Two Chinese scientists charged in another case of seed theft in US

Pair said to have passed on samples from Kansas research facility to visiting delegation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 9:42am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 6:03am

In the second case to emerge in as many days, two agricultural scientists from China are accused of conspiring to take seeds from a research facility in Kansas and pass them to a Chinese delegation visiting the United States.

At a detention hearing on Friday in the state of Arkansas, a judge ordered one of the scientists, Wengui Yan, to remain in custody. The other scientist, Weiqiang Zhang, is set to have a hearing on Tuesday in Kansas.

Yan and Zhang have been charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets.

Also last week, prosecutors in the state of Iowa said six men from China, including the CEO of a seed corn subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate, have been charged with conspiring to steal patented seed corn from two of America's leading seed developers. It wasn't immediately clear if the cases in Kansas and Iowa are related. But seed developers spend millions of dollars  to develop  new varieties and carefully protect them against theft to maintain a competitive advantage.

Prosecutors say Yan and Zhang arranged for a Chinese delegation to visit the United States this year and that customs agents later found stolen seeds in the delegation's luggage as it was preparing to return to China.

At the hearing on Friday, a federal judge ordered Yan, a naturalised US citizen, to remain in custody after prosecutors argued that he could flee the country.
Yan's lawyer, Chris Tarver, said Yan has lived in the US for years and that authorities had seized his client's passport. Zhang's attorney didn't respond to an e-mail. 

US Magistrate Judge Thomas Ray acknowledged that Yan has strong ties to Arkansas, but added: "There is a strong inference from the complaint that Dr Yan and his co-defendant were involved in a conspiracy to try to get advanced agricultural technology into the hands of the delegation that they helped to invite into the country."

Yan worked for the Department of Agriculture as a research geneticist at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Centre in Arkansas, and Zhang worked as an agricultural seed breeder for a biopharmaceutical company that has a production facility in Junction City, Kansas, according to a court document.
Prosecutors only identified the business where Zhang worked as Company A, but said the business invested about US$75 million in technology used to create seeds.

"If this technology was compromised or the seeds were stolen, Company A believes its entire research and development investment would be compromised," an FBI special agent wrote in a court document.

Zhang allegedly took seeds that his employer had grown and kept them at his home in Kansas. After a Chinese delegation visited the US, customs agents searched the visitors' luggage and found stolen seeds in envelopes and also in makeshift containers, including a newspaper page that had been folded in the shape of an envelope.

If convicted, Zhang and Yan could face up to 10 years in  prison and a fine of up to US$250,000.