PASTOR Bob Fu knows about life on the run. Back in 1996, when he and his wife lived in Beijing, they spent two months behind bars because of their work in the underground Protestant ‘house church’ movement.
Friends warned they’d be jailed again soon. They hid out in the countryside, then escaped to then-British colony of Hong Kong via Bangkok. Friends — and strangers — pulled strings so Fu’s wife could give birth in a local hospital and the couple could gain asylum in the West. When they finally boarded a flight for America in June 1997, “we knew what it meant to be rescued”, recalls Fu, now based in Midland, Texas, “what it meant to feel desperate”.
Inspired by that experience, Fu now runs a nonprofit called ChinaAid. It works with thousands of volunteers in China to help victims of injustice.
When blind dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest and sought urgent refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing, Fu furiously worked his contacts in Washington, DC, and the media to help Chen obtain a student visa for the US. And in ‘extraordinary’ cases, says Fu, ChinaAid launches rescue missions to help persecuted Chinese escape through its own underground railroad, extractions whose methods are informed by those who have come before — and which began in the aftermath of the June 4, 1989, massacre at Tiananmen Square. They are the progeny of Operation Yellowbird.
It was only last year — nearly 18 years on from their escape — that Fu and his wife learned they had received crucial support in Hong Kong from a top man in the now legendary organisation that called itself Yellowbird: An underground network of sympathisers shocked into action after Tiananmen Square.
Yellowbird used whatever tools it could muster to spirit dissidents out of the country. Gangsters lent smuggling boats. Cantopop stars donated concert proceeds. Hong Kong police handled disguises. An academic study by Shiu-Hing Lo said the CIA provided scrambler phones, night-vision gunsights, and more.
By 1997, Yellowbird had helped rescue up to 500 Chinese activists, including 15 of the 21 Tiananmen protest leaders on Beijing’s “most wanted” list. “Though I never wanted to leave China, Yellowbird was very important,” recalls New Jersey-based exile Wang Juntao, whom Beijing called a ‘black hand’, or mastermind, behind the 1989 protests. “Without Hong Kong people’s support, without global attention, without an escape plan, China’s democracy movement would have suffered much, much greater losses.”
Quarter of a century after the Tiananmen bloodletting, Yellowbird’s legacy is a bright ray of light in China’s still bleak political landscape. When I first reported on Yellowbird in 1996 for Newsweek, organisers warned many details had to remain secret to safeguard ongoing missions.
“Nobody told me at the time that I owed thanks to something called Yellowbird,” says Fu.
Now, increasing numbers of organisers are going public with extraordinary tales of escapes from China that seem to have sprung from the pages of spy novels.
But the tales of Yellowbird’s derring do are not just a matter of history. The organisation worked for years after 1989, and its most potent legacy extends very much to the present day. At minimum, it inspired successor networks — like Fu’s — that operate safe havens and orchestrate safe exits for a variety of Chinese activists on the run.
The pressures that make people take flight keep mounting. Communist officials plan to demolish or forcibly remove crosses from 64 Protestant churches in Zhejiang province, says Fu. In May, Beijing kicked off an “ultra-tough” anti-terrorist campaign to suppress violence in largely Muslim Xinjiang province, wracked by the bloodiest attacks in years. Recently, 55 suspects were sentenced in a sports stadium packed with 7,000 spectators, a chilling scene evoking the excesses of Chairman Mao.
The events of June 4, 1989, united an odd-bedfellows alliance of human rights activists and church workers, foreign diplomats and members of Hong Kong’s notorious underworld gangs, the triads. “That everyone, even the Mafia, helped Yellowbird shows just how unpopular, how morally off, the crackdown was,” says Bao Pu, a Hong Kong publisher whose father, Bao Tong, then a senior party Chinese Communist Party cadre sympathetic to the 1989 protesters, was the first person arrested in the crackdown.
“No matter what you do for a living, nearly everyone knows between right and wrong.”
But not quite everyone.To prepare for the 25th anniversary of Beijing’s day of carnage, authorities tried harder than ever to suppress all public mention of June 4, a trauma that gripped the nation, nearly split the ruling Communist Party, and killed more than 1,000 protesters.
Today, officialdom deems Tiananmen Square such a sensitive venue that, in May, a young factory worker who posed in the square for a selfie — and flashed a ‘V for victory’ sign with his fingers — was detained. Police rounded up activists and scholars, an independent journalist and a Japanese paper’s Chinese news assistant, an artist and a prominent lawyer, gay rights advocates, and even Buddhists while they were meditating. ‘Stability maintenance’ is the government’s Orwellian catchphrase of the day.
Many former protest leaders who mourned fallen comrades on June 4, may well owe their lives to Yellowbird. The network derives its name from an old Chinese proverb: “The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind.” Its first rescue was a group of three students, including Li Lu, who later went to Columbia University and became a fund manager advising on China investments for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company.
A Yellowbird organiser told me in 1996: “I sent people to meet Li Lu, and he got into a car beside a uniformed policeman. He thought he was being arrested! I felt that was the safest way to transport him. If stopped [by the authorities], the cop would say Li was in his custody. Actually, he really was a genuine cop.’’
Of all the escapes, few match that of former student leader Wuer Kaixi. After June 4, seven friends smuggled him out of Beijing to the southern coast of Guangdong province.
In May 1989, during an unusual televised meeting between student representatives and premier Li Peng, Wuer, who was on a hunger strike, appeared wearing a hospital gown and clutching an oxygen bag. He chided the premier for being late. Unsurprisingly, the talks fizzled. Li ended the dialogue with a brusque “goodbye”.
Wuer’s insouciance in the Great Hall of the People and his impassioned speeches in the square were memorable. But they ended up making him No. 2 on Beijing’s “most wanted” list after the army opened fire in Tiananmen on June 4.
Because many Guangdong residents regularly watched Hong Kong television, they easily recognised Wuer, so he couldn’t move safely in public. A sympathiser rushed to Hong Kong with a Polaroid of him clutching the same day’s newspaper with a handwritten plea: “Please send help.” Hong Kong politician Szeto Wah, by then deeply involved in organising a lifeline for Tiananmen fugitives, saw the photo. Yellowbird flew into action.
One mob boss bankrolled the mission. The first two rescue attempts were aborted. A third got under way when Wuer glimpsed infrared lights flashing in the darkness off a deserted beach. He and his then-girlfriend scrambled over sharp oyster beds to reach a sleek powerboat that zoomed the exhausted, bloodied fugitives to Hong Kong. French diplomat Jean-Pierre Montagne awaited their arrival, ready to whisk them to Paris with passports, tickets and visas.
Recently, Wuer told me his escape had cost nearly $100,000 “just for the speedboat ride alone. An underworld guy called Brother Six paid for it, I was told. So when I went to Hong Kong in 2004, I thanked him for saving my life.”
Publicly, the regime hasn’t wavered from its hard line regarding Tiananmen, deeming it a ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’. And as the years have passed, Yellowbird’s room to manoeuvre became increasingly cramped. Fugitives from June 4 kept trickling into Hong Kong into the ’90s. However, a problem loomed. The British-administered enclave was due to revert to Chinese control on July 1, 1997. That meant escapees would have a hard time obtaining asylum (or even landing) in Hong Kong.
Before the deadline, Yellowbird organisers scrambled to help clear the backlog of dissidents — including Bob Fu and his pregnant wife — in Hong Kong still searching for safe havens. And they succeeded. Today, at least on the record, they claim the great escapes are no more.
Though few wind up in Hong Kong now, victims of injustice continue to flee China. The more recent rescue missions are lower-key compared with the headline-grabbing Yellowbird triumphs of old. The people-smuggling routes, the methods and even the profiles of escapees have changed with the times.
Today, they are less likely to declare they’re risking all for democracy and more likely to rail against religious persecution and ethnic discrimination or express localised grievances. And as technology has improved — everyone now has a smartphone — so too have the logistics of escape. Today, some fugitives just walk across China’s porous southwestern border into Indochina or board planes using passports obtained under false pretenses.
Fu’s network is relatively modest in scale. It has helped spirit about a dozen Chinese out of the country since 2002. They’re a diverse crew: Protestant house church leaders and Falun Gong followers fleeing religious persecution, an activist judge, families of political prisoners, a woman who defied family-planning rules and was forced to have a risky late-term abortion. Some cases cannot be publicised yet, to protect escapees still waiting for safe harbour. One case involves relatives of a wealthy Chinese man who’d been persecuted by ex-Politburo politician Bo Xilai, who in 2012 was purged, tried and sentenced to life for corruption and abuse of power.
Since 1997, much of the overland smuggling action has shifted to the rugged hills and rivers of southwestern China. For years, North Korean escapees have crossed China on their way to other countries. And most recently, the surge of unrest and violence in Xinjiang, in China’s far northwest, has sent many Muslim Uighurs fleeing an ever more intense government crackdown.
Beijing’s continuing crackdown may portend yet more traffic along the nation’s myriad escape routes, as the regime struggles to contain the escalating violence, blamed on Uighur separatists. Last October, three Uighurs rammed their vehicle into crowds in Tiananmen Square, killing themselves as well as two others. And 29 people were slashed to death in a Yunnan province train station, an attack also blamed on Uighur jihadists.
Then, just last month, several massive bomb blasts at a market in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi left 43 dead and 94 wounded. “It’s all part of the same story, the story of living under authoritarian rule,” says Bao Pu, the Hong Kong publisher. “Unfortunately, it sometimes manifests itself as a racial or religious issue. But the root cause is the system itself. People feel hopeless.”
Chinese attitudes toward exile have evolved since the heyday of Yellowbird. Today’s dissidents have a less idealistic view about life in the West.
Former student leader Wuer Kaixi has been trying to come back to China — and to be arrested. Last November he made his fourth unsuccessful attempt to return by boarding a flight to Hong Kong, the city that once showered him with a hero’s welcome. Hong Kong authorities trundled him straight onto a Taiwan-bound plane.
“I want to go straight to jail in China,” he declares with an impish grin. “[I want] to put the Chinese government in the difficult position of holding an open trial — my trial — on the whole topic of Tiananmen, to have them officially charge me for something I did back then.”
For a moment, Wuer reveals a flash of youthful bravado, a hint of the idealistic 21-year-old I first met during the chaos of Tiananmen. What if things go sour? I ask him. Does Yellowbird still exist as an option?
He measures his words carefully. “Yellowbird is still happening,” he says. “Not as much as before, of course. Only when needed. As for exile, actually, I lost my freedom when I went into exile.’’
Brave words, just like 25 years ago. Perhaps rendered a bit braver with the knowledge that, with luck and the right friends, you can run and you can hide.
* Copyright: Newsweek