The tensions currently exposed between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States, let alone the more than 100 years of competition between Communist regimes and the assorted democracies that styled the West (from the early 1917 Bolsheviks via the Cold War Eastern Europeans to present day super-power PRC), are real enough. Trade, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, intellectual theft on a scale never seen before, “social credit / surveillance communism” and continued human rights abuses all make for a toxic conversation. But the reported defection of top spymaster State Security Vice Minister Dong Jingwei made news beyond online commentators like SpyTalk or regional service Chanel News Asia based in Singapore.
Intelligence chiefs are rarely the news story themselves – they are more civil servant and bureaucrat than fast driving, martini drinking James Bond creatures from the world of espionage literature. Think more Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister than an older Jason Bourne or even Liam Neeson on a bad day. William Colby the CIA Director for part of the 1970s or Alan Wrigley ASIO Director General in the 1980s were consummate leaders with strong values – but never let themselves become the focus of the organisation or the narrative.
Dong Jingwei is said to be in hiding or detention or under protection. This prominent Chinese spy in simple terms – more a spymaster or leading organisational figure – was reported to have defected to the United States and offered information about the start of the covid pandemic. News that has slowly gained some traction since February of this year. Deputy Minister of State Security Dong Jingwei is said to have secretly flown from Hong Kong to the United States on February 10, according to information that initially surfaced on Chinese media sites and Twitter.
It was alleged that he travelled alongside his daughter Dong Yang and has sought asylum. Rumours are circulating that Jingwei has offered to pass vital confirmation data about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, at the center of the covid lab leak theory that had been downplayed as a “conspiracy” by many over the past 18 months. The lab leak narrative is getting more oxygen and may feature in President Biden’s soon to be concluded report on the pandemic.
But do spymasters matter? Can you trust the words of someone who is desperate to be given a new life even if under the closest protection for the rest of their lives? History and common sense suggest a mixed picture between trust versus deception. But in this era of big data, global technology and severe levels of disinformation that would have been seen as pathetic over the top propaganda in earlier times, there are few guarantees.
Dong Jingwei was a prestigious head of counterintelligence at China’s Ministry of State Security, also known as the Guoanbu. His intelligence world would have included knowledge about China’s high technology intellectual property strategies, suppression policies towards minorities (religious, ethnic or ideological) and the controversial early pathogenetic studies of the virus, patterns of the predicted spread of the Covid-19 virus with the associated damage to the global economy and societies from PRC decisions taken on people movement and transport. The murky details of the money trail between other governments or corporations that might have had a hand in funding controversial research are also in play.
Former Chinese Foreign Ministry official Dr Han Lianchao, who defected after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, wrote in a tweet in July that Dong Jingwei’s defection “is really a big bombshell”. He also reportedly shared a photo of Mr. Jingwei, claiming that he was last seen in public in September 2020. The photo has since allegedly been removed from the Chinese search engine Baidu. So much smoke, so many mirrors.
There are more questions and precious few answers. It was reported that this spymaster was an attendee at a recent high level Chinese government meeting (with plenty of photos to prove it) but critics and cynics cry “photo shopping or make believe”.
There are mysteries and there are secrets. Secrets are knowledge held by the few from the many. If Dong Jingwei is really in the hands of the West (somewhere safe, secure and hopefully unknown to the Chinese regime) he may provide some of the missing jigsaw pieces to gain a better understanding of what is happening in China and how China is dealing with its immense power at a time when internal pressures (demographic, economic and social) are proving hard to suppress.
Spymasters are not Merlin or even Alchemists. They may not be the key piece of the puzzle but can give context, detail and interpretation to whatever evidence, data or accepted testimonials the West, the WHO or anyone else can muster to better understand the origins of the pandemic.
Sir Humphrey used to offer Jim Hacker always options – including the brave one. This was sure to steer the hapless politician from that direction or strategy. Today we might need to have politicians, business leaders and journalists embrace the unpalatable truths (as best we can establish) to enable us to tackle the challenges of a global breakdown in international affairs.
We are not at war yet … but we are in a warlike environment of hybrid grey zone conflict where the national interest and the broader global peace are precariously balanced between poor decisions and no decisions. This spymaster may hold some of the keys to our better decisions.
Noel Hadjimichael is a London based public policy consultant in the security, defence and civil society space with relevant experience working in politics, the civil service, industry and the charitable sectors.