In 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents caught researchers attempting to smuggle a $75 million trade secret from the United States to China. Unlike the trade secrets we usually discuss, the trade secrets in tow were rice seeds. But not just any rice seeds: these valuable seeds were genetically modified to create proteins used to treat gastrointestinal disease, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, hepatic disease, osteoporosis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Only six employees had access to the rice seeds at Ventria Bioscience—a biopharmaceutical company in Junction City, Kansas, and the only company in the United States with this proprietary technology. One of these employees, a Chinese scientist named Weiquang Zhang, stole hundreds of classified rice seeds, stashed them in his freezer, and conspired to smuggle them back to China.
Zhang also had help. Wengui Yan, a U.S. citizen employed at Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Arkansas, invited a delegation of researchers from his former employer in China to visit Kansas, using official U.S. Department of Agriculture letterhead. During the delegation’s visit, Zhang slipped them the seeds. Upon their departure, U.S. customs agents found upwards of 79 grams of seeds in the delegation’s luggage.
Zhang was convicted in 2017 of conspiracy to steal trade secrets (18 U.S.C. § 1832(a)(5)), conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property (18 U.S.C. § 371), and interstate transportation of stolen property (18 U.S.C. § 2314 and 2).
Last week, against the backdrop of increasing trade tensions between the United States and China, Zhang was sentenced to 121 months in federal prison for trade-secret theft. Yan pled guilty to making false statements to investigators and is awaiting sentencing.