The Chinese government recruited a Chinese scientist who pleaded guilty to U.S. commercial espionage charges on Thursday as part of a foreign surveillance program that sought persons with access to foreign trade secrets and technology.
Xiang Haitao, a former Monsanto scientist and permanent citizen of the United States, was detained in November 2019 after returning to the US after working in China and assisting Beijing in the use of a proprietary commercial U.S. technology system meant to boost farm output.
Xiang, 44, amended his plea to be guilty in federal court in the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis after initially pleading not guilty to a federal indictment for economic spying. Xiang was recruited by the Chinese Academy of Science, the Beijing government’s science program, in 2016 as part of a scheme called the Hundred Talents Program, according to the plea bargain.
The scheme, also known as the Thousand Talents Program, has resulted in more than a dozen Chinese nationals and Americans being investigated and prosecuted by the FBI for allegedly working surreptitiously for China at American universities and research organizations.
In a study on Chinese economic “aggression” released in 2017, the Trump administration calculated that Beijing steals between $250 billion and $600 billion in American technology and know-how each year.
From 2008 through 2017, Xiang worked as an agricultural imagery specialist with The Climate Corp. in Missouri, which was purchased by Monsanto in St. Louis in 2013. Xiang left Monsanto in 2017 with information about the company’s Nutrient Optimizer, a proprietary prediction algorithm software that allows farmers to apply plant nutrients in the most efficient way possible.
Farmers can monitor fertilizer demands and future fertilizer applications using the software, which combines meteorological data, soil information, and farm management techniques.
According to the plea deal, Xiang contacted the Chinese Academy of Science and its Nanjing Institute of Soil Science, which works on agricultural development, in mid-2015.
He asked to be hired as part of the Hundred Talents Program, which was established in 1994 to attract high-level talent, in an email to the Nanjing Institute.
In a 2016 email, Xiang stated, “I have been the senior research fellow at US Monsanto Company since February 2008, primarily working on the research and application of large agricultural data, agricultural smart information system, agricultural Spatio-temporal analysis models, crop phenotyping and monitoring, unmanned aerial vehicle agricultural remote sensing, hyperspectral remote sensing, agricultural sensor, etc.”
“I want to independently construct a smart digital agricultural fertilizer application management platform on the basis of big data, utilizing the appropriate advantages given by [the institute’s] research, human capital, and resources,” he added.
The Chinese platform’s purpose would be to use the Internet of Things, cloud computing, big data, and intelligence analysis and information for soil nutrient management and precision fertilizer application.
“This platform will enable rapid, low-cost popularization and commercialization of a world-class precision fertilizer application solution,” he said.
Xiang copied the Nutrient Optimizer from Monsanto’s computers to his work laptop in February 2016 and later stored it on a flash drive, according to the plea.
Customs and Border Protection authorities checked his carry-on luggage as he boarded a trip from Chicago to Shanghai on June 10, 2017, and discovered an 86-page booklet on the Nutrient Optimizer. Xiang subsequently went to China to work for the Hundred Talents Program at the Nanjing Institute, where he ran a laboratory.
Upon his return to the United States in 2019, he was detained and later prosecuted.
The defendant “intended and understood that the trade secret would benefit the CAS, a foreign instrumentality, and the PRC, a foreign government” by putting the Nutrient Optimizer on a micro card and taking it back to China, according to the plea.
According to Xiang’s LinkedIn page, he worked as an advanced imagery scientist at Monsanto and received his education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Nanjing Forestry University.
The date for sentencing has been scheduled for April. A single charge of conspiracy to commit economic espionage carries a potential punishment of 15 years in prison and a $5 million fine.
“Despite Xiang’s agreements to protect Monsanto’s intellectual property and repeated training on his obligations to do so, Xiang has now admitted to stealing a trade secret from Monsanto, transferring it to a memory card, and attempting to take it to the People’s Republic of China for the benefit of the Chinese government,” said Matthew G. Olsen, an assistant attorney general with the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “Xiang is now being held accountable for his unlawful conduct as a result of his guilty plea.”
“The American worker suffers when adversaries, such as the Chinese government, steal technology to boost their economies,” said FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Alan E. Kohler.
“Adversaries aren’t simply after military technology developed in secret labs; in this case, it was agricultural technology utilized by American farmers to boost crop yields,” he noted.
Vadim A. Glozman, Xiang’s lawyer, said he intends to oppose a court order that certain information in the case is suppressed.
Mr. Glozman stated, “Our goals are to return Haitao to his family as quickly as possible and to fight the denial of his request to suppress.” “If maintained, the government’s ability to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections during its investigation would have far-reaching consequences for everyone in this society.” We are looking forward to pursuing this case on appeal.”