Former CIA counterspy master James Angleton characterized counterintelligence as a “Wilderness of Mirrors.”
And for good reason — things are never quite what they seem, in the spy business.
This month, the People’s Republic of China and its intelligence services made headlines in the world press for authoritarian and repressive practices. However, this time the activities were not targeted at the Uighur minorities in Xinjiang province nor political dissidents but at legitimate democratic movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Defector Wang “William” Liqiang emerged in the Australian media claiming he worked for China’s military intelligence apparatus in Hong Kong, and he was eager and willing to spill the beans.
Normally, when a defector requests asylum in a country, officials and the media wonder whether or not he (or she) is lying, or, shall we say, stretching the truth. Intelligence Officers, on the other hand, wonder exactly how much the person is lying.
James Kynge, a senior editor at the Financial Times remarked in a tweet: “A lot does not add up about this guy. His story reads like it’s been pulled together from press clippings. And then there is the lack of a real revelation.”
Headlines aside, serious questions remain.
According to a report by Nick Eftimiades for Breaking Defense, the psychology and motivations of a defector are complex. While defectors to the West often claim to have had a change of heart, and a belief in freedom and democracy, the true motivation to leave one’s family, employment, and country can be quite different.
Motivations range from being caught in corruption or criminal acts to professional rivalries to illicit love affairs. Infighting between rival political factions in Chinese Communist Party politics has driven many officials to defect to safety. Often a defector exaggerates his importance or claims to know more than she really does.
Given these behavioral characteristics, it is likely that the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization (ASIO) is busy working with allies to confirm or refute the details of Wang’s stories.
If he wanted asylum in Australia, Wang would probably only have needed to attend a few Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations and then provide pictures along with a story about how the police were looking for him.
Instead, in his 17-page statement to the Australian authorities, he provided in-depth information identifying media outlets, financial transactions, business firms, and individuals he claims are involved in espionage and covert action against Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Australia.
There are several interesting aspects of the Wang case that have yet to be resolved. Wang has spoken publicly about his experiences. Public release of information generally does not occur without good reason. Perhaps the Australian government has doubts about him.
China claims and produced video footage seeming to prove that Wang is a criminal and was convicted of fraud in Guangze County, Fujian province in 2016. Wang describes being in Hong Kong since sometime in 2014. He cannot have been in two places at the same time. And, when Wang applied for an Australian visa in 2018, China told the Australian government that he did not have a criminal record.
If even just some of Wang’s stories about operations are true then he is a low-level defector. He was not an actual intelligence officer, nor did he receive training in clandestine intelligence tradecraft.
By his own description, he appears to have been some type of office assistant, one of the hundreds of thousands of people worldwide that Beijing’s intelligence apparatus recruits. The US intelligence community identifies these people as support agents (or co-optees) depending on the nationality and specific job functions.
According to Wang, the Information Centre of National Defense University in Hunan Province issued him alias documents on May 14, 2019. The documents were issued under two alias names. He was issued a South Korean passport under the alias name Wang Gang.
Note that the South Korean passport has a number of security features that make it difficult to reproduce, even for the best of criminal organizations.
Those features include laminate page cover fluorescent printing, photos, micro-printing, a ghost photo and the Machine Readable Zone with biometric data.
There are three things in this passport that raise questions.
Why use the name Wang Gang? Wang is a very common Chinese name but very rare for Koreans. Picking such an unusual name for a South Korean only draws unwanted attention to the passport bearer. An in-depth cover story and support documentation should have been developed but was not.
Wang does not speak Korean, therefore the issuance of this passport for anything other than “flash” purposes is a poor operational choice. Crossing an international border carrying a passport in a language one does not speak is extremely risky.
Lastly, the Korean name on the passport in the lower right area is completely different from the English name listed, a glaring error.
The issuance of this document shows very poor spy tradecraft. Once in-country, how is the individual expected to rent rooms, office space, establish bank accounts, wire money, etc. holding a flawed passport in a language that the bearer does not speak?
Even crude criminal organizations who steal passports can match the physical characteristics to buyers to cut down on required alterations. That just leaves only the photo to substitute — less trouble, less money and less risk. Could Chinese intelligence assets be that incompetent?
Leonid Petrov, a Korean security expert at the Australian National University, also said the South Korean passport Wang said was issued to him by his Chinese handlers, contained serious discrepancies. Would the Chinese equip their people with crude forgeries?
“There is a market for fake South Korean passports,’’ Petrov said.
“(The) South Korean passport is one of the strongest in the world. You can travel to many places without a visa.’’
According to The Interpreter, the Chinese government not only denies that Wang is an intelligence defector, but declares with a droll audacity that it doesn’t conduct espionage in Australia and would never dream of interfering in the internal affairs of this country.
It asserts that Wang is simply a fraudster running from the law in China. Now pretty much anyone would be justified in running from the law in China, given the lack of judicial independence and due process there.
But it’s at least possible that, in the case of Wang, the Chinese authorities are telling the truth. At best, he is a low-level operative, not a defector of “Kim Philby” stature.