A Tiananmen Exile in Los Angeles

Twenty years after the 1989 crackdown, Beijing refuses to allow hundreds of those who fled abroad to return home. The most senior of them is Xu Jiatun, the highest-ranking Communist official to defect since 1949.

Xu, 93, was head of Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong in 1989 and ordered into retirement because he had shown sympathy for the student protestors. Fearful that he would be arrested and sent to prison, he escaped on a plane from Hong Kong to San Francisco on May 1, 1990.

The latest issue of the Chinese-language Yazhou Zhoukan has published for the first time the details of his escape and the key role played by a Taiwan monk named Hsing Yun, who was also banned from going to China as a punishment by Beijing for helping Xu.

Xu first met Hsing Yun in April 1989, on his way home to Taiwan, after leading a major Buddhist delegation to Beijing. Xu was ordered to give red-carpet treatment to the monk, a major 'United Front' target.

Both natives of northern Jiangsu, the two men got on well. In a letter of thanks to Xu, the monk invited him to go anytime as his guest in Taiwan or his temple Xilaishi (Coming to the West Temple) in Los Angeles.

After June 4, Xu was ordered to retire from his post -- the end of a 50-year career that began in April 1938, when he joined the Communist party and became a platoon leader in the People's Liberation Army.

Xu asked to live in Hong Kong or Shenzhen, to be close to the many contacts he had built up during his six years as head of Xinhua. Suspicious of his motives, Beijing refused and told him to retire in Beijing or his native Jiangsu.

In April 1990, the net began to close around him. On the 21st, he returned to Shenzhen after a meeting in Beijing and was preparing to move house to Nanjing. His secretary told him that his successor in Xinhua, Zhou Nan, had set up a team to investigate him and had seized from his home personal letters and file. Zhou himself was in charge of the investigation. Xu needed to move quickly – but he had no visa for the United States.

On April 27, Hsing Yun, then in Australia, received a telephone call from an intermediary who said that Xu wanted refuge at Xilaishi and needed a visa. Hsing Yun made the necessary arrangements and, on May 1, Xu took a flight to San Francisco, where he was met by a relative and driven to the temple, in a suburb of Los Angeles. His wife and son remained in China.

The news was greeted with alarm in Beijing. The escape was evidence of a continuing split over the 1989 crackdown at the top of the party. Officials called Hsing Yun and asked him not to accept Xu. The monk refused, saying that it was not a political question but an example of a Buddhist tradition to help those in trouble.

On May 19, Beijing sent its ambassador in Washington to Los Angeles, where he met Xu for two hours and asked him to go home. He refused: "it was very difficult to leave. How can I go back? It is very dangerous and could result in my death."

On a visit to Mexico in mid-April, the then president Yang Shangkun called Xu from his plane and offered to make a stop in Los Angeles and take him home. Again, he refused.

"I accepted Xu for reasons of friendship and compassion," Hsing Yun told Yazhou Zhoukan . "I helped someone who made a big contribution to China. It should thank me. The CIA sent people to see Xu once a week and offered him a home. But he did not need it as he was staying in the temple."

The temple was besieged by reporters; this persuaded Xu and Hsing Yun to hold a news conference on May 20, at which Xu said that he would not betray China or Communism nor have contact with journalists or the exiled democracy movement.

He lived in a room at the back of the temple for over a year before moving into a nearby home, which Hsing Yun believes was bought for him by a Taiwan businessman.

Then he began to write books and articles, especially his memoires, for which he received a substantial advance, enabling to move into a larger home, where he lives now.

Two decades later, Beijing has not forgiven him and refused his repeated requests to spend his final years in the land of his birth. His 51 years of service, military and civilian, to the party count for nothing.

Hsing Yun also paid a price for his act of compassion; he was banned from visiting China for four years, including the 90th birthday of his mother on April 1, 1991 in Yangzhou, which he planned to celebrate with 500 disciples.

But Buddhist leaders in Beijing were finally able to persuade President Jiang Zemin in 1994, arguing that he represented millions of overseas Chinese Buddhists as well as one of the major Buddhist movements in Taiwan. He is also a supporter of reunification.

Hsing Yun was allowed back in 1994 and 1996, but only to visit relatives. Beijing got its payback in February 2002, when Hsing Yun organised the exhibition in Taiwan of a finger relic of the Buddha flown from a temple in Xian.

The exhibition was a dramatic success; five million Taiwanese saw the relic, with an additional three million coming from overseas. It sent exactly the message which Beijing wanted – Taiwan and China share the same roots and the same religion.

Hsing Yun also played a major role in organising two World Buddhist Forums, in 2007 and 2009, bringing together Buddhists from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The one this year opened in Wuxi, Jiangsu and closed in Taipei, the first international meeting to be held in this format.

Beijing has seized on Hsing Yun as an important tool in its efforts to win the hearts and minds of Taiwan people. In 2007, Hsing Yun met Jiang Zemin, the man who had banned him, for the first time. Jiang had retired from office. Both natives of northern Jiangsu, the two men got on well. "Often, a single meeting between people can remove all misunderstandings," the monk said.

Jiang wrote calligraphy for a large library which Hsing Yun is building in Yixing, his native place in Jiangsu province, a powerful official endorsement of the project.

"For the reunification of the two sides, Buddhism is the base. When there were no direct links, Buddhism was the link. When the two sides cannot unite, religion can unite first. We can do something," he said.

Xu is not so fortunate. Only an extraordinary turn of events will soften the hearts of his former comrades in Beijing and allow him to visit his motherland before he goes to see Marx.