High-level Chinese Defection Rumored
Chinese State Security Vice Minister Dong Jingwei would be highest-level defector in the history of the People's Republic.
Chinese-language anti-communist media and Twitter are abuzz this week with rumors that a vice minister of State Security, Dong Jingwei (董经纬) defected in mid-February, flying from Hong Kong to the United States with his daughter, Dong Yang.
Dong Jingwei supposedly gave the U.S. information about the Wuhan Institute of Virology that changed the stance of the Biden Administration concerning the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dong is, or was, a longtime official in China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), also known as the Guoanbu. His publicly available background indicates that he was responsible for the Ministry’s counterintelligence efforts in China, i.e., spy-catching, since being promoted to vice minister in April 2018. If the stories are true, Dong would be the highest-level defector in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
Dong’s defection was raised by Chinese officials last March at the Sino-American summit in Alaska, according to Dr. H…
an Lianchao, a former Chinese foreign ministry official who defected after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In a tweet on Wednesday, Han, citing an unnamed source, alleged that China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and Communist Party foreign affairs boss Yang Jiechi demanded that the Americans return Dong and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken refused.
Former Pentagon, State Department and CIA expert Nicholas Eftimiades, author of Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics, called the report “exactly what it is, a rumor. It happens all the time” in the information warfare between Beijing and anti-communist overseas Chinese. But he called Dr. Han, a pro-democracy activist with the Washington, D.C.-based Citizen Power Initiative for China group, “a straight shooter, not known to exaggerate in any way or form...trusted for his integrity.”
Mollie Saltskog, a senior intelligence analyst with The Soufan Group, who earned a master’s degree in global affairs from Tsinghua University in Beijing, also urged caution, saying unconfirmed reports of defections surface regularly. And more: “While significant and certainly useful for our intelligence efforts,” she added, “one high-level defection will not drastically change our understanding or approach to China. In short, if true, this is potentially significant but not a game-changer.”
The U.S.-China spy war has intensified in recent years. Last year former CIA officer Alexander Yuk Ching Ma was charged with espionage on Beijing’s behalf. In 2020, another former CIA officer, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, was sentenced to 19 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to give classified information to China. The year before, another former CIA officer, Kevin Patrick Mallory, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for spying for China, according to a New York Times roundup. Starting in 2010, Beijing “systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward,” the Times reported in 2017.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on Dong’s alleged defection by press time. It typically does not comment on defectors. A half dozen experts on Chinese intelligence queried by SpyTalk said they had no information to share on Dong’s alleged defection.
Chinese-language press stories also claim that Dong’s daughter Yang defected with him from Hong Kong on or about Feb. 10. She is allegedly the former spouse of a senior Alibaba Group executive, Jiang Fan, who heads up TMall, China’s big Amazon-like business. Alibaba founder Jack Ma came under fire from Beijing last fall after he criticized Chinese regulators and banks in a public forum in Shanghai. Authorities suspended a planned blockbuster $37 billion IPO for Alibaba’s financial affiliate Ant Group.
Corruption is rife in China’s state-directed economy, and it may have washed up on Dong. “He worked closely with Zhang Yue, who's now serving 15 years imprisonment for corruption," Dr. Han said. “Zhang was a confidant of Ma Jian, former MSS executive vice minister, who is also in prison for corruption.”
Dong “was last seen in public in September 2020,” Han said. His photos have been deleted by the Chinese search engine Baidu, according to some Chinese language news reports abroad.
Without naming Dong, the pro-Trump web site Red State reported June 4 on a high-level defection from China, saying the Defense Intelligence Agency had received information from him that Beijing is covering up biological warfare research at the Wuhan lab, and advanced its story to question the integrity of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Sources say the level of confidence in the defector’s information is what has led to a sudden crisis of confidence in Dr. Anthony Fauci, adding that U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) personnel detailed to DIA have corroborated very technical details of information provided by the defector,” it said.
According to the authoritative Paris-based newsletter Intelligence Online, Dong is “close to” Chinese President Xi Jinping. “He previously headed the Guoanbu in the region of Hebei, which has produced many of Xi's securocrats,” the publication reported in 2018. Back in 2010, IO reported that Dong carried out orders from superiors in Beijing to arrest “four Japanese employees of the Fujita Corporation who were filming in a forbidden military zone.” The move was seen at the time as a power play by State Security against then-President Hu Jintao.
Meanwhile, the Chinese State Council’s official web page listing the top personnel in the Ministry of State Security no longer lists any vice ministers working under MSS minister Chen Wenqing. Under “personnel developments” it notes the corruption investigation against another former vice minister, Ma Jian, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2018. The vice minister section is blank.
SpyTalk Conributing Editor Matthew Brazil is the co-author, with Peter Mattis, of Chinese Communist Espionage, An Intelligence Primer. SpyTalk Editor-in-Chief Jeff Stein earned an M.A. in China Studies from the University of California at Berkeley.