What’s Up with the Reported Chinese Defector?

News accounts have been swirling for days (though conspicuously not in the NY Times, Washington Post, etc) that a very high ranking Chinese intelligence official (some reports say it is Dong Jingwei, the vice minister for state security) has defected to the U.S., and is confirming the lab leak hypothesis for COVID-19, as well as warning the U.S. of extensive penetration by Chinese agents.

The News (Australia) reports:

Vice Minister of State Security Dong Jingwei is believed to have secretly flown from Hong Kong to the US on February 10, according to reports that have surfaced on Chinese media sites and Twitter.

He travelled alongside his daughter Dong Yang, outlet Spy Talk reported.

Rumours are swirling that Mr Dong has passed on important information about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, at the centre of the covid lab leak theory which had been dismissed as a “conspiracy” by many for the last year-and-a-half but is now being reignited.

If the rumours are true, Mr Dong would be the highest-level defector ever from the People’s Republic of China.

As the saying goes, “Big, if true.” I think this story should be viewed with a degree of skepticism, however. First, if we really did have such a high ranking defector, you’d imagine that it would be kept highly secret by our intelligence agencies. How did the news get out? A leak from someone inside our porous intelligence apparatus is certainly possible, as is the possibility that China itself might have leaked the news to put pressure on Dong and other potential defectors in their midst.

Assuming the basic fact of the defection is true, there is then the additional problem that plagued processing Soviet defectors back during the Cold War: defectors naturally want to increase their value, and often exaggerate or even fabricate the “facts” they pass along. The Soviets often exploited this difficulty by sending false defectors who mixed up real intelligence with false intelligence, often in service of contradicting what other defectors or intelligence sources had told us. These conflicts among defectors often tied the CIA in knots for months or years. (The conflicting accounts of Anatoliy Golitsyn versus Yuri Nosenko in the mid-1960s pretty much wrecked the CIA’s counter-intelligence division. Sometimes, incidentally, it appears defectors were sent in order to make oblique contact with the Soviet moles inside the CIA and FBI, such as Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen.) It is certain that China could play this game just as well, if not better, than the Soviets. One could easily imagine Chinese intelligence sending a high ranking person as a “defector” with the intent of scrambling our entire counter-intelligence efforts with regard to China.

If the basic outline of this story is true, it will likely be years before we know the whole picture—if ever.

UPDATE: I have heard from a well-placed source that the defection is genuine, and that it is causing consternation at the highest levels of China’s government. No idea how the news of it got out, however. Stay tuned. . .

Responses