National Security

China’s ‘spy catcher’ and the Wuhan lab leak controversy

Mystery surrounds the whereabouts of State Security deputy director Dong Jingwei and the Covid-19 crisis

Tinker Tailor Beijing Spy. This is the curious case of Dong Jingwei, the deputy director of China’s Ministry of State Security.

Like a complex character from author John le Carré’s Karla trilogy, the Beijing “spy catcher” appears to be in two places at the same time.

Last week, media reports suggested that Dong had defected to the United States in February with evidence that the Covid-19 virus had leaked from a Wuhan laboratory.

The story is believed to have originally appeared on the SpyTalk newsletter on June 17 before being picked up by The Daily Telegraph in London.

Twenty-four hours later, Dong allegedly attended a seminar on counter-espionage at an undisclosed location in China.

“The report on the event [was] posted on Changanjian, the social media account operated by [the country’s] top law enforcement agency, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. [But] it did not specify where the seminar was held,” Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said.

Dong had urged intelligence officers to step up their efforts “to hunt down foreign agents and insiders who collude with ‘anti-China forces,’” the SCMP pointed out on June 18.

Fact or fiction?

  • Dong is alleged to have escaped to the US with his daughter Yang through Hong Kong.
  • It is claimed he fled with evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen escaped from a lab in Wuhan, where the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in 2019.
  • If the reports are true, Dong would be the highest-level defector in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
  • That is SpyTalks take after breaking the story, citing “Chinese-language anti-Communist” social media and “Twitter.”
  • Still, Nicholas Eftimiades, an expert on US State Department and CIA affairs, is highly skeptical about the reports. 
  • The author of Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics downplayed the situation, calling it “exactly what it is, a rumor.”

What was allegedly said: “Infiltration and spying activities by hostile forces have increased significantly. All state security agencies must … deepen and carry out our various counter-espionage work to safeguard our national security,” Dong said at the seminar as reported by The Paper, a state-controlled media site.

Missing in public: “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has never admitted any defection of its MSS [Ministry of State Security] officers … [but Dong was] last seen in public in September 2020,” Han Lianchao, a former official at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs before defecting after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, said in an email to SpyTalk.

Delve deeper: “If Dong didn’t defect, his speech reflects Beijing’s growing preoccupation with strengthening its counterintelligence capabilities. If he did defect, expect that preoccupation to become a full-blown obsession,” Trivium China, a research group on politics and economics inside the country, said.

China Factor comment: It might have undertones of “moles” and “defectors” from le Carré’s Smiley’s People, but the evidence looks paper thing. Still, it might be premature to write off the report, just yet.

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