How Britain saved Chairman Mao's mistress from the communist regime

Among those granted asylum in the UK after Hong Kong was handed to China in 1997 was Chen Luwen

“UK gives secret asylum to Chinese dissidents.” This was the front page story in The Independent on Sunday on 22 June 1997, a week before Hong Kong was handed back to China.

The transfer of sovereignty put in danger a number of Chinese pro-democracy activists who had escaped the Tiananmen Square massacre and fled to Hong Kong. They were considered enemies of the Chinese state, and many sought refuge in the West before the new regime took control.

What this newspaper could not report then, but can do now, is that among those granted asylum in Britain was Chen Luwen, a woman in her 50s who had become Chairman Mao’s mistress as a teenager.

She was not a pro-democracy activist, but she had fallen out with the regime. Without doubt she knew too much – most of which she told to Nick Harris, a young reporter working for The Independent on Sunday.

Chen wanted her story to be told. But a plea came from a third party not to publish it on safety grounds – not merely for her but the other activists too – and her tale was dropped from the newspaper’s account. That summer’s investigation achieves “closure” today.

Chen and the other dissidents were the last act of Operation Yellowbird, a scheme that helped many of the democracy activists of 1989 to flee to foreign havens, via Kong Hong.

The British intelligence services were involved, along with the CIA as well as several other foreign governments. The closer the 1 July 1997 transfer of sovereignty got, the more sensitive the operation became. The Hong Kong government, which knew about Yellowbird, didn’t want to antagonise Beijing by discussing these last “escapes”. Nor were the foreign states keen on it being known they were providing safehaven for dissidents, for similar reasons.

Chen described herself as “an imperial concubine”. Between 1962 and 1971, she claimed she was one of many young women who had sexual relations with Mao. She was 14 at the time, while Chairman Mao was 68. “I helped him domestically about once a week during this time,” she said – a euphemism that became well-known when a former doctor of the communist leader published a book exposing details of life at the court of China’s Sun King.

“He was an angel and evil mixed together,” she told The Independent on Sunday at the time. “He was an angel in regard for the high ideas of proletarian life because he was not concerned with material life, and always wore old-style clothes and ate basic foods.

“But he was evil in politics because he cared for nothing and no one but himself. He had no feeling about his family. No feeling for anyone except himself.”

She said he had “a large sexual appetite”, was “a good lover” and “not just interested in his own needs”.  

Her professional life after her relationship with Mao ended was not without danger of its own. By 1997, she had amassed a fortune as an arms dealer, with clients including Iraq. She described herself as a “middle woman” who “helped to facilitate” the buying and selling of weapons. One deal involved selling Chinese land-to-air missiles to Saddam Hussein for Iraqi use in the Iran-Iraq war. She said that deal was worth $300m.

The arms-dealing appears to have got her into trouble in China, because when she went back to the country in 1986 for a family visit, she was arrested in the car park of her hotel, taken away from her son, and put under effective house arrest for 18 months. She was told she had been betraying Party secrets outside China by talking about her life with Mao.

She blamed communist China’s new leader Deng Xiaoping, who had by this point fallen out with a senior party official for whom she had brokered the arms deals (one of which allegedly involved buying helicopters from France).

All of this was to be revealed in a book, for which Chen was seeking a large advance. She photocopied a picture of herself and gave it to The Independent – the only picture of herself she had, with other members of the ‘dance troupe’ with whom she had performed at Chairman Mao’s court.

But one day in the summer of 1997, she stopped returning calls. So did her son. Journalists from The Independent went to her house, but there was no one there. While she had been offered asylum by Britain, her first choice had always been the US. It is thought she went there, but precious little record of her existence can be found.

So was it all true? The relevant Whitehall officials were contacted but they wouldn’t comment. But in 2011 a man called Szeto Wah died. He had been a democratic Hong Kong politician and a long-serving member of its Legislative Council under British rule. His memoirs were published posthumously.

They referred to an unnamed “mistress of Mao Zedong” who was helped out of Hong Kong by Operation Yellowbird.

Various parts of his description exactly match Chen Luwen’s story, including the fact she had a son, had been in a PLA entertainment troupe, had worked in arms dealing, had been held under house arrest in China for a period and had paid Triads to get her to Hong Kong.

In other words, utterly extraordinary though it appears, the answer is – quite probably – yes.

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