A Manhattan man was one of two agricultural scientists from China accused this week of trying to steal rice seed samples from a research facility in Junction City and pass them to a Chinese delegation visiting the United States.
Federal prosecutors said Weiqiang Zhang of Manhattan and Wengui Yan of Stuttgart, Ark., arranged for a Chinese delegation to visit the U.S. this year and that customs agents later found stolen seeds in the delegation’s luggage before the group flew back to China.
The two are charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets.
Zhang, 47, worked as an agricultural seed breeder at a Junction City research facility run by Ventria Bioscience, according to the company’s website.
The company, based in Fort Collins, Colo., is developing rice that is genetically modified to grow proteins for medical and pharmaceutical uses. Prosecutors said the business invested about $75 million in technology used to create seeds.
A search of Zhang’s residence, listed as 1117 E. Park Grove Drive, on Wednesday turned up rice seeds similar to those the visiting delegation was attempting to take home.
Zhang is set to have a hearing Tuesday in Kansas. Zhang’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Friday.
Yan, 63, worked for the Department of Agriculture as a research geneticist.
At a detention hearing Friday, a federal judge in Little Rock ordered Yan, a naturalized U.S. citizen, to remain in custody after prosecutors argued that he could flee the country. Yan’s lawyer, Chris Tarver, said Yan has lived in the U.S. for years and that authorities had seized the passport.
U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Thomas Ray acknowledged that Yan has strong ties to Arkansas, but added, “There is a strong inference from the complaint that Dr. Yan and his co-defendant were involved in a conspiracy to try to get advanced agricultural technology into the hands of the delegation that they helped to invite into the country.”
If convicted, Zhang and Yan could face up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Also this week, prosecutors in Iowa said six men from China including the CEO of a seed corn subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate have been charged with conspiring to steal patented seed corn from two of America’s leading seed developers.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the cases in Kansas and Iowa are related. But seed developers spend millions of dollars a years to develop new varieties and carefully protect them against theft to maintain a competitive advantage.