Robert Fisk's World: Hatchets and hostages – the old days of Mao's revolution

Grey's experience is painfully similar to those of his later colleagues in Beirut
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The Independent Online

Who remembers Anthony Grey? I do, because while he was beginning his calvary in Peking, I was covering the antics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution's men in London for the Sunday Express. At one point, these Maoist diplomats emerged from their London embassy brandishing sticks and hatchets, and a copper chased after one unarmed Chinese attaché as he ran off to the local Tube station.

In a public phone booth, the Chinese dialled a number as PC Bloggs and I copied it out (big round metal disc dials on phones then, thank God – he was, of course, calling the Chinese embassy) and followed him through the turnstile for the Northern Line. We ran after him on to the train, he jumped into one carriage and out again and tried another carriage, and then Bloggs and I forced our way through the door. I'll always remember one of the passengers looking up from his evening paper, nodding at the Chinese diplomat, and asking politely: "Got your hatchet have you, mate?"

But across the world in Peking – and let us have done with backdating Beijing – Grey, newly arrived to cover Mao's crazed revolution as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, was in much grimmer circumstances, placed under house arrest with four crackpot guards on the gate but a line still open for local calls upon which he could play telephone chess with a British diplomat. But no sooner had the Brits arrested a bunch of demonstrating Chinese journalists in Hong Kong than Grey's home was invaded – at 10.45 at night on Friday, 18 August, 1967 – by Mao's shrieking, violent revolutionary boys and girls and – well, read it for yourself in the pages of his secret diaries, soon to be published for the first time: "I was dragged down into the yard where I was 'jet-planed'. Black paint was daubed on me, down my right side, and I was made to bend double... Then I was dragged back up to the top of the steps and made to bend double again while various Red Guards proceeded to read out 'lists of crimes'... Whenever I tried to straighten up to ease my back, which was becoming painful, I was hit in the stomach by one Red Guard... At this time the dead body of Ming Ming, my cat, was suddenly lowered on a rope from the roof... His body was dangling in my face as I bent over the front step." When the cat's body was lowered, the crowd had screamed, "Hang Grey! Hang Grey!"

Mercifully, Grey was spared Ming Ming's fate. But the Red Guards, raving and splashing black paint even over the Reuters man's bath, sheets and toothbrush, sealed up his office and placed him in the basement room which would be his dungeon for the next two years. It was infinitely to Grey's credit that he could record in his diary: "At the bottom of the stairs was one of the most beautiful Chinese girls I had ever seen, a Red Guard, of course. But she wouldn't look at me as I went by, staring instead straight ahead with a shake of her pigtails."

Grey's contemporary notes, rediscovered by one of his daughters years after his release, are the record of probably the first hostage of our modern era – the last Englishman being Richard the Lionheart who was held by King Leopold V of Austria from 1192 to 1194, almost the same period of time as Grey, but probably in more civilised circumstances. "As a Western journalist... I was effectively a representative of 'the enemy'," Grey writes today. "Perhaps there is a similarity today for Western journalists operating from predominantly Muslim and Arab countries, although the sense of danger now must be even more intense and acute."

Too true. Nonetheless, Grey's experience, through fear, false hope, deep depression, suicidal thoughts and outrage at the failure of the British government to secure his release – there is a cringe-making visit by two British diplomats whom Grey crushes by failing to live up to the reputation of a plucky Brit in adversity – is painfully similar to those of his later colleagues in the basements of Beirut and Baghdad.

Grey's freedom depended on the final release from prison sentences of the Chinese "journalists" in Hong Kong. Like his brethren in Beirut, where the civil war continued around them in captivity, tens of thousands of Chinese were being lynched and slaughtered across their country while Grey pleaded with his guards for books to read in his cellar.

Thirty years later, he would read through a 1969 internal Foreign Office memo about his plight. "Mr Grey in a sense has to bear a large part of the burden of safeguarding the well-being of millions of people in Hong Kong for whom we are responsible. We have the difficult task of asking him to sacrifice his liberty for a very long period without being able to consult him or explain the significance of his privations. However, this does not mean we should let the Chinese force us to give in to their demands to obtain his release."

Indeed, the overly patriotic governor of Hong Kong had not the slightest intention of worrying about Grey's plight. And as poor old Grey says now, "I think it is true to say the very last thing I expected to do on being assigned to China by Reuters was to spend a couple of years 'safeguarding the well-being of millions of people in Hong Kong'!"

Reading his diaries is like slipping, worm-like, into the brain of a tortured creature, angry with his girlfriend's letter – when personal mail was much later allowed – cursing even Reuters' management; although since this included the ghastly Gerald Long, I'm not surprised. For Long it was, from the safety of his executive London office, who 11 years after Grey's release, penned an epistle to The Times, condemning me for holding a Kalashnikov rifle on a Russian convoy.

Truth was that I had been arrested by the Soviet parachute brigade during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and put aboard a convoy that was promptly ambushed by knife-wielding Afghan mujahedin. I wouldn't have fired the gun, I don't think, but no Afghan guerrilla was going to fight his way on to a Soviet army truck shouting, "Hands up any members of the National Union of Journalists!" Like Grey, I should have submitted to my fate.

Mercifully, Grey came home to sunlight and love, and lived on to work for the BBC and write exciting novels. Personally, if I'd been through what he'd been through, I'd have carried a hatchet rather than a gun.

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