25 Nov 2019
Defections are messy and we may never know the full story
By Alex Joske
It was early October when I picked up my phone to learn that a Chinese spy had decided to defect. Over the next few weeks, I played a small role working with 60 Minutes to help verify and analyse Wang Liqiang’s claims – and eventually meet Wang himself.
My jaw dropped as I read Wang’s 12-page Chinese-language confession and plea for help. The statement touched on some of the most disturbing aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s political interference: efforts to manipulate Taiwan’s elections, infiltration of student organisations in Hong Kong, and even the kidnapping of political dissidents. Names of organisations and key figures in Chinese military intelligence, including some that I was studying at the time, jumped out at me.
It was almost too good to be true. How could a 26 year old with no military or government background find himself close to the centre of the People’s Liberation Army’s intelligence network in Hong Kong?
Wang Liqiang is believed to be the first operative from the country to blow his cover, and is seeking urgent protection.CREDIT:STEVEN SIEWERT
Defections are never simple...
Defections are never simple – neither in execution and motivation. Yu Qiangsheng, a senior intelligence officer who defected from Beijing to Washington in the 1980s, exposing two moles in the process, may have done so in part out of frustration with his personal life and sense of thrill. With a case like Wang’s that crosses between several regions, it’s impossible to verify every claim. Past defectors who were nonetheless genuine have been accused of spicing up their stories in misguided attempts to strengthen their asylum claims.
Wang does not fit into black and white categories. He does not appear to hold any rank within Chinese military intelligence. His formal education was in fine arts and he originally joined what he claims was a front company thinking he would be involved in cultural activities. Based on his own account of events, he was effectively running errands for an intelligence officer. Spy, agent, intelligence officer – none of these terms are an exact match for Wang’s role.
But as I dug further into his statement, it was possible to find support for some claims. Wang claims that Xiang Xin, a wealthy businessman he worked for, is at the centre of a military intelligence network and was sent to Hong Kong by a defence technology agency called COSTIND ahead of the 1997 handover. COSTIND is a now-defunct defence agency that was tasked with modernising China’s military technology. It sought to strengthen China’s defence innovation system, and also played a central role in the pilfering and collection of foreign defence technology.
Xiang’s companies have had close business dealings with Chinese state-owned defence companies such as Norinco Group. The first companies he directed in Hong Kong shared similar names with COSTIND’s arms export front, New Era Corporation. Several past executives of Xiang’s companies had backgrounds in defence companies subordinate to COSTIND. At least one appears to have worked for a known COSTIND front company in Hong Kong at the same time. Xiang is graduate of one of COSTIND’s seven universities and established its alumni association in Hong Kong. His wife, also alleged by Wang to be a spy, previously worked in COSTIND’s Intelligence Research Institute. In other words, Xiang was associated with members of military front companies. He had personal connections to COSTIND at the same time as the People’s Liberation Army was aggressively expanding its business presence in Hong Kong.
Wang’s statement also names dozens of alleged assets who occupy prominent positions in Taiwanese and Hong Kong society. Sooner or later, intelligence agencies in Australia, Taiwan, Britain and the United States will be able to confirm or refute these specific claims.
The Chinese government has quickly responded with a notice from the Shanghai Public Security Bureau claiming that it has been investigating him for fraud. Backed up by an online court record, authorities claim that Wang was also convicted of fraud in 2016. We shouldn’t dismiss these allegations off hand, but there is evidence that could cast serious doubt on them.
Wang claims he obtained a police check from the Chinese government for his Australian visa application. Issued in February 2019 by the same county that supposedly convicted him of fraud, it found he had no criminal record.
Stamps in Wang’s passport contradict the bureau's suggestion that he was on bail and restricted to a rural county for most of 2016, pending a court decision. The Public Security Bureau claims that Wang left China in April using a fake Chinese passport. Wang has said three fake ID documents were created for his mission to Taiwan but he did not receive them before he left the country. He had them posted to a friend who sent scans of them. It is also unclear how he could have left the country using a fake biometric passport.
Search engine queries for his supposed conviction return no results that predate reports of his defection. The Chinese government’s court records database contains the ruling, but a large privately owned database of Chinese legal cases curiously does not.
Arguably, each piece of evidence against the Chinese government’s claims adds to a picture that it is trying to silence him because he is speaking the truth. The detail in some of Wang’s claims means that government investigations should uncover the facts eventually. But we don’t know the full story and we probably never will.