Agro-Espionage: How China Tried to Steal U.S. Rice Research

The case of two insiders with connections to China, accused agro-espionage, one within the USDA Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center and the other within Ventria Bioscience, has closed its final chapter with the April sentencing of Wieqiang Zhang to 121 months in a federal prison.

The co-conspirators, one a Chinese citizen and the other a naturalized U.S. citizen from China, were accused in December 2013 with theft of advance rice research for stealing trade secrets. The PRC benefactor was the Crop Research Institute of China, which is a part of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science (CAAS) and a PRC State Key Lab. While Zhang’s sentencing came about following a jury trial, Yan had accepted a plea bargain in 2016, which saw espionage and trade secret theft charges dropped, and he was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

Agro-espionage?

Espionage targeting the U.S. agricultural sector has been ongoing, as China strives to both feed its ever-increasing urban population as well as keep abreast of medicinal advances. The theft of the trade secrets from Ventria Bioscience was estimated to be in the neighborhood of $75 million, according to the Department of Justice (DoJ).

The pair specifically targeted Ventria’s methods of “developing, propagating, growing, cultivating, harvesting, cleaning, and storing particular agriculture seeds for cost-effectively producing recombinant proteins from such seeds,” according to the DoJ complaint. The genetic work conducted by Ventria specifically “develops and produces particular agricultural seeds, which have been designed to express proteins used in the medical and pharmaceutical fields.” According to the CEO of Ventria, as detailed in the DoJ’s criminal complaint, his company’s current level of investment is about $75 million, and the research investment in the specific seeds stolen by the pair was between $3 million and $18 million, with loss of profits in the event of commercialization by another entity to be substantially larger.

Why Target U.S. Agriculture?

The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture each year highlights how “agriculture, rural community and farmer related issues are a primary topic of China’s ‘No. 1 Central Document’.”  The goal, according to the PRC government, “By 2035, ‘decisive’ progress shall be made, with basic modernization of agriculture and rural areas. All Chinese, either in cities or rural areas, will have equal access to basic public services. Urban and rural integration will improve.” Thus, we can directly relate the case of Yan and Zhang as demonstrative evidence of the manner in which the PRC is willing to go to achieve China’s national agricultural goals.

Who Are These Agro-espionage Agents?

Wieqiang Zhang (張偉強) is a citizen of the PRC and lawful permanent resident in the United states, residing in Manhattan, Kansas. He was an employee of Ventria Bioscience at their Junction City, Kansas, facility. Zhang was employed by Ventria from 2008 to 2013. He received his Ph.D. in Rice Genetics, breeding and molecular biology from Louisiana State University in 2005 and his masters degree in agriculture in China in 1992. While in China, he worked at a Crop Research Institute in the development and production of rice.

Wengui Yan (嚴文貴) became a naturalized U.S. citizen in November 2000, having immigrated from the PRC in 1987, and resides in Stuttgart, Arkansas. He received his masters and undergraduate degrees from Sichuan Agricultural University in China. In about 1992 he received his Ph.D. in Plant Genetics and Breeding from the University of Arkansas. Since 1996, he has been an employee of the USDA Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, also located in Stuttgart. Research shows Yan holds patents associated with rice genomics.

The Crime

The theft of the USDA and Ventria’s research was discovered when the luggage of a Chinese delegation was searched, and the rice seeds associated with the two entities’ research were discovered. Subsequent investigation showed the delegation had been visiting a variety of agricultural entities to include the USDA’s research center and private agricultural facilities in Missouri (believed to have be owned by Monsanto). The delegation’s invitation to the United States was orchestrated by Yan, using his official position within the USDA, where at the time of his arrest he was identified as one of the United States’ leading researchers on rice genetics. The collaboration between Yan and Zhang was conducted outside of the IT infrastructure and data loss prevention regimes of the USDA and Ventria, by using their personal email accounts with the Chinese state entities.

The Chinese shopping list and goals for their trip were:

– Provide rice research breeds accelerating China’s science research.
– Recommend the U.S. science technology to accelerate Chinese agriculture science research and faster development in modernizing production.
– Returning to China to proceed science and technology exchange, research cooperation and assist Chinese professors advising research students.
– Train talents for the Chinese agricultural science and technology.

Long-term View?

The use of visiting academics by the Chinese intelligence apparatus has been ongoing for decades. It was instrumental in the Project 863 (March 1986) when a major push to modernize the PRC technology deficit was initiated. At that time, a comprehensive list of technologies absent and unavailable to China was identified for acquisition. The Chinese description of the goals of Project 863 – National High-tech R&D Program is to permit China to “leapfrog progress in the high-tech field.”

Both Yan and Zhang came to the United States as academics. One pursued citizenship, the other permanent legal resident status. Both succeeded. The obvious questions:

  • Where either or both of these individuals seeded into the United States with the end goal to commit espionage on behalf of China?
  • Where either or both of these individuals contacted after they had established themselves in positions of interest in their field by the Chinese to commit espionage?

Prognosis is, the targeting of the U.S. agriculture sector will continue and will increase, especially if tariffs make it more difficult for China to import agriculture products from the United States. China’s population will not sit idly by while the central government figures out how to feed the population. We should therefore, take China at its word. The country will target R&D to leapfrog the global competition.

If you’re in the agricultural sector, you have fair warning.

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Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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