Ten years in prison sounds like a lot for stealing a few grains of rice.
Chinese scientist gets 10 years for stealing GM rice
But on Wednesday a US court sentenced a Chinese scientist to 10 years in prison for stealing secrets from an American biotech firm, a case of intellectual theft that the US government has seized on as a warning message to “foreign interests” amid escalating trade conflicts with China.
“Today’s sentence demonstrates the significant consequences awaiting those who would steal trade secrets from American companies,” said John P. Cronan, a US Justice Department prosecutor.
Zhang Weiqiang, 51, a Chinese national and US permanent resident who worked for the biopharmaceutical company Ventria Bioscience in Kansas, was found guilty of stealing samples of engineered rice developed by the company, the department said in a statement.
“Weiqiang Zhang betrayed his employer by unlawfully providing its proprietary rice seeds to representatives of a Chinese crop institute,” Cronan said in the statement, which didn’t name the institute.
The rice is genetically programmed to produce proteins that can be extracted for therapeutic and medical purposes.
Stephen R. McAllister, a Kansas state prosecutor, said: “It is vital that we protect such intellectual property from theft and exploitation by foreign interests.”
Zhang’s case is the latest example of agricultural economic espionage, an issue which the FBI identified last year as a “growing threat.”
It makes for a conveniently timed example of the intellectual property theft that President Trump has accused China of, while ordering punitive tariffs against Chinese products.
Zhang, who has a master’s degree in agriculture from Shenyang Agricultural University in China and a doctorate from Louisiana State University in the US, worked as a rice breeder for Ventria Bioscience in Junction City, Kansas.
Trial evidence found that in the summer of 2013, people from an unnamed crop research institute in China visited Zhang at his home in Manhattan, Kansas, and Zhang drove the visitors to tour facilities in Iowa, Missouri and Ohio.
On 7 August 2013, US Customs and Border Protection officers found seeds belonging to Ventria in the luggage of Zhang’s visitors as they prepared to leave the US for China.
Zhang was convicted last February of one count of conspiracy to steal trade secrets, one count of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property and one count of interstate transportation of stolen property.
Zhang’s 121 month jail sentence is one of the longest imposed by the US courts on a Chinese citizen for economic espionage.
In comparison, Chinese-born engineer Dongfan “Greg” Chung, was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison in 2010 for stealing information about the US space shuttle.
And in October 2016, Robert Mo Hailong, a Chinese national, was jailed for three years for conspiracy to steal trade secrets related to corn seeds in Iowa.