Summary and book reviews of The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl

The Scientist and the Spy

A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage

by Mara Hvistendahl

The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl X
The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl
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  • Published:
    Feb 2020, 336 pages

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Book Summary

A riveting true story of industrial espionage in which a Chinese-born scientist is pursued by the U.S. government for trying to steal trade secrets, by a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.

In September 2011, sheriff's deputies in Iowa encountered three ethnic Chinese men near a field where a farmer was growing corn seed under contract with Monsanto. What began as a simple trespassing inquiry mushroomed into a two-year FBI operation in which investigators bugged the men's rental cars, used a warrant intended for foreign terrorists and spies, and flew surveillance planes over corn country—all in the name of protecting trade secrets of corporate giants Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. In The Scientist and the Spy, Hvistendahl gives a gripping account of this unusually far-reaching investigation, which pitted a veteran FBI special agent against Florida resident Robert Mo, who after his academic career foundered took a questionable job with the Chinese agricultural company DBN—and became a pawn in a global rivalry.

Industrial espionage by Chinese companies lies beneath the United States' recent trade war with China, and it is one of the top counterintelligence targets of the FBI. But a decade of efforts to stem the problem have been largely ineffective. Through previously unreleased FBI files and her reporting from across the United States and China, Hvistendahl describes a long history of shoddy counterintelligence on China, much of it tinged with racism, and questions the role that corporate influence plays in trade secrets theft cases brought by the U.S. government. The Scientist and the Spy is both an important exploration of the issues at stake and a compelling, involving read.

Fall 2011

Deputy Cass Bollman sped toward the farm, the bright morning sun glaring through the window of his patrol car. To the north was the town of Bondurant, Iowa, where newly built houses huddled together on treeless lots, churches dominated street corners, and the marquee outside Dino's Storage read avoid all negative talk. To the south was a Tetris puzzle of cornfields. God-fearing citizens on one side, vast fields on the other, and two-lane 70th Avenue running like a ruler between the two. A few miles east of town, Bollman steered the patrol car toward the corn.

The fields were a few weeks from harvest, and the corn stretched over seven feet tall. Central Iowa had blossomed into the lingering, pleasant days that make its winter hibernation bearable. Just a few minutes earlier, Bollman had been about to take a coffee break at the Git 'n' Go when an alert came over the radio for an incident out by 96th Street. South of here walking westbound there is an Asian male wearing a suit ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Hvistendahl writes about the science of corn adeptly. The book never gets bogged down in technical babble. Her pacing is stellar, with short chapters quickly hopping between the three main characters. Her writing style—a mix of journalism and suspense—helps mitigate the more technical components of the story. However, the author's banal defense of China in this book rings hollow and unconvincing, which is a shame, because overall, The Scientist and the Spy is an extremely well-written, engaging story...continued

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Media Reviews

Washington Post
Hvistendahl, a Pulitzer finalist who has covered China extensively, turns a 2011 case of Chinese trade spies into a riveting whodunit that delves into how nations protect their resources while still engaging in trade deals with rivals. You’ll learn a lot about China, but still more about the place it will hold in the global economy in the decades to come.

Kirkus Reviews
The author doesn't diminish the presence of Chinese spies, who have been exposed in numerous enterprises; she also digs deep into the rather nefarious business of genetic modification...A capable work of cat-and-mouse espionage that suggests that industrial spying is just business as usual.

Library Journal
[A] compelling tale of industrial espionage...This engaging book has something for everyone; it can be read as a spy thriller, an examination of U.S.-China relations, or a case study of agricultural espionage.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[F]ascinating and well-researched...Those looking for insights into the current tensions with China will be rewarded.

Booklist (starred review)
Unlike many current spy books, which focus on long-ago espionage, this one examines an investigation into the pressing, ongoing problem of industrial espionage. Hard to put down and harder to stop thinking about.

Author Blurb Ian Bremmer, author of Us Vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism
Before there was a trade war, there was industrial espionage. To understand today's fight between the United States and China, you need to understand the seeds of the conflict, and this book is on the money. A nonfiction thriller for our times.

Author Blurb Deborah Blum, author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Quest for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
The Scientist and the Spy is as compulsively readable as espionage thriller and as darkly troubling as any morality tale. Told with empathy, insight, and remarkable detail, the author shines a clear light on the increasingly relentless federal investigation, its Chinese targets, and the powerful government and business interests that drive the story to its fascinating conclusion.

Author Blurb Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
You will learn more about China from this thrilling, real-life drama than you will from a whole stack of China-related books by lesser talents. Mara Hvistendahl has given us an utterly original, provocative, and revealing tale of the relationship between China and the United States—and what a tale it is. Intrepid, humane, and always tough-minded, she writes with the lucid precision of a science writer and the flair of a seasoned spy novelist.

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Beyond the Book

American Complicity in Chinese Authoritarianism

Under President Bill Clinton, the United States agreed to allow the People's Republic of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO). The deal was finalized under President George W. Bush in December 2001. It was believed at the time that international trade would help depose one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world like perestroika did with the Soviets. American corporations were salivating with glee over the (at the time) 1.2 billion potential customers they might sell goods to, as well as the cheap labor pool China would bring to the global market.

It was an educated, if optimistic, geopolitical gambit by the U.S., and it did not play out as hoped. Today the Chinese Communist Party oversees the world's largest army and ...

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