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The Scientist and the Spy: A true Story of China, the FBI and Industrial Espionage

 by Mara Hvistendahl (Riverhead Books, 2020)­
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­Mara Hvistendahl describes the theft of intellectual property by a Chinese scientist and the reaction of US law enforcement. In 39 short chapters, Hvistendahl, a US science journalist formerly based in Shanghai, masterfully unravels the case of Robert Mo. He was picked up by police for the first time in a cornfield in Iowa in 2011 and arrested years later on charges of industrial espionage for stealing genetically modified corn from US companies Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. Using declassified police and FBI documents, surveillance tapes, and interviews with many of the people involved in the case, Hvistendahl takes the reader on a gripping deep-dive through the many layers of the case. 

In vivid prose, the reader is introduced to the basics of genetically engineering corn and to FBI investigation practices. Rather than telling a simple cat-and-mouse spy story, the author focuses on the personal dimension of Robert Mo. Disappointed by his academic career prospects, family connections lead him to be hired by Chinese company DBN. Mo ends up driving around cornfields to collect seeds he sends to China for reverse engineering. But Hvistendahl also shows how law enforcement labors under misguided and even racist notions – Chinese spies, for example, are taken to be like “locusts in a swarm festering on American technological secrets”. While never downplaying the problem of spying, Hvistendahl manages to dissect this problematic reaction to espionage by laying out the history of the FBI’s approach and its dubious theories about Chinese culture. 

With the Chinese-American technology war in danger of spinning out of control, this look at industrial espionage and intellectual property rights is very timely. Hvistendahl uses her lively prose to show that a nuanced approach is necessary. She shows how blanket labeling and generalized suspicion of one group actually harm American interests. Sadly, given the Trump administration’s actions and rhetoric, the true story Hvistendahl tells so well could prove to be a missed opportunity to make things better.

Review by MERICS analyst Nis Grünberg

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