Former Hong Kong Xinhua Boss Explains his Defection

In a desperate move to stave off control of Hong Kong by the Chinese government in 1997, Hong Kong tycoons led by Helmut Sohnen, the Austrian son-in-law of shipping magnate Y K Pao, tried to set up a plan to pay Beijing HK$10 billion to lease the territory for 10 years and have Hong Kong people manage it.

The plan was bared recently in a local magazine by Xu Jiatun, 91, who was head of the Xinhua news agency from 1983 to 1990 when he fled to the United States.

That and other unsavory slices of history tied to the handover opened up this week when Xu, who was formerly China’s top official in the territory, told Ming Pao Monthly that he was forced to defect to the United States by three colleagues who deceived Beijing into thinking that Hong Kong would welcome the handover. Xu’s defection was one of the major news events of the pre-handover period. Then a member of the Communist Party’s Central Advisory Commission and a personal friend of Deng Xiaoping, he was the most senior party official to escape to the west since 1949.

In exile in Los Angeles, he has for the first time given a detailed explanation of his years in office in an attempt to clear his name of the charge of ‘traitor’ levelled at him when he defected. In 1991, Beijing expelled him from the party and has refused to allow him to return home despite his advanced age.

Xu told Ming Pao he had been sent to Hong Kong by the party leadership on a mission to inform them of the political climate among the general public and business leaders. It would be a critical role during negotiations with the British over the territory’s future up to the handover in 1997 and beyond.

After taking up his post in 1983, Xu said, he soon discovered that although the leaders in Beijing had been told that Hong Kong people were “patriotic” and welcomed the handover, most were in fact skeptical and thousands were voting with their feet, emigrating to Australia, Canada, the United States and other countries.

Many business leaders, he told the magazine, proposed a formula under which China would resume sovereignty but Britain would continue to manage the colony – “China as chairman, Britain as chief executive.” While he was sitting in the home of one tycoon, the man’s son remarked: “If there is a handover, we will simply go from being a colony of Britain to a colony of China.”

He reported to his bosses in Beijing that a long-term charm offensive would be required to win over public opinion. They told him to go ahead.

But that recommendation earned the fierce opposition of the three other top Chinese officials responsible for the colony – Li Hao, Lu Ping and Zhou Nan – in the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs office. They were giving Beijing a carefully varnished opposite view, claiming that the public welcomed the handover. That was and still is the view in China’s official media, which most people in the mainland likely believe – that “Hong Kong compatriots” were “impatient for reunification with the motherland” and that achieving this and the handover of Macau, was one of the great post-1949 achievements of the party.

From that point on, according to Xu, the three sought to undermine his influence and force his retirement by criticising him with the leadership in Beijing and subsequently excluding him from negotiations with Britain.

Their dislike had as much to do with style and factional posturing as policy, Xu charged in the interview. Xu had spent his entire career in China and spoke with the thick accent of his native Jiangsu, which people made fun of. After arriving in Hong Kong, he went out, like Chris Patten, the last British governor, to meet a wide range of people, from grocers and housewives to shipping tycoons and property moguls.

This was not the style of his three opponents, who were traditional Chinese bureaucrats. They stayed aloof from the public and conducted their business in private, speaking in the smooth Mandarin they had honed during their diplomatic careers.

Xu’s predicament worsened sharply after the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989, he said. He had been a close ally of Zhao Ziyang, the party chief put under house arrest for opposing the crackdown, and had shaken hands with students in Hong Kong conducting a hunger strike to support their comrades in Beijing.

After meeting with the businessmen, a stunned Xu told Sohnen that the leadership would never accept the idea of leasing of the colony to the tycoons, but that he would pass it on. This he did in a one-to-one meeting with new party chief Jiang Zemin. Xu’s enemies seized on the proposal and accused Xu himself of betraying the country and supporting the students.

By now, Xu saw that his time was running out and he agreed to resign. He feared the same fate as Liang Xiang, the governor of Hainan province, who was summoned to Beijing for a meeting, arrested on his arrival at the airport, and then charged with corruption. His real crime was to have been too close to Zhao Ziyang.

In November 1989, Zhao’s successor, Zhou Nan, set up a committee in Hong Kong to investigate Xu and his assets. In April, when he was planning to move to Shenzhen, a friend in Xinhua tipped him off that Zhou’s report was already in Beijing.

Fearing a trap, Xu escaped to the United States.

There, he became increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the Chinese leadership, calling Jiang Zemin a “dictator” who ignored the need for political reform, individual freedom and human rights.

“Absolute power results in dictatorship, the corruption of political parties, the loss of political power and the suffering of people,” he said. “China should gradually establish a political system based on true democracy and the rule of law. Only then can it avoid the accumulation of conflict and social unrest, which may ultimately lead to a national tragedy.”