A Chinese national pleaded guilty on Thursday of conspiring to steal a trade secret from American agribusiness giant Monsanto, the Justice Department said.
Xiang Haitao, 44, was employed as an imaging scientist by Monsanto and its subsidiary, the Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017, the department said in a statement.
Xiang pleaded guilty in Missouri, where Monsanto is based, to one count of conspiracy to commit economic espionage on behalf of China, it said.
According to the Justice Department, Xiang stole proprietary software developed by Monsanto to help farmers improve crop yields.
"Despite Xiang's agreements to protect Monsanto's intellectual property and repeated training on his obligations to do so, Xiang has now admitted that he stole a trade secret from Monsanto, transferred it to a memory card and attempted to take it to the People's Republic of China for the benefit of the Chinese government," Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said.
"Mr. Xiang used his insider status at a major international company to steal valuable trade secrets for use in his native China," said Sayler Fleming, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri.
"We cannot allow U.S. citizens or foreign nationals to hand sensitive business information over to competitors in other countries," Fleming added.
Xiang is to be sentenced on April 7. He faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a potential fine of $5 million.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, speaking in 2019 at the time Xiang was charged by U.S. authorities, said Washington was trying to use the case to back its accusations that China steals technology from U.S. companies.
"We resolutely oppose the U.S. side's attempts to use the case, which we regard as an ordinary, isolated incident, to hype up claims of China's organized and systematic attempts to steal intellectual property from the U.S.," spokesman Geng Shuang said.