Mara Hvistendahl Q&A

September 14, 2020
Mara Hvinstendahl gets to the bottom of industrial espionage in an Iowa cornfield.

“I was drawn by Robert Mo’s case because I’m a huge Coen brothers fan. Bumbling criminals making small talk while driving across the Midwest reminded me of Fargo. The investigators provided plenty of fodder as well. At one point the FBI flew surveillance planes over corn country while tailing Robert Mo, and at another point the lead agent on the case enlisted a bureau pilot to jet decoy corn seed to Chicago, so that they could switch out a FedEx shipment of seed bound for Hong Kong. But yeah, you can’t make this stuff up.”

Early on in the book you give a history and dismantling of the “thousand grains of sand” theory of Chinese spycraft. Why do you think our intelligence agencies have clung to that theory for so long?

Pat metaphors are appealing because they’re easy to grasp. In this case the metaphor is the idea that intelligence collection can be compared to a day at the beach. It’s a lot more complicated to say that China takes a variety of approaches to spying. I also think that there’s an element of Orientalism to it. Americans want to believe that China’s methods are exotic. Definitely intelligence there has an authoritarian flavor—they devote a lot of effort to maintaining the Communist Party’s rule inside China, for example—but in other ways their methods are not that different from those of U.S. intelligence. It’s spy versus spy.

Did you immediately grasp the depth and book potential of Robert Mo’s story when you first read about him being captured in the field?

When I first read about Robert Mo’s case, I thought that it would make a great article—and I did write a short article. But I was living in China at the time, and it wasn’t practical for me to pursue a story that was primarily set in the Midwest. Then events aligned and I moved to Minnesota. As soon as I looked  into the case more deeply, I was hooked. I eventually retraced Robert’s steps across the Midwest. I also retraced the steps of FBI investigators on his tail.

It was jarring reading your political analysis of the case. What do you think Mo’s sentence would be today if he were caught in Iowa? 

Good question. I like to think that the judiciary is still independent. At the same time, the news environment does matter, and U.S. government officials continue to cite the corn theft case when discussing the threat of Chinese industrial espionage. Not that long ago, Mike Pompeo flew to Des Moines and talked about it in a speech.

What a delight to find a member of Sha Na Na show up in court as a linguistics expert. How many times did you find yourself saying, Well, this is just bizarre. 

I was drawn by Robert Mo’s case because I’m a huge Coen brothers fan. Bumbling criminals making small talk while driving across the Midwest reminded me of Fargo. The investigators provided plenty of fodder as well. At one point the FBI flew surveillance planes over corn country while tailing Robert Mo, and at another point the lead agent on the case enlisted a bureau pilot to jet decoy corn seed to Chicago, so that they could switch out a FedEx shipment of seed bound for Hong Kong. But yeah, you can’t make this stuff up.

You wrote that in one year the government brought cases industrial-espionage-related charges against 13 people and they were all ethnic Chinese. Do you know what the numbers have been like in recent years?

The case of Robert Mo played out before Trump came into office, but in the past few years the number of cases has shot up. The Justice Department now has a dedicated effort called the China Initiative.

You wrote that Andrew Chongseh Kim analyzed 136 cases brought under the Economic Espionage Act between 1996 and 2015 and found that 21 percent of defendants with Chinese names were never found guilty of spying, about twice the rate of defendants from other groups. Why this deep suspicion of ethnic Chinese?

This is a longstanding issue. Asian Americans often find their loyalty to the U.S. in question, even when their family has lived here for generations. It becomes worse at moments of tension, like the one we’re in with China right now. Industrial espionage is a major flashpoint in the US-China relationship. The Trump administration named it as a driver for the trade war and for the closing of the Chinese consulate in Houston. So I think we’re seeing something similar to what happened with terrorism after 9/11, where a legitimate threat produced an overreaction, which led to the targeting of innocent people.

That scene at the airport with the agents and Robert Mo’s sister and her children … brutal! How did you report that scene? Such great details.

Much of my reporting was old-fashioned foot leather work—visiting farms and other locations that appeared in the documents and talking to witnesses. But because Robert Mo hired a high-powered defense lawyer who fought every aspect of the government’s case, I had thousands of pages of court documents to rely on. Buried in the court record was a verbatim transcript of the FBI’s airport arrest of Robert Mo’s sister. I was astounded when I found that. And then the agents present for the arrest testified in a pretrial hearing. So I managed to get a play-by-play account of what happened, down to her visit to the news kiosk at the airport to load up on snacks for the flight to Beijing.

I appreciated your irreverence in telling the story as it really made the pages flip by. Is that your natural writing style? 

I guess it’s my natural style. I’m not always able to write that way in articles for magazines, so I enjoy doing it with books. And the topic for this book is inherently absurd. Early on my friend V.V. Ganeshananthan, who writes fiction, suggested leaning in to that absurdity. I think that was good advice.

You spent eight years in Shanghai writing for Science magazine and other publications. What drew you there? And what brought you back to Minneapolis?

My family has worked in and out of China since the 1980s. I started studying Chinese in high school and moved to Shanghai after finishing journalism school. I had to move home suddenly in 2015 because of family considerations, and that was an abrupt shift. But it turned out to be for the best.

When was the last time you were in touch with Robert Mo? Or got an update on what he’s doing today?

He served his term in federal prison, and as far as I know he’s still in an immigration detention facility in Georgia, awaiting deportation to China. That’s a pretty horrible place to be during the pandemic.