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Chinese scientist pleads guilty over theft of US trade secrets

A Chinese national has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit economic espionage after he was accused of attempting to steal trade secrets from American agrochemical company Monsanto while residing in the US.

Xiang Haitao, 44, “conspired to steal a trade secret” from the company “for the purpose of benefiting a foreign government, namely the People’s Republic of China,” the US Justice Department claimed in a statement on Thursday.

Xiang allegedly attempted to steal the trade secret while working as a scientist for Monsanto in the state of Missouri, where the company is headquartered. After Xiang left his job, he allegedly purchased a one-way flight ticket to China and authorities found a copy of Monsanto’s ‘Nutrient Optimizer’ algorithm – which the company considers to be a trade secret – on one of his electronic devices.

The accused pleaded guilty to the charge this week and faces up to 15 years in prison and a $5 million fine. He is set to be sentenced on April 7.

“We cannot allow US citizens or foreign nationals to hand sensitive business information over to competitors in other countries,” said US Attorney Sayler Fleming, calling such crimes “a danger to the US economy” and “our national security.”

FBI Counterintelligence Division Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. identified “the American worker” as the chief victim “when adversaries, like the government of China, steal technology to grow their economies.”

“It’s not just military technology developed in secret labs that adversaries want; in this case, it was agricultural technology used by American farmers to improve crop yields,” he warned.

The guilty plea is the latest victory in the US Justice Department’s war on alleged Chinese interference.

Last month, the former head of Harvard University’s chemistry department was found guilty on several charges over his ties to China and the Wuhan Institute of Technology.

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