A Chinese scientist who pleaded guilty on Thursday to US economic espionage charges was recruited by the Chinese government as part of a foreign espionage program that recruited people with access to foreign trade secrets and technology sought by Beijing.
Xiang Haitao, a former Monsanto scientist and permanent resident of the United States, was arrested in November 2019 upon his return to the United States after working in China and helping Beijing use an exclusive US commercial technology system designed to increase production agricultural.
After initially pleading not guilty to a federal economic espionage indictment, Xiang, 44, changed his guilty plea in federal court in the Eastern District of Missouri to St. Louis. The plea deal revealed that Xiang was recruited by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Beijing government’s science program, under a program called the One Hundred Talent Program in 2016.
The program, also sometimes known as the Thousand Talent Program, has produced dozens of FBI investigations and prosecutions against more than a dozen Chinese and US nationals whom US investigators accuse of working secretly for China in American universities and research centers.
The Trump administration estimated in a 2017 report on China’s economic “aggression” that Beijing stole around $ 250 to $ 600 billion a year in American technology and know-how.
From 2008 to 2017, Xiang worked as an agricultural imaging specialist for a Missouri company called The Climate Corp., which was purchased by St. Louis-based Monsanto in 2013. In 2017, Xiang left Monsanto and moved on to left the country with the details of the company. Nutrient Optimizer, proprietary predictive algorithm software designed to enable farmers to apply nutrients to plants in optimal applications.
The software merged weather data, soil information and farm management practices, allowing farmers to monitor fertilizer needs and future fertilizer applications.
The advocacy agreement says that in mid-2015, Xiang contacted the Chinese Academy of Sciences and its Nanjing Institute of Soil Sciences, which works on agricultural development.
In an email to the Nanjing Institute, he asked to be hired under the One Hundred Talents program, first launched in 1994 to recruit top talent.
“I have been a Principal Investigator at US Monsanto Company since February 2008, working primarily on the research and application of big agricultural data, intelligent agricultural information system, agricultural spatiotemporal analysis models, phenotyping and monitoring. crops, agricultural remote control of unmanned aerial vehicle hyperspectral remote sensing, agricultural sensor, etc. Xiang said in a 2016 email.
“Use the relevant advantages offered by research, human capital and the resources of [the institute], I plan to independently develop a smart digital platform for managing big data-based agricultural fertilizer applications, ”he added.
The goal of the Chinese platform would be to use the so-called Internet of Things, cloud computing, big data analysis and intelligence and information for the management of soil nutrients and l use of precision fertilizers.
“This platform will create a world-class precision fertilizer application solution, enabling rapid and inexpensive extension and promotion,” he said.
According to the plea, in February 2016, Xiang downloaded the Nutrient Optimizer from Monsanto’s computers to his work laptop and then placed it on a USB drive.
As he departed on a flight from Chicago to Shanghai on June 10, 2017, customs and border protection officers searched his carry-on baggage and found an 86-page document about the nutrient optimizer. Xiang then went to China and worked for the One Hundred Talent Program, operating a laboratory at the Nanjing Institute.
He was arrested in 2019 upon his return to the United States and subsequently charged.
By putting the Nutrient Optimizer on a micro-card and bringing it back to China, “the defendant intended and knew that the trade secret would benefit the TAS, a foreign body, and the PRC, a foreign government,” said the advocacy.
Xiang’s LinkedIn page says he worked at Monsanto as an advanced imaging scientist and was educated at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Nanjing Forestry University.
The sentence is fixed for the month of April. The maximum penalty for a single charge of conspiracy to commit economic espionage is 15 years in prison and a $ 5 million fine.
“Despite Xiang’s agreements to protect Monsanto’s intellectual property and repeated training on its obligations to do so, Xiang has now admitted to stealing a trade secret from Monsanto, transferring it to a memory card, and attempting to bring it along. in the People’s Republic of China for the benefit of the Chinese government, ”said Matthew G. Olsen, deputy attorney general in the National Security Justice Division. “With his guilty plea, Xiang is now held responsible for this illegal behavior. “
FBI Deputy Director for Counterintelligence Alan E. Kohler said, “The American worker suffers when adversaries like the Chinese government steal technology to grow their economy. “
“It’s not just military technology developed in secret labs that adversaries want; in this case, it was the agricultural technology used by American farmers to improve crop yields, ”he added.
Xiang’s attorney, Vadim A. Glozman, said he plans to appeal a court request to delete certain information in the case.
“Our intentions are to bring Haitao back to his family as soon as possible and to appeal the denial of his removal motion,” Glozman said. “In the course of its investigation, the manner in which the government was able to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections, if maintained, would have far-reaching effects on everyone in this country. We look forward to arguing this issue on appeal. “