By Jeff Stein
Swirling, widespread reports that Beijing’s top counterintelligence official has defected to the United States are “not accurate,” a U.S. government official told SpyTalk on Tuesday.
“We are just looking to correct the record,” said the official, speaking on terms of anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive issue.
SpyTalk had sought comment from the State Department last week when preparing a story on mounting rumors that Dong Jingwei, vice minister of the Ministry of State Security, China’s principle espionage and internal security agency, had defected in February via Hong Kong along with his daughter Dong Yang. The department did not respond.
But on Tuesday a U.S. official reached out to say reports of Dong’s defection were not true. Speaking strictly on terms of anonymity, the official declined to elaborate further, including on Dong’s present whereabouts, only hinting that the counterspy remains in China.
“We can’t confirm or deny where he is exactly,” the official said. Asked why the Biden administration was reaching out to knock down rumors of a high level defection—normally an ultra-sensitive issue—the official said, “that’s more of a policy question”and referred SpyTalk to the White House. A spokesperson for the National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.
Former Pentagon, State Department and CIA China expert Nicholas Eftimiades, author of Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics, told SpyTalk the official’s initiative was likely coordinated at the highest levels of the Biden administration. “I’m stunned that they did that,” considering the sensitivity of the subject, he said. He called the response definitive, a closed issue: “game, set, match.”
China’s officially sanctioned media reported last Friday that Dong had appeared at a MSS seminar on the mainland where he “urged the country’s intelligence officers” to crack down on enemy spies, according to an account in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. But the reports did not say where the seminar took place, nor did they include photos or video of Dong’s supposed appearance, further raising suspicions about his status. Dong’s identity is not secret: In 2018, Beijing released a photo of him and other members of a Chinese delegation attending Sino-German security talks.
Some longtime observers of U.S.-China relations think that the Biden administration’s willingness to address such a normally highly secretive issue was motivated by two issues: One, “to excise an unnecessary additional irritant in the still downward-spiraling bilateral relationship” between the U.S. and China, as Robert A. Manning, a former top Asia specialist in both Republican and and Democratic administrations for more than 30 years, put it. A second, and possibly equal motive: to beat back a Republican campaign to deflect blame for the coronavirus pandemic in America from Donald Trump to China’s Wuhan Virology Lab and, by extension, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been critical of the former president’s response to the disease.
The motivation “may be domestic,” said a leading China watcher—to head off Republican accusations that the Biden administration is “hiding a defector who has info on the lab leak or [other] embarrassing stuff.”
Reports of Dong’s defection originated in conservative circles here and abroad that have been critical of the scientific consensus that the covid-19 pandemic was transmitted from animals in Wuhan’s “wet market.”
On June 4, former Fox News reporter Adam Housley tweeted that “US intelligence has a Chinese defector with Wuhan info. AND China is trying to produce variants that suggest it came from bats to cover up that coronavirus originally came from a lab.”
Housley’s report was amplified by the right-wing Red State news and opinion site, which alleged that “a person believed to be among the highest-ranking defectors ever to the United States from the People’s Republic of China has been working with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) for months.” Citing anonymous sources “inside the intelligence community,” it alleged “the defector has direct knowledge of special weapons programs in China, including bioweapons programs,” and that the alleged information had created “a sudden crisis of confidence in Dr. Anthony Fauci.”
The rumors were given more gravity on June 16 when Dr. Han Lianchao, a former Chinese foreign ministry official who defected after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, alleged in a tweet that during high level Sino-American talks in Alaska in March, 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.
Asked for comment on Tuesday, Han was unbowed.
“That’s all good,” he said of the U.S. denial of the defection, “but it’ll be more assuring if Dong’s latest photos or videos can be shown.”
Co-published with SpyTalk, where Jeff Stein leads an all-star team of veteran investigative reporters, writers, and subject-matter experts who will take you behind the scenes of the national security state. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website.