A defector at Auckland’s consulate for the People’s Republic of China told New Zealand police he feared his Catholicism was putting his life at risk, has been granted asylum.
Dong Luobin, who is now 39 years old, fled
Consulate in May 2018. Six months later New Zealand authorities granted him refugee status after concluding that he faced persecution because of his religious and political views, should he return to China.
Rhys Ball, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University, said the case was the first defection of a foreign government official or employee on New Zealand soil that he was aware of since the 1947–1991 Cold War.
“Defection is an especially rare occurrence,” Ball said.
weekend herald had first spoken to Dong four years ago, just months after her dramatic escape from the consulate compound in Greenlane, but was then withheld from publication over security concerns. This week Dong said he decided to speak publicly for the first time to help New Zealanders understand the importance of their democratic freedoms.
“My children will also be New Zealanders, so protecting this country means even more to me,” he said.
Questions about Dong’s case and the claims sent by weekend herald China’s embassy this week was unanswered by publication time.
Dong grew up in Hebei province and had worked for China’s Foreign Affairs Office since 2016. His arrival in New Zealand in March 2018 to work as a driver at the Auckland consulate was his first overseas posting.
He described his working life in Auckland – in a multi-building complex surrounded by a high barbed wire wall – as being subject to extraordinary controls. Employees, most of whom were unable to speak English, lived on-site, had to surrender their passports to the consulate, and were only able to leave the premises in groups of three or more.
“We are not allowed to go out. I cannot come and go at will. Three people would be going together,” he said.
Dong said that when he started work at the consulate, the wall around the housing block near the main administration building was still under construction, allowing him to go out for lunch or in the evening to go to a nearby church.
Dong is a third-generation Catholic, but said he practices his faith in the country of his birth by attending an “underground church” – one that is still organized in the Vatican, in contrast to its Beijing-sponsored breakaway Catholic Patriotic Association. – Was subject to surveillance and repression.
“Our pastors are filmed as soon as they walk out their doors. There are spies inside our church,” Dong said.
His frequent trips beyond the consulate’s walls gave him the opportunity to purchase a cellphone and access the Internet, which was not subject to the censorship of the Great Firewall of China, where he said he was able to learn through Facebook—a first In times of widespread religious repression in China, human rights lawyers and clergy are “secretly disappearing”.
Upon learning of these revelations, he said, “My tears flow at night while I sleep.”
But his absence to attend church in secret was noticed and on the morning of 7 May he was questioned by consulate staff about his whereabouts the previous day and why he had not answered his phone.
“When I came back I told them I had gone for a run. It was raining that morning: they didn’t believe me. They had strange expressions on their faces,” Dong said.
Dong began to fear that even the crucifix he wore around his neck could be seen and that his religious beliefs would soon be discovered.
Coincidentally that same morning he had also been given his passport to take to the Automobile Association (AA) to verify his identity for his New Zealand driver’s licence: this presented an opportunity for escape.
“At that moment there was a voice in my heart – I do not know who was speaking to me – saying to me ‘go away quickly, go away quickly’, constantly urging me to go away, in my heart A voice was telling me to go. Then that afternoon I didn’t eat lunch, I settled down and packed some clothes, and just left.”
He first tried to take refuge in the church he had secretly visited, but the priest he sought was not present and the staff called the police. He was taken to Auckland Police Station where he was interviewed with the assistance of a Mandarin-speaking officer.
“I told the translation officer, ‘If you send me back to the consulate, I’ll die’. Then the police probably understood my situation. The officer said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll protect you.’”
The next day Dong contacted a lawyer who immediately filed an application for asylum.
They told weekend herald Consulate staff “looked down” at New Zealanders and recalled a saying: “New Zealand is a small country. They can help us do a lot of things as long as we pay them.”
He said the consulate served as an important nexus in organizing and directing New Zealand-based Chinese NGOs to ensure an alliance with Beijing.
“China uses a method. It uses soft power all over the world. After it’s slowly corroded, once you feel it, it’s too late,” Dong said.
According to figures published by Immigration New Zealand, China has become the largest source of nationality of asylum claims approved over the past decade, with Dong being one in 225 since 2016. Many were granted on a genuine belief of religious persecution. (These figures do not include refugees accepted under international refugee quota programs.)
National Party MP Simon O’Connor, co-chair of the New Zealand branch of the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition on China, said he had been offering support – largely moral – to Dong for several years.
“Those early days were fascinating, not only for him to share, but for the level of security he felt he needed to ensure his safety. Making sure he was okay was the biggest concern for me and others .
“Most New Zealanders will be aware of [Chinese Communist Party’s] repression of Uighur Muslims or the suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong, but are perhaps unaware that Christians are also aggressively targeted, especially those who are not familiar with state-sponsored churches. It is a sad reality that those in China who want to express their Christian faith are at risk, as the situation with Luobin shows.”
O’Connor, a staunch Catholic, said that Dong’s story should be a warning to New Zealanders: “Her story, and why she defected, reflects the paranoia of authoritarian rule.”
weekend herald understands that both the police and NZSIS have been involved in discussions over the physical security of Dong over the past few years.
Dong said that since his defection, his family in China had been pressured and intimidated by government officials, which threatened his ability to travel internationally and even domestically.
“They were told: ‘He can’t come back. And you can’t even go… You won’t even be able to buy a train ticket,'” he said of the threats.
Professor Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, who was aware of Dong’s case, said her story “contradicts the narrative that the New Zealand government is soft on China”.
Brady said, “We could have turned him down but he was picked up by the New Zealand General Police, who thankfully understood the danger he was in and was given refugee status within months.”
Massey University’s Ball, who worked as an NZSIS officer, said Dong’s relatively low-level job at the consulate meant he was less likely to be treated by officials – here or in Beijing – as a high-value intelligence source. There was no possibility.
“That makes him a second or third level source, although someone has genuine fears for his safety,” Ball said.
He added that Dong would nevertheless be of interest to Western intelligence agencies, particularly NZSIS.
“I’m sure they’d be interested in talking to him,” Ball said.
A spokesman for NZSIS said it had a “long-term view of not commenting on individuals”, but added:
“As a general comment, we can say that NZSIS’s mandate is to protect New Zealand from foreign interference. We are aware that some communities in New Zealand are being persecuted by foreign states in an effort to prevent the development of ideas considered subversive. has been targeted.