South China Morning Post publishes story about alleged defector

Yesterday, Allahpundit wrote about the Daily Beast story about rumors that a high level Chinese State Security Minister had defected to the United States in February. According to the story, his name is Dong Jingwei and he is (or was) China’s top spy-catcher:

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.

That story appeared to line up with a previous report that claimed a high-level Chinese defector had been giving the DIA information on the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The earlier report didn’t identify the defector by name. As Ed noted this morning, no one else in the national media has been willing to mention this so far.

Today the South China Morning Post published a story which seems aimed at quietly discounting these claims. It’s headlined, “Top Chinese spy catcher Dong Jingwei warns agents to look out for those who collude with foreign forces.”

China’s top spy catcher has urged the country’s intelligence officers to step up their efforts to hunt down foreign agents and insiders who collude with “anti-China” forces.

Dong Jingwei, the vice-minister of state security, made the comments on Friday at a seminar on a counter-espionage regulation that came into effect in April.

A report on the event posted on Changanjian, the social media account operated by China’s top law enforcement agency, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, did not specify where the seminar was held.

“The promulgation of such regulations provides us, the principal agents responsible for counter-espionage work, with the legal means to prevent, stop and combat criminal activities that would jeopardise our national security,” a read-out from the seminar said.

The story contains several more paragraphs of quotes but never mentions the rumors circulating online or in the U.S. about Dong being a defector. I guess it’s possible this is a coincidence but it doesn’t look that way. It looks as if a social media account run by Chinese law enforcement dropped this out there to make it clear that Dong is still in China and still working to catch spies. The one odd thing is that the initial report never mentioned where this seminar was held. Maybe that’s significant and maybe it’s not.

The South China Morning Post is published in Hong Kong and if you’ve been reading about the crackdown on press freedom just this week in Hong Kong then you already know that newspapers in Hong Kong have very limited autonomy. Looking through this Wikipedia page, it appears the SCMP has been accused of becoming an expression of Chinese “soft power” over the past few years. This is from a NY Times piece published in 2018:

If Alibaba is breathing new life into the paper, it has also given it a new mission: improving China’s image overseas and combating what it sees as anti-Chinese bias in the foreign media.

In effect, Alibaba has taken Hong Kong’s English-language paper of record since the days of British rule and put it on the leading edge of China’s efforts to project soft power abroad. Every day, The Post churns out dozens of articles about China, many of which seek to present a more positive view of the country. As it does, critics say it is moving away from independent journalism and pioneering a new form of propaganda.

And two years before that, the Guardian ran a story about the SCMP’s curious access to a woman who’d been kept under secret detention for a year:

Zhao Wei was seized in July 2015 at the start of a major government crackdown on human rights lawyers and was released on bail earlier this month, according to Chinese police.

Within days of that reported release the South China Morning Post managed to contact her despite the fact that Zhao’s own lawyer and husband said they had been unable to do so and suspected she was still under some form of custody…

“It’s just so sad. A newspaper that used to be one of the best in Asia is now becoming a mouthpiece,” one former employee told the Guardian this week…

The interview with her was conducted by telephone on 10 July, just three days after Zhao’s release was announced, and was published the following day under the headline: ‘Young Chinese legal activist ‘regrets’ civil rights activism’.

“I have come to realise that I have taken the wrong path,” Zhao was quoted as saying in the article. “I repent for what I did. I’m now a brand new person.”

She recanted and somehow the SCMP was able to get to her before anyone else knew where she was. Very curious indeed. All of that to say, the SCMP can’t necessarily be trusted to be independent these days.

But of course the fact that the SCMP published this story doesn’t prove the contents are true. The reporter in this case isn’t claiming he saw Dong Jingwei or even heard him speak, only that there was a report on a social media account run by the Chinese law enforcement claiming he said all these things at a seminar last Friday. Maybe that’s true and this is China’s way of trying to put an end to the rumors about his defection. On the other hand, maybe China is creating disinformation about Dong’s whereabouts for some other reason. We’re going to have to wait for confirmation from a more reliable source.