Spy Games: The Rumour of a Chinese Defection

22 June 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Amid claim and counter-claim, China could easily settle the matter by producing Dong Jingwei, the Vice-Minister of State Security, in public.

 

Background

Rumours have swirled across news media and the Internet over the last week of a possible defection of a high-ranking Chinese intelligence official to the US. According to one source, Dong Jingwei, the Vice Minister of State Security, it is claimed, flew from Hong Kong to the US on 10 February with his daughter. Mr Dong is the head of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), its domestic counter-intelligence organisation, which position would make him privy to many of China’s intelligence secrets. China, which is loath to make any public statement regarding defectors, and the US, which does not comment on defectors to its shores from other countries, have both been silent on the matter.

 

Comment

As is usual in these cases, the rumours raise many questions and leave most of them unanswered. Apart from the primary question of whether Mr Dong did, indeed, defect, there has been nothing said publicly as to why he chose to do so and why at this particular time.

What can be stated definitely, albeit tangential to the matter at hand, is that several Republican-leaning and Trump-supporting US websites have claimed that Mr Dong has travelled to the US with proof that the Covid-19 virus did, in fact escape from the Wuhan laboratory where it was being examined. Here too, however, no evidence to support that claim is offered. It can only be assumed that those websites and, presumably, the organisations behind them seek to deflect responsibility for the ravages of the virus in the US from the former president.

It can also be stated definitely that the spread of the rumour (for that is all that it is at this time) has bothered Beijing to an inordinate extent. According to at least one report [Mandarin] from China’s officially-sanctioned media, Mr Dong had appeared at a MSS conference in China at which he ‘urged the country’s intelligence officers’ to crack down on enemy spies. There were no details provided, unfortunately, as to where or when the conference took place. No photographs or video-recordings of his speech were provided, either, which added to the questions raised about his whereabouts and status. Mr Dong’s photographs with Chen Yixin, the Secretary-General of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, effectively his boss, attending a high level Sino-German security meeting in 2018 had been previously published.

It was Dr Han Lianchao, a former Chinese foreign ministry official who, himself, defected to the US after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, who broke the news of the rumours about Mr Dong’s defection. In a tweet [Mandarin] dated 16 June, Dr Han quoted an unnamed source in China who informed him of the rumours of Mr Dong’s defection. As he put it:

My tweet about Dong Jingwei came from a source from China, and I used it to make a point that rumours are flying all over China today because the CCP’s digital dictatorship has totally stopped the free flow of information.

His assertion about Beijing having stopped ‘the free flow of information’ in this instance has been disputed by a former CIA China expert. Nicholas Eftimiades, the author of a monograph on Chinese intelligence operations, says that there is no evidence that China is removing all references to Mr Dong from social media but agrees that Beijing could settle the matter once and for all by producing him in public. The fact that the Chinese authorities have not or cannot do so only serves to further muddy the water. According to him, China faces another problem: it now needs to determine when Mr Dong decided to defect and if, between that time and 10 February, when he did, he passed on any information to Washington and the nature of that information.

Alternatively, China could produce Mr Dong in public ….

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