Tiananmen Ten Years On: Silence is broken on British role in dissidents' escape

EVERY PROMINENT dissident smuggled out of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre managed to reach the West with British help.

As many as 800 activists were eventually smuggled out of China, including those at the top of China's most-wanted list - such as the student leaders Wu'er Kaixi and Chai Ling, and high-profile government officials such as Yan Jaiqi, who was an adviser to the deposed Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang.

Britain's role in the escapes has been kept under wraps by the dissidents themselves and the British government, which sought assurances of their silence in return for help, lest Hong Kong was penalised for giving refuge. However, a decade after the massacre, some of those involved have now spoken to The Independent about what happened.

Shortly after the crackdown in Peking on 4 June 1989, the round up of pro-democracy activists spread to other parts of the country. It was clear to leaders of the democracy movement they had to escape and that the only realistic exit point was British-controlled Hong Kong. The leaders of Hong Kong's large pro-democracy movement agreed, and with remarkable speed they established an underground conduit out of China, which was known as Operation Yellowbird.

The Hong Kong organisers gathered substantial sums of money to finance their effort, a lot of which was spent bribing Chinese officials and paying off Triad "snake heads" who did the actual smuggling.

The problem now was to persuade the British authorities to admit the dissidents and allow them to stay in Hong Kong while preparations were made for them to leave for countries of asylum - the United States and France took most by far. This involved close British liaison with local diplomatic missions and driving a cart and horse through Hong Kong's immigration rules.

The Yellowbird organisers formed tentative contacts with the Hong Kong government and responsibility for co-ordinating the escapes was quickly passed over to the Political Adviser's office, a special unit working closely with the Governor. The advisers were all diplomats on secondment from the Foreign Office, not part of the Hong Kong government structure.

The office was headed by William Ehrman, who is now ambassador to Luxembourg. Sir David Wilson, who was then the Governor, gave his active support to the escape effort and London was kept informed of what was happening.

Mr Ehrman's team established a task force with the Hong Kong security services to ensure that the dissidents could enter and leave Hong Kong unobtrusively, bypassing the normal immigration controls. This they arranged through a link man in the normally highly bureaucratic Security Branch, an expatriate British former policeman.

The Chinese authorities were well aware that the dissidents were seeping through Hong Kong but turned a blind eye. As one British official put it: "We sensed they were pleased to see them go and ... were also pleased that we gave them no cause to confront the issue."

One of the Hong Kong Yellowbird organisers interviewed for this article said: "I had not really thought about the role Britain played until you asked me but the truth is that had we not had Hong Kong as an escape route these people would have been trapped. Britain deserves a lot of thanks for making sure that did not happen."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner / Caretaker / Storeman

£15500 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has become available...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Sales - SaaS B2B

£60000 - £120000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This conference call startup i...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years