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Gill: Seed theft could harm KSU’s relationship with China

By Bryan Richardson

A Kansas State official is worried about the effect of an alleged seed theft conspiracy on the university’s relationship with China .

Weiqiang Zhang of Manhattan and Wengui Yan of Stuttgart, Ark., were charged last week with conspiracy to steal trade secrets after allegedly providing stolen rice seed samples to a Chinese delegation visiting the U.S. from July 16 to Aug. 7.

The seeds belonged to Zhang’s employer, Ventria Bioscience, a company with a research facility in Junction City, that develops genetically modified rice to grow proteins for medical and pharmaceutical uses.

Bikram Gill, university distinguished professor of plant pathology and the Wheat Genetics Resource Center director, said the accusations are shocking to him.

He said it harms what’s typically a “win-win situation” for both countries.

“Generally, we have an avenue of welcoming such collaborations,” Gill said. “There are legal ways to collaborate.”

Kansas State opened its China office in 2006, the first one by a U.S. university. The university currently has almost 1,000 international students (both undergraduate and graduate) from China on campus. That’s nearly half of the total number of international students at K-State.

Gill has maintained a relationship with China over the years, having visited China in 1987.

He received the National Friendship Award from the Chinese government last year.

The award is China’s highest recognition for foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to the country’s economic and social progress.

Gill has connections with China, but he said he didn’t recognize the name or face of Zhang.

He said the alleged actions of the two men aren’t good for the university.

“It will have a lot of chilling effects with guilty by association things,” he said.

Zhang has a Kansas State connection, but the extent of it is vague at this point.  Zhang worked as a visiting scholar at Kansas State from July 2000 to May 2001, according to his Louisiana State University dissertation.

In a drafted email that alleged started the conspiracy, Zhang said his research focused primarily on the spring and winter wheat’s ability to endure cold weather and the hereditary transformation of this genetic quality.

Beyond that, the criminal complaint leaves out information that would identify any further connections.

Jim Cross, public information officer for U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom, said a criminal complaint only provides the information that considered needful.

“What’s public and what’s not is a moving target in federal criminal cases,” Cross said, adding more information will get revealed as the case goes on.

According to the complaint, Zhang picked the delegation up from the Manhattan airport July 16.

He accompanied the delegation during a July 17 visit to Kansas State, which Cross said was mistakenly referred to as the University of Kansas in the criminal complaint.

There, Zhang and the delegation met with a professor whose name was left out of the complaint.

The complaint also mentions an unnamed agronomy professor in Kansas that served as the U.S. point of contact in the visa applications for the Chinese delegation.

Gary Pierzynski, head of the KSU agronomy department, said he wasn’t involved with any coordination of the visit.

He said it could be any number of department officials who was involved in the coordination.

“I couldn’t figure out whom they would have visited,” he said. “We do so many of those things each year.”

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