Xiaorong (Shannon) You, formerly a senior R&D chemist at Coca-Cola and Eastman Chemical, has been convicted in Greeneville, Tennessee, of stealing trade secrets related to bisphenol A (BPA)–free beverage can liners. Prosecutors say You took intellectual property (IP) valued at $120 million from Coca-Cola and 7 chemical companies, intending to sell it to a Chinese polymer firm that was supported by government programs, including China’s controversial Thousand Talents Plan.
You, 59, was a principal engineer for global research at Coca-Cola from December 2012 through August 2017, when Coca-Cola fired her. She went to work for Eastman the following month. Eastman fired her in June 2018 and recovered a hard drive at her home containing trade secrets from Eastman, Coca-Cola, AkzoNobel, BASF, Dow, PPG Industries, Toyochem, and Sherwin-Williams.
BPA is a monomer used to make the epoxy resins that have lined steel and aluminum cans since the 1960s. Beverage companies are looking for alternatives to BPA because of concerns about the health effects of residual monomer in the 350 billion aluminum cans used around the world.
During You’s employment at Coca-Cola, the beverage maker was testing BPA-free can liners from several chemical and coatings companies. Some were epoxies made without BPA, like Sherwin-Williams’s valPure V70, which uses tetramethyl bisphenol F. Others were based on polyolefins and other types of plastic.
Federal law enforcement officials arrested You on Feb. 14, 2019. She has been in custody since then because she is deemed a flight risk. Prosecutors say that although she has no debt and a net worth of more than $1 million, her Michigan apartment was bare. “She has elected to have only a folding chair, a folding table, and a single mattress. That does not suggest she is settling into a new job, beginning a new career,” a court document says.
Instead, she was negotiating a deal with her Chinese partners, telling them on April 8, 2018, that “she does not intend to do anything ‘until she sees the money,’ ” according to the document.
You and her partners won funding from China’s Thousand Talents Plan as well as $12 million from a related program called Yishi-Yiyi sponsored by Shandong Province, prosecutors say. The jury found You guilty on 11 charges, including 7 counts of trade secret theft, along with conspiracy, wire fraud, and economic espionage. Her sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 1.
US officials often characterize the Thousand Talents Plan as being designed to encourage IP theft. Emily Weinstein, an analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, says that is an exaggeration, though she does see a pattern of ethical lapses and IP misappropriation among participants.
Weinstein says the structure of China’s talent recruitment programs and their applications encourage secrecy in a way that is unusual among scientific fellowship programs. Most information about the programs are inaccessible on the internet outside of China, for example. “There’s a piece of it that involves not being completely honest,” she says.
Yangyang Cheng, a China science policy scholar at Yale Law School, cautions against reading too much into one case. “Industrial espionage is as old as industry; it happens and has happened all over the world. It would be wrong and indeed harmful to interpret every act of individual greed through the lens of geopolitics,” she says.
The Thousand Talents Plan, now rolled into a larger High-End Talent Recruitment program, brought more than 10,000 people to China, including Jay Siegel, dean of pharmaceutical science at China’s Tianjin University.
“Although all unethical behavior is unacceptable,” Siegel says, “the incidence here appears to scale at less than 0.1%.” He suggests that tensions might be eased if more Americans studied in China. “400,000 Chinese students study in the US, whereas only 10,000 Americans study in China,” he says. “The flow of information is indeed horribly imbalanced, but for the greater part it is ethical.”
This story was updated on April 29, 2021 to incorporate comments from Emily Weinstein, Yangyang Cheng, and Jay Siegel.