Chinese national tried to steal a valuable U.S. trade secret: Kansas rice seeds

Weiqiang Zhang, a Chinese national, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for conspiracy to steal bioengineered rice from a Kansas lab.
Weiqiang Zhang, a Chinese national, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for conspiracy to steal bioengineered rice from a Kansas lab. 2013 photo

As trade tensions ratchet up between the United States and China, a Chinese national was sentenced Wednesday to more than 10 years in federal prison for stealing American rice in Kansas.

Very valuable, life-saving rice.

In a case of intellectual property theft, Weiqiang Zhang passed the rice seed — a trade secret — to visiting researchers so they could take them back to China. The plot was thwarted when the delegation was caught at the airport.

Zhang, 51, was a "rice breeder" for Ventria Bioscience in Junction City, Kan., a lab that genetically programs rice for uses in human medicine, from gastrointestinal disease to osteoporosis.

"Ventria invested years of research and tens of millions of dollars to create a new and beneficial product," said U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister, in announcing the sentence. "It is vital that we protect such intellectual property from theft and exploitation by foreign interests."

Zhang, a lawful permanent resident in the U.S., was a rice researcher at Kansas State University and received a doctorate in rice genetics from Louisiana State University. He began working for Ventria in 2008 and was in charge of plant breeding and nursery operations.

In 2012, Zhang and a co-defendant traveled to visit a crop research institute in China where Zhang once worked. The following year, the two made arrangements for a delegation from the Chinese institute to visit Kansas.

The delegation was invited on official U.S. Department of Agriculture letterhead by co-defendant Wengui Yan, a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Arkansas.

Meanwhile, Zhang purloined hundreds of rice seeds from Ventria and kept them at the home he and his wife shared in Manhattan, Kan.

When the delegation from China arrived, Zhang uncharacteristically requested leave from work on short notice and without explanation. When later asked about it by a supervisor, Zhang turned red.

Sometime during the delegation's visit, Zhang passed to them the valuable seeds, which use recombinant DNA to create proteins that can be used to treat gastrointestinal disease, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, hepatic disease, osteoporosis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Ventria invested about $75 million to develop this proprietary technology and is the only company in the U.S. that has it. The lab maintains seed banks in a climate-controlled environment. Only six employees had access to the storage area. Zhang was one of them.

As the delegation was returning to China, customs agents checked their bags and found at least 79 grams of seeds. They were examined by a rice expert from the Department of Agriculture, who determined some of them could only have come from Ventria. Lab tests confirmed it.

The FBI was on the case. With a search warrant, agents found seeds in Zhang's master bedroom closet and in his kitchen freezer.

Zhang denied giving seeds to the Chinese delegation and said he did not know how they obtained them.

But a jury convicted Zhang of conspiracy to steal trade secrets, conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property and interstate transportation of stolen property. He was sentenced Wednesday to 121 months in federal prison without parole.

Separately, Yan pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators and is awaiting sentencing.

In a news release, Acting Attorney General John P. Cronan of the Justice Department's Criminal Division applauded the sentence.

"The criminal division and its law enforcement partners," he said "will continue to work closely with companies like Ventria to protect American intellectual property — which is essential to our economy and way of life — against all threats both foreign and domestic."