A neatly planted cornfield in Iowa might not seem like the setting for an international trade war, but looks can be deceiving. Mara Hvistendahl, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, has been writing about China for over a decade. A former Midwesterner who is equally comfortable in farmers’ kitchens as in her high-rise apartment in Beijing, Hvistendahl is uniquely situated to tell this unexpectedly dramatic story.
Robert Mo originally came to the U.S. to pursue a career in thermodynamics. Unable to land a tenure-track job in academia, Mo accepted a lucrative position at a Chinese agricultural company. Soon, Mo was on the road to various Midwestern towns.
Police reports record sightings of “an Asian man in a suit, standing in a cornfield.” Mo was seeking corn samples from the biggest companies in the business, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, and he was not alone. Many companies seek shortcuts to the kinds of high-performing strains of corn that are private intellectual property in the U.S. Mo soon finds himself trailed by FBI agents, and a slow game of cat-and-mouse ensues. One larger-than-life corn consultant, Kevin Montgomery, tries to piece together the puzzle while drinking lemonade on his back porch. As Montgomery’s interviews with Hvistendahl suggest, the tactics of both the Chinese and the FBI are equally baffling for an insider in corn genetics.
Chinese agricultural espionage has been a topic of increasing significance, but where do our ideas about China come from? In The Scientist and the Spy, Hvistendahl traces the particulars of Mo’s case, but she also explores the racialized history of FBI investigations into Chinese immigrants. Her careful contextualization of the case makes its particulars loom with the uncertainty of a fun house mirror. Those who seem like perpetrators look, in certain lights, like victims, and the victims like perpetrators. As the “truth” of the case itself fades from visibility, what remains is the feeling that the case is, as Hvistendahl puts it, “a Rorschach test” for views on the Chinese technology threat. To find your own perspective, read this fascinating story, which speaks to the larger geopolitical tensions shaping our time.