Did The US Just Nab The Biggest Chinese Defector Ever? Here’s What We Know

(Feng Li/Getty Images)

Varun Hukeri General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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A top Chinese counterintelligence official is rumored to be missing, and some Chinese pro-democracy activists are alleging he defected to the U.S. with sensitive information about the origins of COVID-19.

Dong Jingwei, a longtime official in China’s state security ministry, allegedly defected around Feb. 10 when he flew to the U.S. from Hong Kong with his daughter Dong Yang, according to the newsletter SpyTalk, which spoke to Chinese pro-democracy activists and first reported the alleged development last Thursday.

Dong has served as the top official for counterintelligence operations in China since being promoted to vice minister of state security in April 2018, according to Chinese-language news outlets. If the allegation is true, Dong would be the highest-ranking official to have defected in the history of the People’s Republic of China.

The Paris-based newsletter Intelligence Online reported in Sept. 2018 that Dong is “close to” Chinese President Xi Jinping. The report noted he was previously head of state security in Hebei province, a region that has produced many of China’s top law enforcement officials.

Rumors of Dong’s defection also circulated last week on Chinese-language media outlets and social media accounts, specifically those critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Neither the U.S. nor Chinese government have publicly commented on the alleged development.

Chinese pro-democracy activists living overseas claimed there is evidence Dong carried “relevant information from the Wuhan Institute of Virology” when he defected and provided that information to the U.S. government, according to SpyTalk.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is central to the lab-leak theory on the origins of COVID-19, which links the virus to “gain-of-function” research and other activities carried out in the lab. President Joe Biden said in late May the U.S. intelligence community is considering whether the virus emerged from a laboratory accident in Wuhan, China.

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit to the institute in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on February 3, 2021. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

A former senior U.S. government official, who worked on an investigation of the Wuhan lab under former President Donald Trump, told the Telegraph that encouraging defections from China might be the only way to prove the plausibility of a lab leak. (RELATED: Ex-CDC Director Says He Received Death Threats For Supporting COVID-19 Lab-Leak Theory)

“If you offer $5 million and citizenship, there will be a lot of people who want to defect,” the official said. “We need human intelligence. We need to hear from the Chinese who have witnessed firsthand.”

Han Lianchao, a former Chinese foreign ministry official who himself defected after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, further claimed Dong’s supposed defection had been discussed by senior Chinese and U.S. officials in March at the Sino-American joint summit in Alaska.

Han, citing an unnamed source, claimed on Twitter last Wednesday that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and top CCP diplomat Yang Jiechi demanded the U.S. government repatriate Dong, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken supposedly refused.

Nicholas Eftmiades, a former CIA and Pentagon expert on China, told SpyTalk that Han is “trusted for his integrity” but called the report of Dong’s defection “exactly what it is, a rumor.” He noted pro-democracy activists living overseas spread such rumors “all the time” in their effort to criticize China’s government.

The Daily Beast, in a story co-published with SpyTalk last Thursday, said it reached out to a half dozen experts on Chinese intelligence who were also asked about the alleged defection in the original SpyTalk report. But none had any additional information to share on the allegation.

The right-leaning news outlet RedState published an exclusive story June 4 on a high-level defection from China. The story didn’t mention Dong by name but stated the Defense Intelligence Agency had received information from the defector that China’s government is covering up biological warfare research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (RELATED: Inspector General To Investigate NIH Grants Linked To Wuhan Institute Of Virology)

Although Dong’s whereabouts are unconfirmed, the CCP’s law enforcement commission claims he is still in China and even spoke at an anti-espionage seminar last Friday. The commission said Dong warned Chinese spies during the seminar to watch out for “insiders” who collude with “anti-Chinese” forces, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.

The Chinese State Council’s official website, which lists top personnel in China’s government, notably does not include any officials other than state security minister Chen Wenqing. The website mentions an anti-corruption campaign against former vice minister Ma Jian in 2018, but the current vice minister section is blank.

But the State Council’s official website did include a note regarding Dong’s appointment to vice minister in April 2018. That note remained on the website until around July 2020, web archives show, though it appears to have been removed.