A Chinese Scientist Stole American Rice and Will Spend Up to a Decade in Prison

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Weiqiang Zhang, in this handout photo released on December 12, 2013, by Kansas’s Wyandotte County Detention Center, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiring to steal rice seeds from a biopharmaceutical company in Kansas. Wyandotte County Detention Center/Handout via Reuters/REUTERS

A scientist from China has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in the United States for stealing seeds of genetically modified American rice, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

The Chinese scientist, Weiqiang Zhang, 51, was a legal permanent resident living in Manhattan, Kansas. He was working as a rice breeder at Ventria Bioscience, a biopharmaceutical company that creates genetically modified rice. He stole hundreds of rice seeds from the company that had cost millions of dollars and taken years of research to develop, according to the Justice Department. He kept the seeds in his home.

Then in 2013, United States Customs and Border Protection agents found the seeds in luggage belonging to researchers who visited Zhang from China. They were on their way back to China with the seeds.

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In February, he was convicted of three counts: Conspiring to steal trade secrets, conspiring to transport stolen property across states lines and transporting stolen property between states.

"Weiqiang Zhang betrayed his employer by unlawfully providing its proprietary rice seeds to representatives of a Chinese crop institute," Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan said in a statement. "Today's sentence demonstrates the significant consequences awaiting those who would steal trade secrets from American companies."

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Weiqiang Zhang, in this handout photo released on December 12, 2013, by Kansas’s Wyandotte County Detention Center, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiring to steal rice seeds from a biopharmaceutical company in Kansas. Wyandotte County Detention Center/Handout via Reuters/REUTERS

The conclusion of the years-long case comes as President Donald Trump's administration is planning to punish China for what the White House has said is the theft of intellectual property by that country. In a tweet on Wednesday, the president put the annual amount of intellectual property theft at $300 billion.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has also warned about China. Asked during a Senate intelligence committee hearing in February about the counterintelligence risk from Chinese students in the U.S., Wray said, "The use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it's professors, scientists, students we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country…. They're exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have."

Two public defenders for Zhang did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.