The United States is one of the leaders in agriculture technology. However, it has been facing a tough challenge from China for the last few years as it has repeatedly been crawling into the “secure” web around the agro-tech industry and stealing valuable intellectual property. In 2019, China announced, “Made in China 2025” with an aim to dominate high-tech industries across the world, including agriculture. China aims to become the most powerful nation in the world by 2049. To achieve the target, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not shy away from theft, cyber-hacking and espionage to steal information from the leaders in the industry.
According to a report published by the US Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property in 2017, IP thefts cost the US $255 billion to $600 billion every year. The key infringer, according to the report, is China. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) acknowledged in 2020 that it opens a new China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours. Fifty per cent of all the active FBI counterintelligence cases include China. In the last decade, the FBI said, economic espionage linked to China increased by almost 1,300 per cent.
Trillions of dollars worth of US tech has been stolen by China in the last ten years, and agriculture technology has been one of the top targets. As per reports, Chinese nationals have been arrested on several occasions while trying to transport pilfered corn and rice seed to China. Experts believe that the cases where arrests were made and the accused were prosecuted just the tip of the iceberg.
Popular cases of seed theft
In 2011, Mo Hailong, the US director of international business for Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group, was spotted stealing Pioneer and Monsanto seed corn. FBI had initiated an investigation and arrested Hailong and other Chinese nationals in 2013 when they were trying to board a plane for China. Authorities had found hundreds of seed samples in their luggage. Hailong was sentenced to 36 months in prison.
Weiqiang Zhang, a seed breeder at Ventria who studied biotech crop production at Kansas State University and received a degree in rice genetics at Louisiana State University, was caught by the agencies for fraudulently inviting “Chinese research colleagues” for a tour of Ventria and other US agriculture research centres. They were caught trying to smuggle rice seeds to China by the US Customs during routine luggage check. Zhang was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In 2017, Haitao Xiang, an imaging scientist at Monsanto and its subsidiary The Climate Corporation, was arrested at the airport with a micro SD card copy of a proprietary algorithm. Xiang had been working with the company since 2008.
In 2018, Liu Xuejun and Sun Yue were indicted for “conspiracy to steal trade secrets and conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property.” According to a report in Reuters, they visited rice research and production facilities and stole rice seeds. Those seeds were recovered from their luggage while they were trying to board plane back to China.
Col. (Ret.) John Mills, national security professional and former Director of Cybersecurity Policy, Strategy, and International Affairs at the Department of Defense said, “It’s fair to label these cases as tip of the iceberg or tip of the dinner fork. I mean, they are a drop in the bucket. For so long, US counterintelligence has been focused on Russia, yet China presents a threat many orders of magnitude greater. China is intent on cataloguing seed and DNA on a vast scale, and they’ve spent at least ten years vacuuming up every piece of tech from every sector in the US. You can be absolutely certain: Agriculture is right up there at the top, and this is happening right now.”
China’s attempt to increase farmland and production
China is the largest country population-wise, and it keeps looking to increase its agriculture base to ensure food security. It plans to increase its farmland to 132 million acres in the next ten years. Recently, it has revamped 16.5 million acres into farmland which is roughly equal to the size of Ireland. China’s President Xi Jinping does not leave any chance to mention food security in his speeches hinting towards the fact that the communist government would not shy away stoop to the lowest in order to achieve its targets.
Notably, ChemChina invested $46 billion in Syngenta, a Switzerland-based company with locations covering Chicago, Tel Aviv and Shanghai. With the investment, China gained access to the company’s transgenic seeds and crop protection products.
BRI – the preparation for the future
Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an infrastructure project that will cross through 70 nations giving unparallel access to global trade to China by 2049. It was launched in 2013, and to compliment the project, China announced a 10-year initiative to dominate ten high-tech sectors by 2025, including IT, AI, telecommunications, electric vehicles, aerospace engineering, advanced electronics, biomedicine, high-speed rail, maritime engineering, and, of course, agricultural technology.
Cyberwarfare to steal technology
China follows a simple rule, if technology cannot be bought or developed, it can be stolen. Notably, the Strategic Support Force, an army command dedicated to cyber warfare, has been a frontrunner in espionage.
CCP’s loyal followers are the biggest threat
The ruling party of China has around 90 million members. They are committed to the party and have sworn oath of allegiance, promising to “carry out the Party’s decisions, strictly observe Party discipline, guard Party secrets, be loyal to the Party, work hard, fight for communism throughout my life, be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the Party and the people, and never betray the Party.”
Christopher Wray, Director, FBI, The Chinese intelligence services strategically use every tool at their disposal, including state-owned businesses, students, researchers and ostensibly private companies, to systematically steal information and intellectual property.”
According to US security experts, there are roughly 360,000 Chinese nationals at any given time studying in US universities. Joe Augustyn, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, had said in 2019, “We know without a doubt that anytime a graduate student from China comes to the US, they are briefed when they go and brief when they come back. They don’t just come here to spy … they come here to study, and a lot of it is legitimate. But there is no question in my mind, depending on where they are and what they are doing, that they have a role to play for their government.”
John Mills believes there is a high percentage of Chinese nationals studying in US universities funnelling information to CCP. He said, “It’s my opinion that many are either working for the Ministry of State Security (China’s CIA-FBI hybrid organization), and 100% are fully aware of their obligation to the CCP. That is the price to be here. Part of their presence here, granted with CCP permission, is a promise, often a quid pro quo, to assist the CCP in getting whatever is needed.”
‘FBI woke up too late
Mills said the FBI woke up to the threat far too late. “It is the CCP’s goal to steal, glean, obtain, transcribe, and photograph anything of value from the US, and the agriculture sector is right at the top. China is a net food importer, and that is a strategic vulnerability of the CCP.”
He added, “China is a net importer of food. They cannot feed their population without American farmers. The spike in bacon prices over the last few years is related to China’s demand for pork and is an exemplar of the strategic food situation. Agriculture is absolutely one of the CCP’s top targets of intelligence collection, and unfortunately for American farmers, agriculture is one of the softest targets through the theft of intellectual property, privileged company research, or the physical theft of seeds. Rest assured, even if China can’t produce a crop with the stolen info, they are passing it to other breadbasket nations that are kindred, or at least beholden, to assist in growing food.”
China’s ideological marketing machines in Universities
Earlier, it was reported that China has been trying to overtake education in schools and universities across developed nations. Reports suggest that CCP uses Confucius Institutes and Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) to gain access to the US universities resulting in espionage and surveillance. Reportedly, after learning about the consequences, 75 universities have closed Confucius Institutes. However, there are still 140 such institutes operating in the US. Notably, Michael Lauer, deputy director of extramural research at the National Institutes for Health (NIH), admitted in front of a Senate Committee that they had found 500 “scientists of concern” at federally funded institutions. In April 2021, NIH has contacted “more than 90 awardee institutions” regarding specific issues with 200 scientists.
The worrisome numbers of scientists on CCP’s payroll
Agencies have been trying to weed out experts on CCP’s payroll. According to Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), “China designed the Thousand Talents Plan in 2008 to recruit 2,000 high-quality overseas experts. By 2017, China dramatically exceeds its recruitment goal, recruiting more than 7,000′ high-end professionals.”
He added, “Thousand Talents Plan members typically receive a salary and funding for their research from Chinese institutions, such as Chinese universities or research institutions. In exchange for the salary and research funding, which sometimes include what’s called a shadow lab in China, members sign legally binding contracts with the Chinese institutions that typically contain provisions that prevent the members from disclosing their participation in the program. This requirement, of course, runs counter to US regulations that require grant recipients to disclose foreign funding sources. In effect, it incentivizes program members to lie on grant applications to US grant-making agencies and to avoid disclosing their funding from Chinese institutions. China now wants to keep this quiet.”
According to a Wall Street Journal report, “When officials at the Texas A&M University System sought to determine how much Chinese government funding its faculty members were receiving, they were astounded at the results—more than 100 were involved with a Chinese talent-recruitment program, even though only five had disclosed their participation. A plant pathologist at the Texas system, where the median annual salary for such scientists employed by the state is around $130,000, told officials that the researcher had been offered $250,000 in compensation and more than $1 million in seed money to start a lab in China through one of the talent programs.”
Fight against CCP
In April 2021, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) efforts resulted in the introduction of the Agricultural Intelligence Measures (AIM) Act to create an intelligence office with USDA. Cotton said, “The Chinese Communist Party wants to undermine vital American industries through sabotage and intellectual property theft—US agriculture is no exception. Our bill will help safeguard the food and technology that our country depends on for its prosperity and freedom.” More such efforts are now in place to stop the theft by the Chinese. However, it is still too early to say if the US would be able to fight back the espionage considering the deep-rooted access to the Chinese government in the US’s agriculture sector.