Another Kind of Orient Express

Two decades after the chaos that enveloped Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, the story is finally becoming known of a heroic underground movement that rescued 300 intellectuals, student activists and supporters of the June 4 protest movement.

With extensive assistance from the British colonial government, a secret network called "Operation Yellow Bird," after a Chinese proverb in which a bird rescues an insect being eaten buy a grasshopper, smuggled the dissidents out of China to Hong Kong and the west.

One of them was Chen Yizi, an adviser to the late disgraced party chief Zhao Ziyang, who fled from Beijing to Hainan island in the far south of China where he hid in the house of a doctor. Two members of the underground network put him in the sweltering hold of a 7,000-ton freighter, which went to a port in the Pearl River Delta, where a motorboat brought him to Hong Kong.

Most of the Yellow Bird operations have been kept secret to protect those involved, especially those still in the mainland. But two decades after the bloody crackdown, more information has come to light as those involved tell their story.

The network was organised by a small number of activists in Hong Kong who sent agents to the mainland to help the fugitives escape, with the aid of sympathisers who gave them temporary refuge at the risk of arrest and imprisonment.

The average cost of an escape was HK$50,000-100,000, paid to the snakeheads who brought the fugitives to Hong Kong -- more than double the normal price to smuggle someone out, because of the additional risk. The more famous the person, the higher the price. The funds came from money raised from Hong Kong people during the weeks of the protest prior to June 4.

The network operated with the active connivance of the colonial government, which waived normal immigration rules to facilitate the entry of the fugitives and their escape to third countries in the west.

One of the main organizers was Chen Da-zheng, a Hong Kong businessman, who said that, between June and December 1989, he helped 133 people escape, using thousands of dollars of his own money. He ended 20 years of silence in a long interview in the latest issue of the Chinese-language Yazhou Zhoukan.


Another escapee was Zhao Erjun, the son of Zhao Ziyang, who fled to Hainan and was given a Chinese passport with a fake name Chen Xueyang. Police at Haikou airport were suspicious of the passport and referred the case to their superiors. It went up to Hainan governor Liang Xiang, who ordered the police to let him go. Liang paid for this decision with his career. A month later, he was summoned to Beijing and fired. He died in December 1998.

Erjun's wife and daughter also fled to Guangdong, with the police on their tracks. Chen arranged a boat to bring them to Hong Kong, where they entered on the beach at Tuen Mun. Later Hong Kong police stopped the car carrying Chen and the two and found a pistol in it. Chen immediately called a special number given to the network – it turned out to be that of Governor Sir David Wilson, to whom Chen explained the situation. Shortly afterwards, police received the order to release the car and Chen delivered his two charges to the French consul.

Another escapee was Xiong Yan, a student leader, who was unexpectedly allowed into Hong Kong last week to attend the commemorative events. He served 18 months in Qincheng prison in Beijing before his release in 1991. He had no identity card and no registration document, meaning that he could not work or study.

He went to Shenzhen and, on a public phone, called the Hong Kong number on a name card which he had been given in Beijing. He was instructed to go to a safe house in Huizhou, eastern Guangdong, where he hid for five days, before being smuggled to Hong Kong and flown to Los Angeles. His wife, in Beijing, learnt of his escape from the newspapers. He later became a chaplain in the U.S. army, serving one-year tours of duty in Iraq and South Korea.

Among the escapees were four officers in the People's Liberation Army in Dongguan, who had helped students to escape. When they were on the point of being arrested, Chen brought them to Hong Kong, where they were immediately put on a plane to Britain.

Not everything went well. One of Chen's main snakeheads, with a fleet of 56 motorboats, was arrested and given a life sentence. Four of his sailors died in accidents at sea, in fires and a collision; Chen gave their families HK$500,000 in compensation.

Two leading dissidents, Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, reached Zhanjiang, in the south of Guangdong. But wrong intelligence led to their arrest and the two associates Chen sent to help them.

Chen helped the fugitives because he had been in Beijing on the night of June 3rd and 4th and seen the killing at first hand. He himself was a victim of political persecution in the Cultural Revolution, surviving five mass ‘struggle sessions', one involving 100,000 people. He was smuggled to Hong Kong in 1972. He made his money out of foreign trade, working for a Hong Kong firm in Africa and the legacy of an uncle.

Another fugitive was Su Xiaokang, who ranked fifth on the list of seven intellectuals for whom the police issued a nationwide warrant. He left Beijing on May 21, three days after the announcement of martial law. "I felt the situation was out of control," he said. He was on the run for three months, staying with sympathisers, reaching Hong Kong on August 31.

"So many good people helped me. Some did not know me and I did not know the names of many of them. Those 100 days taught me that there was no miracle in China. Those who helped me were not ordinary people. I thank them for the rest of my life. I can tell you that there is a great force which you cannot see. Without this force, I would not have been able to escape."

To smuggle Su out cost HK$100,000. In Hong Kong, he stayed for two weeks in a high-rise apartment in Happy Valley and then the home of a lady reporter, before being taken to the home of the French deputy consul. The next day the political department of the colonial government drove him to the airport, gave him a false passport and, via the back door, put him on a plane for Paris.

He later immigrated to the United States. Refused permission to visit his father in Beijing during his terminal illness, he was allowed to attend the funeral, under severe restrictions. He has given up hope of returning to China and accepted U.S. citizenship in 2001.

Operation Yellow Bird continued until the last days of British rule on June 30, 1997. All the materials relating to it were removed from Hong Kong prior to the handover and stored abroad.

Chen Da-zheng is a controversial figure. He had links to snakeheads and the Chinese police, leading some to say that his involvement was a mixture of idealism and money-making, like Oscar Schindler, the German businessman who employed Jews during World War II. But whatever his motives, Chen played an important role in a network that saved hundreds of people from detention and prison and enabled them to start a new life abroad.