Commentary: Will the Real Dong Jingwei Please Stand Up?: Comparing Features of Popular Images of China’s MSS Vice Minister

People’s Republic of China Vice Minister for counterintelligence of the Ministry of State Security Dong Jingwei (far right), and People Republic of China Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi (center), were among five Chinese officials attending the 16th Meeting of the Security Council Secretaries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Member States on June 23, 2021. On June 23, 2021, officials of the People’s Republic of China Embassy in Washington presented this photograph of Dong’s very public appearance at the Shanghai meeting as proof that he is in China despite rumors that he had defected to the US four months before. The point at issue is whether the photograph presents the real Dong.

In June 2021, rumors had taken flight concerning the alleged defection of Dong Jingwei, the People’s Republic of China Vice Minister for counterintelligence of Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Guójiā Ānquán Bù (Ministry for State Security of the People’s Republic of China) or the MSS–China’s relative equivalent to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Dong was alleged to have defected in mid-February, flying from Hong Kong to the US with his daughter, Dong Yang. After arriving safely into US hands, Dong allegedly provided government officials with information about the Wuhan Institute of Virology that purportedly impacted the position of the administration of US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, by late June 2021, US officials began reaching out to the news anonymously to say reports of Dong’s defection were not true. and hinting that he remained in China. The mainstream news magazine Newsweek reported on June 22, 2021 that it was informed by a US government official that reports about Dong’s defection “are not accurate,” without elaborating. A second US government source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the rumors were “absolutely untrue.” Although reticent about the rumors for the longest time, on June 23, 2021, officials of the People’s Republic of China Embassy in Washington informed that Dong made a recent public appearance despite claims that he had defected to the US four months before. Curiously, the photograph has not been widely accepted as incontrovertible proof of Dong’s identity, that he still resides in China, or that he did not defect among many independent China-watchers.

Before the controversy of the rumored defection, one would have had great difficulty finding Dong Jingwei’s name anywhere it might even be expected. Two resources for such information that greatcharlie’s will reach for first are: Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil, Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer (United States Naval Institute Press, 2019), and I. C. Smith and Nigel West, Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence (Historical Dictionaries of Intelligence and Counterintelligence) (Scarecrow, 2012). Following the blow-up of the defection story, numerous articles online have appeared and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia and Britannica, have developed enough information to provide decent–though some were not so verifiable–biographies of him. As was noted in greatcharlie’s June 30, 2021 post entitled The Defection That Never Was: Meditations on the Dong Jingwei Defection Hoax,” never before has Dong’s name, or any other senior MSS counterintelligence official’s name, been bandied about in the US or global newsmedia in the manner it has been lately.

What would imaginably now be a greater issue for inquiring minds than Dong’s biography, is the matter of his actual image, how he actually looks. A number of photographs of him have cropped up along with the many new articles, but two particular images of Dong have been very popular. As the two images have far more similar features than dissimilar, one could very easily understand how it might present a challenge for many to distinguish between their facial features of the individuals in the photographs. Yet, both photographs, in reality, display enough distinct aspects to allow one to discern fairly significant differences between them. If they are photographs of two different men, one may actually be Dong. Here, greatcharlie gives making comparisons between the two images of Dong the old college try.

The June 16, 2021 tweet from the US based, Chinese pro-democracy activist, Han Lianchao. In the now famous tweet, Han stated he heard a rumor from an associate that Dong Jingwei had defected to the US. Han’s tweet was picked up the next day by SpyTalk, an online news site offering reports on national security topics, with an emphasis on US intelligence operations. SpyTalk’s analysis was then widely reported and discussed mainly by conservative newsmedia outlets, and gradually reported by some in the mainstream newsmedia. Along with Han’s commentary was the popularized photograph allegedly of Dong Jingwei.

The first image mentioned above was made available widely via Twitter on June 16, 2021 as a result of being in a photograph attached to a tweet by the US based, Chinese pro-democracy activist, Han Lianchao. In the now famous tweet, Han stated he heard a rumor from an associate that Dong had defected to the US. Han’s tweet was picked up the next day by SpyTalk, an online news site offering reports on national security topics, with an emphasis on US intelligence operations. SpyTalk’s analysis was then widely reported and discussed mainly by conservative newsmedia outlets, and gradually reported by some in the mainstream newsmedia.

The second fairly popular image is included with his biography in Wikipedia. The individual in the Wikipedia photograph appears to be the same individual in the photograph that the Chinese government released of Dong attending the 16th Meeting of the Security Council Secretaries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Member States on June 23, 2021. He is the same individual in a photograph taken when Dong was part of a delegation led by Chen Yixin, Secretary-General of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, to attend the second round of a bilateral high-level security dialogue in Berlin on Sept. 21, 2018. In the photograph, Dong is first from the left. It is alleged to be the earliest publicly available photograph of Dong after he began serving as Vice Minister for counterintelligence in the MSS. Dong took on the position of Vice Minister in April 2018. 

A photograph taken when Dong Jingwei (far left) was part of a delegation led by Chen Yixin, Secretary-General of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, to attend the second round of a bilateral high-level security dialogue in Berlin on Sept. 21, 2018. It is alleged to be the earliest publicly available photograph of Dong serving as Vice Minister for counterintelligence in the MSS. Dong took on the position of Vice Minister in the MSS in April 2018.

Si parva licet componere magnis. (If we may compare small things with great.) By placing the photograph of Dong from greatcharlie’s June 30th post beside the photograph from his biography in Wikipedia, using only the naked eye, one can find clear distinctions in at least seven areas of their respective faces. To allow readers to follow along with comparisons of facial features, the June 30, 2021 greatcharlie post photograph is included here as Figure 1. The Wikipedia photograph is included here as Figure 2. A chart that identifies parts of the human face is included here as Figure 3. Readers should refer to that chart to locate points of the face mentioned in Figures 1 and 2. The seven specific points on the face address include: philtrum; philtral columns; philtral dimple; nasolabial grooves; nasal septum; mentolabial sulcus; and, facial marks.

Figure 1 

Dong Jingwei June 16, 2021 Twitter Photograph

Figure 2 

Dong Jingwei Wikipedia Biography Photograph

Figure 3 

Face Chart

Philtrum

The philtrum on the individual in Figure 1 forms a visually straight canal with the philtral columns formed in straight lines from the nasal septum to the top of the lip. They are somewhat thick on both left and right. The canal of the philtrum appears relatively symmetric in its depth and width to the corresponding height and width of each philtral column. On the individual in Figure 2, the philtral columns appear shorter than those of the individual in Figure 1. They are separated enough to form the philtrum into a wider and somewhat deeper canal than that of the individual in Figure 1. 

Philtral columns

Although they are not marked on the chart in Figure 3–greatcharlie apologizes for that omission, the two columns of the philtrum running from the septum of the nose to the top of the upper lip are called the philtral columns. At the point the philtral columns touch the top of the upper lip–known more precisely as the vermilion border–in Figure 1, two triangle shaped points form. Those triangle shaped points are not present on the upper lip of the individual in Figure 2. On the individual in Figure 2, the philtral columns contact the upper lip in a way to form a horseshoe or “U” shape. The upper lip, itself–as aforementioned, called the vermillion–forms only moderate curves at the points on which the philtral columns contact it.

Philtral dimple

The philtral dimple, not marked in the chart in Figure 3–again, our apologies–is the gap between the two philtral columns where they contact the upper lip. On the individual in Figure 1, the philtral dimple is pronounced between what are visually two triangle shaped points, both left and right at the base of the philtral columns. On the individual in Figure 2, the philtral dimple is a far less pronounced facial feature.

Nasolabial grooves

The nasolabial grooves on the individual in Figure 1 are very pronounced both right and left. They begin at a point above the wings of the nose appearing to make contact with the dorsum of the nose. The nasolabial grooves on the individual do not contact the wings of the nose. They stretch in near straight lines down and to the left and down and to the right, reaching just outside the edge of the angles of the mouth. The nasolabial grooves on the individual in Figure 2 are not as long as that of the individual in Figure 1. They curve inward and contact the top of the wings of the nose of the individual. Although the nasolabial grooves are not as pronounced on the individual in Figure 2 as those of the individual in Figure 1, where they become more apparent is closer to the wings of the nose. They are somewhat deeper and the skin around them appears thicker than that for Figure 1.

Nasal septum

The nasal septum at the point where it contacts the philtrum on the individual in Figure 1 is thin. The point at which the nasal septum contacts the philtrum On the individual in Figure 2 is somewhat thick. The nasal septum also appears shorter to some degree. The individual in Figure 1 appears clean shaven beneath the nasal septum and over the philtrum to the upper lip. The individual in Figure 2, in all photos available publicly, maintains very slight hair growth, perhaps a deliberate, modest “designer stubble,” beneath the nasal septum, covering the philtrum down to the top of the upper lip and across to the angles of the mouth.

Mentolabial sulcus

On the individual in Figure 1, the mentolabial sulcus, the line or furrow formed between the base of the lower lip and the base of the chin, is prominent. There is an apparent blemish–mole, birthmark, scratch, bruise–beneath the mentolabial sulcus along its right edge, at a point just inside “the line.” The mentolabial sulcus on the individual in Figure 2 is barely perceptible. It has a somewhat curved shape. The chin on the individual in Figure 1 appears somewhat “U” shaped. The chin on the individual in Figure 2 appears more “bow” shaped. The length between the base of the lower lip and the base of the chin is shorter on the individual in Figure 2 than on the individual in Figure 1.

Facial marks

On the individual in Figure 1, there is a mole, birthmark, slight injury (scratch or bruise), beneath the mentolabial sulcus, beneath and just inside the right edge of it, not making contact with the line itself. On the individual in Figure 2, there are no similar marks on the face.

Finally, the most obvious difference between the two men is that one in Figure 1 wears eyeglasses. The individual in Figure 2 does not wear eyeglasses. It is possible, however, that the individual in Figure 2 does wear eyeglasses, but simply removes them when taking photographs.

Additional Observations Concerning Photographs

Signs of Aging

Eheu fugaces labuntur anni. (Alas, the fleeting years slip by.) What might be perceived beyond the physical about how two individuals in the photographs projected themselves at the moment their pictures were taken is that they are respectively professional, intelligent, well-minded, well-dressed, well-groomed, Chinese officials. However, from what information is publicly known, and what one may accept as true about Dong is that he is currently 57 years old, reportedly being born on November 18, 1963, one can attempt to correctly perceive aspects of his physical condition, too! To that extent, one might consider how age might impact the appearance of the real Dong.

There are many who really do not begin showing signs of aging until a bit later than 57. (By no means does one become “past one’s prime” or “over the hill” after reaching age 57!) Yet, there are some fairly common, and commonly understood, changes in appearance that normally occur. As one ages, the appearance of the face and neck typically changes. Loss of muscle tone and thinning skin can often give the face a flabby or drooping appearance. The skin also tends to dry out and the underlying layer of fat shrinks so that your face no longer has a plump, smooth surface. To some extent, wrinkles cannot be avoided. If readers would look back at the two photographs of individuals both identified as Dong in Figures 1 and 2, they will notice that the individual in Figure 2 has a rather plump, smooth surface. There are no wrinkles or furrows visible on the face. There is considerable muscle tone in the face in all three photos of him presented here, most prominently along the jaw. The individual in Figure 1, exhibits the more dried skin that comes with age. The visage of the individual is strong but there is no pronounced muscle tone. (It must be noted that in another photograph included here below in which the same individual identified as Dong in Figure 1 is seen, slight furrows can be discerned on his forehead.)

Sun exposure and cigarette smoking are likely to make them develop more quickly. However, there is no way for greatcharlie to determine whether the individual in the photograph is a heavy smoker or is regularly exposed to the sun. There is no way available for greatcharlie to determine whether these factors relate to the individual in Figure 1 either.

In another sign of aging, the number and size of dark spots on the face increase as well. It was noted earlier that there is a blemish on the right side of the face of the individual in Figure 1. However, there is no available way for greatcharlie to determine when that individual acquired the blemish. There are no discernible spots on the face of the individual in Figure 2.

With aging, the loss of bone mass in the jaw reduces the size of the lower face and makes your forehead, nose, and mouth more pronounced. The nose may lengthen slightly. In both Figures 1 and 2, there is no indication of the loss of bone mass in the jaw. The noses of the individuals in Figures 1 and 2 do not appear to have suffered ill-effects of age such lengthening. In fact, the skin on both noses appears rather smooth and plump.

A common transformation due to aging is for the fat from the eyelids to settle into the eye sockets. This can create the appearance of sunken eyes. make. The lower eyelids can slacken and bags can develop under your eyes. The weakening of the muscle that supports the upper eyelid can make the eyelids droop. This may limit vision. There is nothing to indicate any of these aspects have impacted the appearance of either individual in Figure 1 or 2. As the individual in Figure 1 wears eyeglasses, any effects on his eyes may have been influenced by them. (It must be noted that in another photograph included here below in which the same individual identified as Dong in Figure 1 is seen, it appears that there is a hint of bags under the eyes detectable through his eyeglass lenses.)

A most apparent sign of aging is gray hair on the scalp, and gray hair on the scalp, and on the eyebrows and eyelashes as well. One the individual in Figure A, there is no ability to determine whether he has gray hair in his eyebrows or eyelashes. Except for the hair above his forehead, one cannot see the hair on his scalp to determine if there is gray hair. (It must be noted that in a photograph included here below in which the same individual identified as Dong in Figure 1 is seen, his hair parted on the left side of scalp, revealing what appears to be gray hair.) The individual in Figure 2, on the other hand, clearly has no gray hair in his scalp, eyelashes, or eyebrows. In fact, as aforementioned, there is slight hair growth on his upper lip. It is decidedly black giving him a very youthful appearance. To that extent, the individual in Figure 2 appears to be younger than the individual in Figure 1, and perhaps younger than 57-years-old.

Countenance of the Face

Duriora genti corpora, stricti artus, minax vultus et major animi vigor. (Hardy frames, close-knit limbs, fierce countenances, and a peculiarly vigorous courage, mark the tribe.) In addition the changes in the face that come with aging, one’s work can be manifested in the countenance, too! As explained in greatcharlie’s June 30, 2021 post, the primary mission of MSS counterintelligence is the infiltration of all the foreign special service operations: intelligence and counterintelligence services, as well as law enforcement organizations worldwide to protect China’s citizens, secrets and technology from foreign spies. Counterintelligence may very well be the greatest manifestation of the paranoia business, but it, as all other elements of the intelligence industry, requires wisdom, reason, and logic to be performed well. If progress through interviews or interrogations of the subject of an investigation indicates that an investigator is on the right track, there will be an attempt to find another door inside to open and pass through in order to get deeper on matters. Such technique is honed and polished over the years. 

John le Carré, the renowned author of espionage novels of the United Kingdom who served in both the Security Service, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, during the 1950s and 1960s, speaks to this point in The Secret Pilgrim (Alfred L. Knopf, 1990) when his main character, George Smiley a senior and well experienced intelligence officer for The Circus–MI6 in nearly every respect, tells a group of probationary intelligence officers in the fictional foreign IntellIgence training school in Sarratt that he was the one who debriefed his arch rival from Moscow Center, the headquarters of foreign intelligence service of the Soviet Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB.  He was known only by the name, Karla, and was captured in Delhi after escaping the US. Explaining to the trainees in general about the nature of interrogations, Smiley says at times they are “communions between damaged souls.” However, when MSS managers have determined the situation demands rough treatment, imaginably compelled by some exigent circumstance, and when the decision will align with the thinking and plans of the Communist Party of China leadership, surely coercive measures will be employed to include forms of torture. That work surely takes its toll, often manifesting its pull on the countenance of those who have engaged in it. The aphorism is quite appropriate here: “L’habit ne fait pas le moine.” Still, perception might lead the reasonable to choose the individual in the photograph of Figure 1 to someone more apparently carrying such a burden based on appearance, and perhaps a bit of intuition. Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi. (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.)

An image of Dong Jingwei matching that from the June 16, 2021 Twitter photograph (above). If these popular photographs of Dong in Figures 1 and 2 presented here are actually of two different men so be it. This practice may turn out to be of greater use by China’s intelligence services than anyone outside of the country might have imagined. However, there remains the real possibility that both photographs exist to completely deceive observers, and Dong’s true image is not present in either of them. If that is the case then in the possible effort to conceal his identity, Dong has done the thing completely.

Concealing an Intelligence Chief’s Identity: Not an Uncommon Practice

The idea of a director, senior executive, or key operations manager of an intelligence service taking steps to conceal his or her identity would not be unique in the annals of secret intelligence. Turning to a handful of examples, in greatcharlie’s November 13, 2019 post entitled, “Book Review: Markus Wolf, Man without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster (Times Books, 1997),” it was explained that Markus Wolf, chief of the foreign intelligence service Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance), commonly referred to as the HVA of the erstwhile Deutsch Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) or GDR, lived a life in relative obscurity, brilliantly concealing his presence and the footprint of his organization as both operated against the West. His memoir’s title, Man without a Face, was a direct reference to the fact that at one point, Western intelligence services only had a blurred photograph of Wolf while he attended the Nuremberg Trials from which elements within the CIA managed to identify him in 1959. Unable to collect an up-to-date photograph from which to identify Wolf afterward, for a long-time he was referred to among Western intelligence services as the “man without a face.” As the story goes, only after a GDR defector, Werner Stiller, identified Wolf in a photograph in 1979 for the counterintelligence element of West Germany’s Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution) or BfV did that change. The photograph of Wolf was captured by Säpo, Sweden’s National Security Service, during a visit he made with his wife to Stockholm in 1978.

At the time Stephen Dorril wrote his authoritative book, MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (Free Press, 2000), Richard Dearlove, then head of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service–colloquially known as M16–was virtually unknown. A contemporary photograph was not published in the newsmedia. According to a BBC report, when Stella Rimington in 1992 was named the first female chief of the United Kingdom’s Security Service–known colloquially as MI5–her neighbors finally discovered what she did. Even her children learned of true occupation for the first time. No official photographs accompanied her name at that time. However, later, official photos of her were provided after photographers managed to take what was described as “a very blurry picture of her out shopping.”

Sidelights

If these popular photographs allegedly of Dong in Figures 1 and 2 here are actually of two different men so be it. It may turn out that using decoys may be a practice in greater use by China’s intelligence services than anyone outside of the country might have imagined. Perchance as a result of the Dong defection matter, it has been brought to light to the world all at once. The sense of security the practice may create perhaps brings comfort to those who would otherwise be under the chronic stress caused by adversaries attempts to surveil and monitor their activities by a variety of means. 

There remains the real possibility that both photographs exist to completely deceive observers, and Dong’s true image is not present in either of them. If that is the case, then in the possible effort to conceal his identity, Dong has done the thing completely. The two photographs focused upon here will continue to be published perhaps until another plausible image, or perchance another two or more, of Dong surface at some time and via some source of Beijing’s choosing.

A quote from Arthur Conan Doyle cited in greatcharlie’s June 30th post on Dong’s rumored defection might be worth repeating here. In “Adventure IV. The Boscombe Valley Mystery” of his twelve short stories in Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes published in the Strand Magazine (1891), his main character, Holmes, states: “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing. It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.”

The Way Forward

Omne ignotum pro magnifico. (Everything unknown seems magnificent.) Without pretension, greatcharlie states that it does not have any information that would allow it to judge which photograph holds Dong’s true image. As promised, greatcharlie has only sought to parse out a few possibilities here. What is presented are simply perceptions based on observations made of less than a handful of photographs. Certainly in China, there are more than a few people in the MSS, MPS, the State Council, and the Communist Party of China who know exactly what Dong looks like and which of the two photographs, if either, depicts him. It may very well be that the causality for the use of mixed images of Dong is based on an effort to increase security. However, just as greatcharlie, a nonpracticioner, “amateur sleuthhound”–as one reader sardonically  referred to the editor–has examined two reported images of Dong in photographs, Expert, professional analysts in US and other allied intelligence services have doubtlessly examined all of the photographs out there that purportedly include Dong using AI and other advanced technologies, and have reached to their own conclusions. Thus, despite any possible efforts to conceal Dong’s identity, they likely have a fair idea of how Dong looks, too!

As greatcharlie has noted in previous posts, in our ordered universe, it is expected that everything will follow its design. Order in the human mind is established by patterns that one can decipher. With the smattering of facts, evidence, and insights available, one can still postulate, and see if a theory formulated on what the whole Dong episode was all about can be confirmed by facts through investigation. It may not always be a tidy process. Wary of the moves Chinese intelligence can make, some might contend the matter of the varied images of Dong may actually be part of some recherché plan to create greater mystery around his identity. Imaginably, it would be viewed as a subplot hanging from a greater MSS disinformation plot to foster a bizarre defection rumor. On the other hand, some might go as far as to assert a more fanciful theory such as the leadership of MSS, in an effort to impress Communist Party of China leaders ahead of, and during, the Centennial of the Communist Party of China the decided to provide a modest demonstration of the organization’s capabilities. Thus,, MSS may have decided to have a little fun with US counterintelligence services by “just messing with them” as the saying goes, making certain that Party’s leaders were in on the joke. The whole matter has certainly had quite a meretricious effect worldwide. Of course, such a move would hardly be a schema, and perhaps the last thing one should expect from MSS. Still, though it may be improbable, it is all the same conceivable. One can be assured that similar overimaginative assessments, judgments concerning the Dong defection episode will continue to be made and published primarily online. Their creation will be driven by the fact that for inquiring minds, the curious, the enthusiasts demand more answers on the matter. In Areopagitica (1644), the great 17th century English poet and intellectual, John Milton, explains: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”

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