A federal grand jury in St. Louis has indicted former Monsanto researcher Haitao Xiang, 42, for stealing predictive algorithms with the intention of handing them over to a Chinese government research institute. The platform, known as the Nutrient Optimizer, advises farmers on ways to improve crop growth and productivity.
Xiang, who has a PhD in agricultural engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, quit his job on June 9, 2017, and downloaded the Nutrient Optimizer to a micro SD card, according to the indictment. He then drove from St. Louis to Chicago, where he purchased a one-way ticket to China. Before he could board the flight, federal officials stopped him and seized the algorithms.
If convicted, Xiang, a Chinese citizen, faces up to 15 years in prison and a $5 million fine on each of several espionage charges and up to 10 years for each of several trade secret theft charges.
Xiang’s attorney, Eric Selig, says his client does not understand why the government is going after him. Selig says it is odd that the grand jury indicted Xiang more than two years after his arrest in Chicago and while the US is in a trade war with China.
John C. Demers, US assistant attorney general for national security, says in a statement that the indictment “alleges another example of the Chinese government using Talent Plans to encourage employees to steal intellectual property from their US employers.” Talent Plans are recruitment tools the Chinese government allegedly uses to lure people with useful technology from governments, universities, and businesses.
Xiang worked at Monsanto and its Climate Corp. subsidiary between 2008 and 2017 as a imaging scientist with responsibility for estimating soil properties using satellite imagery. Starting in 2015, the indictment says, Xiang discussed work opportunities with Chinese government recruiters and ultimately accepted a position at the Nanjing Institute of Soil Sciences.
Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, has dealt before with intellectual property theft allegedly directed by Chinese actors. In 2014, a Des Moines, Iowa, federal jury indicted seven Chinese nationals working for Dabeinong Technology Group for stealing hybrid corn seed technology from Monsanto and DuPont test fields.
Other examples of US agricultural property theft involving Chinese scientists include the case of Weiqiang Zhang, who received a 10-year prison sentence in 2018 for conspiring to steal genetically altered rice seed and give it to a delegation of scientists from a Chinese crop research institute. In 2011, Dow AgroSciences researcher Kexue Huang pled guilty to stealing trade secrets from Dow and Cargill and passing them to Chinese researchers.