DOJ: Chinese national charged with stealing trade secrets for China

DOJ: Chinese national charged with stealing trade secrets for China
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A Chinese national working for Monsanto was indicted by a Missouri grand jury Thursday on charges related to economic espionage and stealing trade secrets for the Chinese government.

Haitao Xiang, 42, formerly of Chesterfield, Mo., was employed as an imaging scientist by Monsanto, before it was purchased by Bayer AG, and its subsidiary company, The Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017, according to a Thursday statement from the Justice Department.

The Climate Corporation developed digital farming software that allowed American farmers to “collect, store, and visualize critical agricultural field data and increase and improve agricultural productivity for farmers,” according to the statement. Part of the technology was an algorithm called the “Nutrient Optimizer,” which Monsanto and The Climate Corporation call a “valuable trade secret” and their intellectual property. 

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In June 2017, the day after he left his job with the companies, Xiang purchased a one-way ticket to China. However, he was stopped by federal officials at the airport before he could board the flight, and the officials seized copies of the Nutrient Optimizer.

“The indictment alleges another example of the Chinese government using Talent Plans to encourage employees to steal intellectual property from their U.S. employers,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in the Thursday statement.

“Xiang promoted himself to the Chinese government based on his experience at Monsanto. Within a year of being selected as a Talent Plan recruit, he quit his job, bought a one-way ticket to China, and was caught at the airport with a copy of the company's proprietary algorithm before he could spirit it away."  

Special agent in charge Richard Quinn of the FBI St. Louis Division explained in the Thursday statement that “stealing trade secrets can destroy a business.” 

“When done at the behest of a foreign government, it threatens our nation’s economic security because it robs our companies of their market share and competitive advantage,” he said. 

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Xiang’s lawyer, Eric Selig, confirmed to Reuters that his client would plead not guilty at his arraignment. A date for the arraignment has not been set. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing Friday that “No matter if it’s a Chinese citizen or an American citizen, if they’ve violated a law, if the Americans have fairly handled the case according to law, then we have no objection,” Reuters reported.

In 2008, China announced its “Thousand Talents Plan” in an effort to recruit scientific researchers, according to Reuters. American officials have called the plan a threat to U.S. security.

Xiang is indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit economic espionage, three counts of economic espionage, one count of conspiracy to commit theft of trade secrets and three counts of theft of trade secrets. If he is convicted, each espionage charge carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a $5,000,000 fine. Each theft of trade secret charge carries up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.