WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - A Chinese national pleaded guilty on Thursday (Jan 6) in Missouri federal court to conspiring to steal trade secrets from agricultural company Monsanto to benefit the Chinese government, the US Justice Department said.
Xiang Haitao, who was employed by Monsanto and a subsidiary from 2008 to 2017, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit economic espionage and is scheduled to be sentenced on April 7, the Justice Department said in a statement.
He faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
Federal officials found Xiang in possession of copies of a proprietary predictive algorithm developed by Monsanto as he was waiting to board a flight to China in June 2017, according to the statement.
He was allowed to fly to China, where he worked for the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Soil Science, it said.
He was arrested when he returned to the United States, the statement said.
"Despite Xiang’s agreements to protect Monsanto’s intellectual property and repeated training on his obligations to do so, Xiang has now admitted that he stole a trade secret from Monsanto, transferred it to a memory card and attempted to take it to the People’s Republic of China for the benefit of the Chinese government," Assistant Attorney-General Matthew Olsen said.
"Mr Xiang used his insider status at a major international company to steal valuable trade secrets for use in his native China," said US Attorney Sayler Fleming for the Eastern District of Missouri.
"We cannot allow US citizens or foreign nationals to hand sensitive business information over to competitors in other countries."
A Chinese foreign ministry, speaking in 2019 at the time Xiang was charged by US authorities, said Washington was trying to use the case to back its accusations that China steals technology from US companies.
"We resolutely oppose the US side’s attempts to use the case, which we regard as an ordinary, isolated incident, to hype up claims of China’s organised and systematic attempts to steal intellectual property from the US," spokesman Geng Shuang said.
Monsanto was acquired by Bayer AG in 2018.