Celebrating the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) centenary, President Xi Jinping – conspicuously donning a Mao suit – struck both a confident and defiant note.
The Chinese leader, who is simultaneously the party chief and head of the all-important Central Military Commission, claimed his country “never bullied, oppressed or enslaved the peoples of other countries” and vowed the country “will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us.”
Presenting the CCP as China’s ultimate savior, he also touted the country’s immense economic strides as well as decisive management of the Covid-19 pandemic. But contrary to Xi’s upbeat rhetoric, the walls are actually closing in on Beijing amid a global backlash building on the hotly contested origin of the pandemic.
China is increasingly grappling with a full-blown new Cold War with the West, as Washington and its allies step up joint military exercises, collectively slap human rights-related sanctions on senior Chinese officials, and potentially move towards coordinated trade and investment counter-measures against Beijing’s big-tech companies and predatory economic practices.
The Communist Party, however, may have to deal with an even bigger challenge in the coming months if rumors that Chinese Vice Minister of State Security Dong Jingwei has defected to Washington and provided crucial classified information on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic are proven true. Beijing state media has denied the defection rumors.
The apparent upshot of the cloak and dagger speculation has been the resuscitation of the so-called “lab leak” accusation, largely dismissed as a conspiracy theory last year, which has now entered mainstream scientific and policy discussion with potentially dire consequences for Beijing.
China is already facing potential trillion-dollar lawsuits across the US, as hawkish Republicans double down on their attempts to hold Beijing accountable for the pandemic, which has devastated economies and claimed millions of lives worldwide.
Western authorities have not confirmed the defection report, which has been all over Chinese-language platforms and generated reams of speculative international media headlines.
The speculation was pinpricked somewhat by Chinese state media reports reputedly showing Dong participating in a meeting of the Security Council Secretaries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states on June 23. Newsweek reported the apparent sighting, quoting the state reports.
He did not speak at the virtual event and critics on social media have claimed the photo may have been doctored.
Until recently, the prevailing wisdom among major powers and the broader scientific community was that Covid-19 was the result of a “zoonotic spillover” from bats to humans via a still unidentified animal intermediary. Poor hygienic practices in Wuhan’s notorious wet market, where regulations on wildlife have been flagrantly violated throughout the years, were seen as the most likely vector for the emergence of the new coronavirus.
The former Donald Trump administration, however, took a radically different position. Early on in the pandemic, Trump squarely blamed Chinese authorities for mishandling the spread of the pandemic.
“It was the ‘incompetence of China,’ and nothing else, that did this mass worldwide killing,” President Trump said in a tweet in May last year. Chinese officials came under heavy criticism for a lack of transparency in the initial phases of the pandemic, while recklessly keeping international flights to and from Wuhan open until the end of January 2020.
Over the months, however, the Trump administration upped the ante by claiming that Covid-19 was not the product of a natural zoonotic occurrence, but instead “gain of function” coronavirus research gone wrong.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed fingers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, claiming scientists in the high-security lab “researched animal-derived coronaviruses under conditions that increased the risk for accidental and potentially unwitting exposure.”
The Trump administration repeatedly claimed it had sufficient intelligence to back the “lab leak” hypothesis. Leading Republican senators and China hawks such as Tom Cotton (Arkansas) and Rand Paul (Kentucky) pounded on these claims, actively backing efforts to hold Beijing legally accountable, including through class lawsuits and sanctions.
Much of the mainstream media, scientists and politicians, however, dismissed the claims as dangerous “conspiracy theories” and “fringe theories” which only fuel xenophobia, especially amid a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in the US and other major Western countries.
The Biden administration largely stood by the mainstream zoonotic hypothesis upon its assumption of office. It also awaited the results of a fact-finding mission by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February, which saw WHO representatives quickly dismissing the lab-leak theory as “extremely unlikely.”
“Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific targeted research,” said Peter Ben Embarek of the WHO, who led the fact-finding mission.
The tide, however, quickly turned in the following weeks as scientists struggled to identify the exact natural source of the Covid-19 virus and questioned China’s transparency during the tightly-controlled fact-finding mission in Wuhan.
Even WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus openly criticized the initial findings, stating: “I do not believe this investigation is extensive enough.”
‘Gain of function’ research
Then three important developments took place, which apparently convinced the Biden administration to revisit Trump’s largely discredited lab-leak theory.
First, the Wall Street Journal reported on an independent scientific study conducted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in mid-2020, whereby genomic analysis of the Covid-19 virus raised the possibility of “gain of function” research and a laboratory accident in Wuhan.
Moreover, reports also emerged of supposed classified US intelligence that allegedly showed several researchers at Wuhan’s center for the study of coronaviruses and other pathogens fell ill “with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness” back in November 2019, fully two months before the emergence of the pandemic.
Yuan Zhiming, the director of biosafety at the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s level four lab, dismissed the report as “a complete lie.” “Those claims are groundless. The lab has not been aware of this situation [sick researchers in autumn 2019], and I don’t even know where such information came from,” she told Chinese media.
Despite China’s vehement denial, the Biden administration raised the stakes by instructing intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts into investigating the origins of the pandemic.
In an official statement, President Biden admitted that he had asked relevant agencies to revisit the thorny question, “including whether [the pandemic] emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.”
Soon reports emerged of the possibility that the Biden administration’s turnabout was largely because of direct and credible information provided by a defector Chinese counter-intelligence chief.
According to a report by SpyTalk, a broadly authoritative newsletter covering US intelligence, Dong, vice-minister at the Ministry of State Security since 2018, may have defected to Washington.
The top Chinese official reportedly fled to the US via Hong Kong along with his daughter in February this year, just as the WHO prepared its fact-finding mission in Wuhan.
Han Lianchao, a former Chinese diplomat who defected to the US following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, told media that if Dong’s defection reports are true, “it is really a big bomb.”
A rumor is a rumor
At the same time, there is still widespread skepticism of the defection reports. Nicholas Eftimiades, a former US intelligence officer and the Pentagon’s top China expert, dismissed the report as “exactly what it is, a rumor”, which “happens all the time.”
Rory Medcalf, one of Australia’s top intelligence experts and a former diplomat who heads the Australian National University’s National Security College, cautioned against “rumors and reports only at this stage.”
But whether true or false, reports of a high-profile Chinese defection have intensified ongoing international efforts to re-examine the veracity of the lab-leak theory and the true origins of the pandemic.
“I wouldn’t normally comment on intelligence matters of that nature, but what is very important here is that we do maintain the momentum of this inquiry,” said Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who has actively lobbied for an independent and thorough inquiry on the Covid-19 pandemic.
She vowed to “work with our partners to ensure that the phase two investigations able to access the material that it needs, including within China.”
“The most important thing here … absolutely is that this never ever happens again. Doesn’t matter whether it’s from Australia’s perspective, from the United States’ perspective or the smallest developing nation. We all share that view,” she added, signaling greater international pressure on China for “access to appropriate scientific and medical evidence.”