Xu Jiatun (許家屯 ), a former senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official, took many secrets to his grave, people who knew him say.
Since his death in June after 26 years of exile in the US, new details have emerged of Xu’s daring escape from China after the suppression of the Tiananmen democracy demonstrations in June 1989 and about the party’s presence in Hong Kong, where from 1983 to 1989 Xu headed the local office of Xinhua news agency. That made him China’s de facto representative in what was then a British colony.
This is of more than historical interest, with the forces of communism and democracy locked in a bitter contest in Hong Kong. The CCP has always maintained an omerta-like silence about its activities in the territory, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Martin Lee (李柱銘), one of the founders of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, met with Xu several times during Xu’s tenure at Xinhua, Lee said in an interview.
“One time he and I had lunch, and he told me not to worry too much. Beijing had already brought about 50,000 people into Hong Kong to work in all sectors of life — the civil service, the professions,” Lee said.
If Britain pulled out before the handover, he said, “these people would just take over.”
He intended this to be reassuring, Lee said.
“But now when you look at Hong Kong, I think that they are running this place. Our chief executive is one of them, a secret Communist Party cadre, obviously,” he said, referring to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英).
Leung has denied that he is a party member.
Xu made many friends in Hong Kong, including democrats and tycoons, said Kam Kin-yat (金建一), whose father, Kam Yiu-yu (金堯如), was the editor-in-chief of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po and an old friend of Xu’s.
Xu was open-minded, but making friends was also part of his job, Kam Kin-yat said by telephone from Los Angeles.
Xu encouraged Lee, a lawyer, and Szeto Wah (司徒華), a union organizer, to set up political parties, Lee said.
In Xu’s discussions with Szeto, Lee said: “He added one thing that he didn’t tell me — that Szeto Wah didn’t have to worry about money. And now, of course, in Hong Kong the pro-Beijing political parties are paid by Beijing, indirectly through local tycoons.”
Szeto became an outspoken critic of the party after the Tiananmen protests.
As those protests rocked China, Kam Kin-yat said that then-CCP general secretary Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) asked Xu to evaluate the government’s best response to the demonstrations from a Hong Kong point of view. Xu told Zhao that a “peaceful resolution” was necessary.
Zhao agreed, but he was dismissed for this stance and placed under lifelong house arrest by hard-liners, including former Chinese president Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
In 1989, Xu asked to retire, but was instead dismissed from his post. In January 1990, a conservative, Zhou Nan (周南), was appointed as his successor.
Xu moved to Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, apparently awaiting news of his fate from Beijing. However, he took his fate into his own hands.
About 8pm on April 30, Xu went for his usual evening stroll out of the Xinhua headquarters in Shenzhen, according to Kam Kin-yat, who said this was the first time he was publicly sharing details of an escape he helped plan.
“He went for a walk empty-handed,” Kam Kin-yat said. “He didn’t bring a single suitcase.”
Kam Kin-yat’s role was confirmed by Ho Pin (何頻), the publisher of Mirror Media Group, who is based in New York.
Accompanied by a family member, Xu crossed the border into Hong Kong at Lo Wu, wearing a golf cap for a disguise. He boarded a train, alighting at the Sheung Shui station, and walked about 30m along the tracks to where Kam Kin-yat was waiting in a car.
That same evening, an order from Beijing arrived at the Xinhua office in Shenzhen to confiscate Xu’s passport, Kam Kin-yat said.
In Hong Kong, Xu wrote a letter to Deng, in care of Xinhua in Hong Kong, promising he would not reveal any secrets.
He hoped his family in China would be treated leniently if he remained loyal to that promise, said Kam Kin-yat, who mailed the letter.
The US consulate issued Xu a visa and helped arrange a last-minute air ticket.
Xu kept his secrets, but the party never granted his wish to return home.
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