A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage
Email this review


Chinese spying meets American incompetence in a story of several gangs that couldn’t shoot straight.

Practitioners of industrial espionage don’t just skulk around factories photographing blueprints and machinery. In the case that journalist Hvistendahl (Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, 2011), a former Shanghai correspondent for Science, brings to light, a Chinese national was found wandering in an Iowa cornfield, looking for samples of Monsanto’s genetically modified corn to take home and decode. Iowa was a natural ground zero for a crop that covers more than 93 million acres, “a swath nearly the size of California.” The would-be spy was a disaffected researcher who had lost a job in an American lab and been recruited by his sister, who in turn was married to the CEO of a giant Chinese agribusiness, part of an effort to make China the undisputed leader in exporting food around the world. Arrested in the U.S., the sister went free over botched police procedures. Her brother wasn’t so lucky even though helpful police officers who found him in that Iowa field referred him to local farmers and agricultural extension agencies with any questions he might have about the corn in question. As Hvistendahl observes, connecting many dots, the case had numerous implications, fueling Donald Trump’s nativist threats of trade war with China and China’s retaliation with a 25% tax on American corn. “When the measures finally took hold,” she writes, “it was clear that farmers in Iowa—the same people who helped to elect Trump—would be hard hit.” And so they were, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The author doesn’t diminish the presence of Chinese spies, who have been exposed in numerous enterprises; she also digs deep into the rather nefarious business of genetic modification, which so tarnished the Monsanto name that the brand name is being retired under new ownership, “an unusual move in the acquisition of an established firm.”

A capable work of cat-and-mouse espionage that suggests that industrial spying is just business as usual.

Pub Date: Feb. 4th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-7352-1428-6
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2019