The Wang Liqiang spy/defector story: real or fake?

Wang Liqiang is a Chinese national now in Australia who recently went to the Australian press (here, The Age) to say he worked for Chinese intelligence. (It’s very hard to construct that sentence without using words that convey either skepticism or belief.) There has been a lot of controversy over whether he is telling the truth. On the very day that the story appeared, Wang Feng, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese edition of the Financial Times, decided he was a fraud and mocked those who took the claims seriously. A former Taiwanese intelligence official found lots of problems in the claims. Others have suggested we should be a little more patient in reaching judgment, since many of Wang’s claims can actually be tested—just not in the space of a few hours or days.

Among the lessons I’ve learned in reading the commentary on this case are (1) that it’s important to distinguish what Wang has claimed from what people think he has claimed; some of the refutations seem to be of things that he didn’t say; and (2) that even in genuine defector cases, there can be a lot of spinning, shading the truth, exaggeration, or outright lying—not surprising, given that they involve people in extreme, possibly life-threatening circumstances—so that holes in the story don’t necessarily mean the whole thing is false. They are just not probative one way or the other.

A colleague who has considerable experience in intelligence matters and whom I consider to be of sound judgment offers the following analysis, offered here with permission but on the condition of anonymity:

(1) Wang Liqiang is a bagman for the intelligence officer. He is not an official part of the intelligence system, not an intelligence officer, and not formally trained. We have a lot of examples of how Chinese intelligence officers build up small empires of collection/operational capabilities around themselves. The Jiangsu SSD court documents and the MSS relationships with Ng Lap Seng and Guo Wengui relationship, for example, have similar mixtures of formal and informal intelligence workers. This should also explain why Wang would not have the desired bureaucratic knowledge. However, having had some direct experience with trying to evaluate people like him, I also would say that we do not have particularly fulsome bureaucratic knowledge of the military intelligence system—certainly not enough in the open source to say with certainty which parts of the system have people in Hong Kong or how those “spies” might connect to multiple parts of the bureaucracy.

(2) Plenty of intelligence services have connected sources to journalists or otherwise publicized them. The KGB and Kim Philby. CIA/FBI and UK SIS publicized the knowledge and analysis of numerous sources, including a number of significant and senior sources who either defected or were exfiltrated after being handled in place for some time. This is not unusual—assuming that ASIO had anything to do with Wang’s relationship with The Age, which I don’t think they did.

(3) If Wang has any experience with the intelligence world, then he would know the Australians would prefer to keep him in place as a source rather than let him defect. Talking to the press from the very beginning would ensure that he could not be sent back. For someone seemingly desperate to get out, I think this action makes perfect sense.

(4) It is quite possible for Wang to be genuine but to be overselling his information and speculating in areas beyond his direct knowledge. This would be quite common. In the Australian context, Chen Yonglin comes to mind. But there are plenty of other examples in different intelligence contexts. These provoke contentious arguments, because some of the information would obviously be accurate and some quite wrong. And really good information cannot be readily verified, so you end up arguing the veracity on the basis of what else has been accurate or wrong.

(5) There is some reason to be disappointed in the press coverage in favor of sensationalism rather than clarity, but I have a lot of sympathies in this case. Wang and his family want asylum but seemingly did not want to keep working inside or for the system. The only way to guarantee asylum would have been to work for ASIO/ASIS for a couple of years. Press coverage humanizes him, especially when Yang Hengjun is imprisoned and is possibly being tortured. The truth is not a defense against Australian libel law on these issues, so why would The Age want to get specific? Moreover, ASIO and the AFP should have the time to check out and investigate any leads from Wang. Finally, it seems clear that some people have been engaged by The Age to track down what can be verified in open sources.