On one hand, I enjoyed reading The Scientist and the Spy, really. Mara Hvistendahl has given us a really compelling account of economic espionage. But Christ, this book is a sticky one. It covers multiple topics I’m interested in: genetics, agriculture, international relations and intellectual property, and politic shit-storms. But it also makes me want to bang my head against the wall while crying out ‘everyone’s a pack of arseholes’ because that was basically the only conclusion I could come to.
But with a story this complex, I really shouldn’t be surprised. Real-life is very rarely cut and dry. Please forgive me if this degenerates into me making the text equivalent of a whole lot of argy-bargy sounds. I have not been so frustrated since reading Bad Blood. Also, this review spoils some of the ‘story’ or narrative beats presented in the book, which some people may want to avoid. But these events have all been reported fairly widely in the news.
And I want to rant. Sorry.
This shit-show/saga starts off innocuous enough: a man of Asian appearance wearing a suit was spotted trespassing a cornfield in Iowa. This attracted suspicion from local police for two reasons: the part of Iowa is known for being shockingly homogenous (very white), and this cornfield contained corn grown from a variety of specialised inbred seed that represented millions of dollars in corporate research.
When the local deputy caught up with the man and his driver, they claimed that they were scientists working for the local university—look, nothing to worry about here sir!—and they were let off with a stern warning
But this was not the end of it. This was hardly the beginning
One of these men was Robert Mo, a Chinese national and US resident, working for the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Company (DBN). And he was sending these proprietary seeds, along with others, back to China. Once the FBI got wind of it, they launched a two-year investigation into the theft, which lead to Mo eventually being convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years imprisonment (on top of deportation).
If that sounds like a simple enough story of ’sneaky corn man steals corn, gets jail,’ read again. Robert Mo was convicted of espionage. How on earth did that come about?
To understand what’s going on, we have to take several steps back in order to examine the very messy whole. There are many places you could start, but Hvistendahl starts by looking at Chinese/American relations in the aftermath of the Cold War and the FBI’s fixation on the “thousand grains of sand” theory of spying. All those Chinese researchers and students coming into the country were not just a friendly sign of the thawing relations between the two nations, but potential economic spies after America’s trade secrets. (Because everyone is always in lockstep with their country’s governments, and no one learnt a thing from the Cold War) So the FBI was already on the look-out.
Robert Mo himself was working for a Chinese company that—on paper—was very much its own independent entity. And the groups he was stealing from—Pioneer and Monsanto—were by no means branches of the US government but independent corporations. So on the surface, this looked like a problem for these companies to sort out amongst themselves. But then there are the claims that there’s no way any big business is based in China isn’t being influenced by subtle little directives from the Chinese government. And the Chinese Government does see obtaining these trade secrets as a part of their national security, to the point where they quietly make it clear that if someone does indulge in a little theft, they aren’t going to chase after them.
So anyone competing with China would be pressured to respond in kind. But are corporate intellectual property rights really a serious national security interest? And are all the pressures really coming from outside the house in the US? You’ve got to wonder when the US government decides to turn a blind eye to antitrust breaches by agribusiness companies when it becomes clear that the government needs their co-operation in chasing after an IP thief. It looks like these US-based companies are also lying cosily in bed with their own government. And this is how this quickly became a scenario where two governments are at loggerheads and not just a few corporations.
Hvistendahl also strongly focuses on the spillover effects of this dogged fight between the two nations. The targeting of Chinese scientists and researchers seems disproportionate to the threat at hand and runs the risk of jeopardizing the research relationship between the two countries. The cudgel-like the approach taken by the FBI and the DOJ is one of the things that had me pulling my hair out here: not only have they been chasing Chinese from the PRC, but basically any ethnic Chinese as well, including people from Hong Kong. And Taiwan. (Christ, it reminds me of some recent stupidity from the Australian government as well.)
Then there’s the question as to whether chasing after individuals such as Robert Mo actually has any deterrent effect at all. The consequences, so far, have been pretty severe for Mo—but one that’s only driven him closer to China. But the company he was working for, DBN, suffered virtually no repercussions. And while the FBI chased after six individuals when pursuing these corn-crimes, they could only build a case against one; an indication that they were probably casting their net either too wide and too clumsily. Or indulging in a bit self-important dick swinging. Either-or, it made them look incompetent, and drives the narrative that certain foreign groups in the US are being demonised. Not a clear win there.
But China’s choice to pursue this kind of approach to obtain knowledge is also pretty near-sighted, as it is deeply unsustainable. There’s are many excellent minds in China willing to drive ahead with independent research projects—many of them do fantastically when they work overseas. If efforts are spent developing ‘in house’ research, it should eventually become self-sustaining. But if China feels they have to keep on supplementing their output with theft in order to keep competitive, they will have to keep on doing it, straining foreign relations and potentially leaving them cut off from the source of the very innovations they want access to. (There’s a whole bucket load of internal Chinese politics that I won’t go into here that are also be responsible for driving this mal-adaptive approach)
It’s like clumsy Cold War politics all over again. The daft stupidity of the approaches of both countries is made clear under the light of the subject of mergers and acquisitions between agribusiness companies. The US spent all this time and effort ignoring multiple antitrust breaches and protecting Monsanto’s IP for them; pity Monsanto was bought out by the German Bayer in 2018. And a few years earlier, the Chinese state-owned ChemChina acquired the Swiss company Syngenta, obtaining a whole swarth of externally developed IP legitimately.
Cue frustrated, high pitched screeching. Guess someone somewhere is really regretting not breaking up these companies now, huh? (Personal opinion: the accelerating consolidation of all these Agribusiness giants has been one of the more concerning Ag developments in the last 10 years.)
I have not really touched on everything I wanted to rant about here. As much as I liked listening to the audiobook, I had some issues leaving myself functional bookmarks and annotations. But if you have an interest in any of the above subjects, I would recommend The Scientist and The Spy. Hvistendahl’s writing is engaging and highly accessible, and much of the subject matter is treated with an even hand, especially matters of biotechnology. She does have more sympathy for Mo than I perhaps would, but this doesn’t colour the narrative too much.
It also showed me there’s still a lot about the regulatory side of things I have to learn though, so I probably going to have to indulge in some follow up reading.