral homeland on one side of the Pacific and a paranoid Washington establishment on the other.

In recent years, the U.S. government has expanded and intensified its scrutiny of people and entities with ties to China. The targets range from actual matters of national security involving classified dual-use technology to commercial disputes such as stolen corn seeds to ethical violations in academia, including breaking confidentiality in peer review and misstatements in grant proposals. All of these are serious, but different. Viewing them as a blanket “China threat” does a disservice to each being addressed properly on its own terms.

While under house arrest, awaiting trial, Mo was diagnosed with a rare cancer and underwent treatment at MD Anderson in the fall of 2014. A few years later, an FBI investigation at the center led to the abrupt departure of several researchers of Chinese origin and “a campus roiled by fear,” as Hvistendahl describes in the book. Similar incidents have happened at other universities and laboratories in the U.S. The common offense is a violation of funding agency guidelines, where the scientist received a title and sometimes a salary from a Chinese institution without disclosing it to their American employer. The misconduct is a result of greed, vanity, or sloppy paperwork: In the backdrop of great power competition, it has, unfortunately, morphed into a matter of national allegiance.

When Chinese scientists who left the U.S. as a result of these investigations move back to their country of birth, where they continue with cutting-edge research, the narrative is routinely framed as “America’s loss.” I have always found such phrasing problematic. Uprooting one’s life from one country to another inflicts a profound loss, especially when done under duress, but that loss is personal. Scientists are human beings with agency: They are not for any state to claim or gain.

The question of where certain knowledge is produced is not particularly interesting or meaningful: It gets the most attention because it speaks to a sense of national identity and has an easy answer. The much more important and much more difficult questions are how that knowledge is produced and what it might be used for. Developing weapons of war or tools of oppression does not become any less terrible when it is motivated by patriotism instead of money, or when the state is a democracy instead of a dictatorship. While officials are busy asking people to prove their loyalty to a country, by birth or residence, what I am really curious about is just what kind of country one should be loyal to.

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I have known Hvistendahl for a couple of years, and was fortunate to read an early draft of her book. As I pull out my notes from last summer, I can see the attention I paid to Mo’s biography. I marked the pages on his childhood and underlined paragraphs where he mentioned God. I wrote down that unlike his wife, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, he never bothered to file an application himself. I had an exchange with Hvistendahl, checking whether Mo’s last academic position was tenure-track. (It was not.)

In retrospect, my effort was silly, and I feel slightly embarrassed. I combed through Mo’s life with a fine-tooth brush, examining every wrinkle, because I was eager to find a reason for suspicion, a hook to hang my criticism on. I wanted to make Mo into a crook, as if by proving his guilt I would exonerate myself. I was angry at Mo, and not just for his crime of theft: I looked for reasons to resent him because he had been working for a Chinese firm.

The FBI tried and failed to prove that Mo had acted on behalf of the Chinese government, which would have carried a much harsher sentence. DBN is a private company, at least on paper, though like any successful Chinese business of scale, it enjoys a cozy relationship with Beijing. In a Leninist system where the Party is ubiquitous and controls everything, there is no real separation between the state and the individual.

 

However politicians attempt to draw lines and build walls between us and them, nations are porous entities; the only things borders are good at protecting are bigotry and self-delusion.

 

I read Hvistendahl’s book draft last July, not long after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. I had spent many weeks reflecting on that fateful night in 1989, not knowing how one might live without offending the legacy of the martyrs. The crushing sense of guilt multiplied as the summer went on. Every day my newsfeed was filled with reports of police brutality against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, as well as tearful testimony from the Uyghur diaspora whose family members had disappeared into concentration camps in China. When an Australian radio program interviewed me and asked if I would consider a professorship in China under its talent recruitment program, my answer was a resolute no. “I do not believe in subjecting my profession and my life to an authoritarian government,” I said. “That is just a conscientious objection.”

On the show, I followed up by saying that my choice is personal, which is all it is; that it should not be construed as a moral judgement against others who choose differently. I recognize the complexity in circumstance, professional and familial, for those who return to China and the ones who never leave.

For someone like Mo, who was living in the U.S., I wanted badly to believe that his decision was less excusable. Sure, he lost his university position and had a family to feed, but he still had options; he did not have to work for a Chinese company, he did so voluntarily; he deserved the consequences. If I could give up a homeland, and so many others had given up their physical freedom and even their lives, why couldn’t Mo give up a paycheck?

Such a line of thought was, of course, pompous and self-deceiving. The Chinese regime is not the only source of oppression in the world. The U.S. government is responsible for many brutalities. Capitalism itself is morally indefensible. To live is a brave and honorable thing; we all make our compromises in order to survive.

We are not oblivious to our complicity. This is why we cheer when the thief is caught, when the criminal goes to jail: In that moment, we attain affirmation of our own decency. Imagine the future we may have if everyone confronts the ugly truth, if instead of pretending innocence and making up excuses, we redirect the energy to conceive more just ways of being.

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In 2016, the state-owned ChemChina acquired Syngenta, taking over the Swiss company’s impressive reservoir of genetically modified seeds. What Mo Hailong and his colleagues at DBN had tried to achieve through theft was accomplished with capital. Two years later, Monsanto was purchased by Bayer. The technology the U.S. government had spent innumerate resources to keep from Chinese hands is now owned by a German conglomerate. However politicians attempt to draw lines and build walls between us and them, nations are porous entities; the only things borders are good at protecting are bigotry and self-delusion.

By the time The Scientist and the Spy went to print, Mo had finished his sentence and was transferred to an immigration detention center, where he will be deported back to China. His wife and two children remain in the U.S. When Hvistendahl visited him in prison and asked if he had any regrets, Mo said he should not have participated in the demonstrations of 1989, which he did as a college student in his home province, and that he should have just stayed in China. The promise of democracy did not live up to what he had envisioned.

The Scientist and the Spy tells a true story about a thief, a detective, an informant, and the people in their lives. It is a story with no simple morals, no obvious heroes or villains. It leaves the reader better informed and still searching, which is what good books do. The book is as much about China as it is about the U.S., what the country is and can still be. It is only fitting that the narrative centers around corn, the humble crop that has become a symbol of American ingenuity and its insatiable appetite.

I turn over the last page of the book for a second time. A wash of sadness swallows me. As if to complete a ritual, I walk into the kitchen and retrieve a bag of popcorn from the pantry. Biting into the salty crunchiness, I am reminded of the first time I tasted the all-American snack. It was 1999. I was nine years old. Mo Hailong had just arrived in the U.S. to begin his studies at Kansas State University. One thousand five hundred miles to the west, my family had arrived in California, where my father worked as a visiting scientist, before we returned to China in the fall. It was my first trip abroad. That afternoon, my mother and I went to the local grocery store and told the friendly clerk we were looking for “po-po-corn,” a word we had looked up at home and recited on the way over. The clerk repeated the syllables back to us, which sounded different, but we nodded eagerly. When she walked us to an aisle and pointed to the shelf, the colorful packages read “bubble gum.”

“No,” we said, our faces burning. Then we spelled out the letters we had memorized, P-O-P-C-O-R-N.

When my father came home in the evening, my mother could not wait to share how we had managed to buy popcorn all by ourselves. After dinner, she put a packet into the microwave. It crackled like fireworks. The apartment was soon filled with a sweet, creamy aroma. A few minutes later, the three of us sat at the table as I reached into the warm paper bag. The fluffy white petals opened like a flower in my palm. It tasted like America.

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Yangyang Cheng and the Science and China Column will return on the final Wednesday of every month. Last month:

The Cruelest Month