The Foreign Policy staff reviews recent releases on Chinese industrial espionage, the dissent channel in American diplomacy, and British anti-colonialism.
The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage
In September 2011, years before U.S. President Donald Trump pushed the United States into a trade war with China, Iowa state police caught three men trespassing near a cornfield under contract with the agrochemical giant Monsanto. The encounter caught the attention of the FBI and led it to the Chinese-born engineer Robert Mo, who became a suspect in the industrial espionage investigation that is the focus of the journalist Mara Hvistendahl’s new book, The Scientist and the Spy—a nuanced look at some of the pawns in the U.S.-China rivalry.
The FBI suspected Mo and his associates at the Beijing-based agricultural company DBN of a plot to smuggle genetically modified corn seeds—closely guarded trade secrets—to China. Through her reporting in China and the United States, Hvistendahl recounts the case with the vivid details and pace of a spy thriller. Mo, who is initially reluctant to take part in the theft, enlists a Midwestern seed breeder as an unwitting accomplice in the cover-up, putting them both at the center of a story with global implications. And an FBI agent finds himself crisscrossing Iowa to get to the bottom of it.
Amid the scale of the recent U.S.-China trade war, whose latest cease-fire involved China promising to buy $200 billion of U.S. agricultural goods, it’s easy to miss the products at the center of it. Hvistendahl, who previously covered science and technology in Shanghai, starts with the seeds. Corn—which feeds chicken and pigs—is essential to China’s food security and its growing middle class. Most hybrid seed lines belong to just two companies: DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto (now part of Bayer), on behalf of which the U.S. government brought charges against Mo in 2013. With scientific research and development booming in China, the state has prioritized technological innovation: It’s no secret why the seeds would be valuable in the hands of a Chinese firm. “Theft is expedient—especially if there is little chance of getting caught,” Hvistendahl writes.
Mo’s case reflects the rising tensions between China and the United States, particularly over technology. It also foreshadows today’s growing American suspicion of Chinese academics and scientists, setting a precedent by which espionage charges may be filed against those not working directly for a foreign state.
Hvistendahl digs into these issues and finds troubling evidence. Through previously unreleased FBI documents, she traces a long history of racial profiling and botched counterintelligence on China. To monitor Mo’s movements and bug his associates’ car, the FBI uses the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—not initially intended for targets on U.S. soil. “If China is shaped by the dueling forces of copying and innovation, America is locked in its own internal struggle, between openness and security,” she writes. As these investigations increase, it appears that a perceived need for more security is winning out.
Hvistendahl presents Mo’s case as a Rorschach test: In the ill-conceived plot, one person might see an imminent security threat, and another might see a story of corporate overreach. That ambiguity is echoed in the relationship between the powers themselves: If China and the United States are on the verge of a new cold war, she writes, it is a “conflict with no clear winner.”—Audrey Wilson
The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age
Amid the chaos of the Vietnam War, the U.S. State Department established a formal system for diplomats to express opposition to policies they were tasked with carrying out. In theory, the so-called dissent channel could help serve as a way to prevent foreign-policy disasters—such as the Vietnam War—by allowing even the most junior officers to bypass bureaucracy and send a memo directly to the secretary of state’s inner circle to raise alarm bells over a U.S. policy.
Today, the dissent channel occupies an important place in the State Department’s psyche. It’s a rarely used system yet one that U.S. diplomats often boast about as a testament to the strength and resilience of American foreign-policy leaders. But in this day and age, does speaking truth to power make a difference?
Elizabeth Shackelford, a former career diplomat, grapples with this question in The Dissent Channel, a personal memoir about her tour in war-torn South Sudan and her decision to resign on moral grounds in 2017. Anger, despondence, and resentment drip from the pages as Shackelford recounts how she and her colleagues at the embassy in Juba pushed Washington to condemn atrocities perpetrated by the South Sudanese government—after the United States helped midwife the country into existence in 2011—to little or no avail. She pulls no punches in showing how South Sudan became one of the most stunning failures in modern U.S. foreign policy.
Time and again, Washington refused to sharply condemn government forces under President Salva Kiir Mayardit as they fought his former deputy-turned-rival, Riek Machar. Accusations of mass killings, rape, and other war crimes by both sides were prevalent. The U.S. government repeatedly called for calm and issued vague threats of reprisals that it rarely followed up on.
Shackelford presents familiar arguments on the dangers of Trump’s foreign policy, but the book really shines in her blow-by-blow account of what a U.S. embassy does in a time of crisis. She and other embassy personnel worked 16 to 20 hours a day trying to track down and evacuate U.S. citizens, sending cables back to Washington on the spiraling conflict, and interviewing survivors of mass killings and other atrocities—if for nothing else than for the historical record.
After returning home, Shackelford and some of her colleagues decided to use the dissent channel as a last resort, writing a memo for the secretary of state urging Washington to change course in South Sudan and lambasting the countless empty threats that only served to embolden that country’s government. But the report was shelved, U.S. policy didn’t change, and Shackelford ran out of options.
The book deserves praise for telling the overlooked—though not untold—story of South Sudan’s stunning collapse and Washington’s refusal to recognize its own failures. But The Dissent Channel also poses bigger questions about how diplomats and others in government can speak truth to power in an age when the truth, and those speaking it, can come under attack.
Shackelford’s assessment of the State Department’s dissent channel is blunt, grim, and convincing. “It means something, perhaps. It’s a message of sorts,” she writes. “One could generously describe it as a type of departmental suggestion box, though it would be more accurate to picture it as a shredder.”—Robbie Gramer
Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent
In 1843, British Gen. Charles Napier seized the kingdom of Sindh, in present-day Pakistan, using the pretext of a local rebellion for a blatant land grab. In response, the British satirical magazine Punch published a spoof news article claiming that the general’s report of his actions to London had been conveyed in a single-word telegram: Peccavi—Latin for “I have sinned.”
The reference became so famous that later textbooks often reported it as a factual event. It reflected, perhaps, a fundamental unease about the acquisition of empire—a feeling often underplayed in historical accounts. From the beginnings of British rule, many in Britain itself could see the atrocities of imperialism, just as the Roman historian Tacitus had written of his own countrymen, through the words of a Caledonian chieftain, nearly 2,000 years earlier: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire.”
Domestic opposition to empire is well documented, but the Britain-based Indian scholar Priyamvada Gopal’s achievement in Insurgent Empire is to tie together those movements with the resistance to empire on its bloody fringes. The efforts of dissidents, rebels, and intellectuals in India, Africa, and the diaspora inspired, she argues, radicals at home—not just to challenge the empire but to fight the systems of power and oppression it was built on. In her telling, the birth of ideas of universal rights and economic injustice owed as much to foreign criticisms as domestic ones.
The figures—the new domestic insurgents—Gopal unearths are strikingly cosmopolitan ones in a period where various factions were often wrongly depicted as monolithic. For example, Gopal presents the account of Shapurji Saklatvala, the third Indian to be elected a member of the British Parliament in 1922. Each of those Indians were Parsis, the Zoroastrian minority that played an unusually dominant role in trade but which also spanned the political spectrum from conservative pro-imperialist to Saklatvala’s radicalism. Saklatvala proved one of the most trenchant and influential critics of the empire that had brought him from Bombay (now Mumbai) to London—and was a founder of the multinational League Against Imperialism in 1927.
One of the most moving accounts is that of George William Gordon, a businessman and landowner in Jamaica whose role in an uprising against the tyranny of the colonial governor led to his execution by the local authorities. Gordon’s death prompted fierce dissent in London and several attempts to put Edward Eyre, the governor, on trial for murder.
Insurgent Empire is a long book and not always easily digestible—especially for those unversed in the periods it describes. Gopal has a sharp eye for forgotten characters and lost histories, but the information comes thick and fast, and the sheer scale of the book, going from early 19th-century India to the Harlem Renaissance, can make it difficult to keep track of. The richest part is, perhaps, her description of London in the 1930s, when the imperial metropole became the center of a tangle of resistance movements and even conventional British opinion began to smell the end of empire in the wind.—James Palmer