Chen Gaungcheng’s Escape From China Recalls Operation Yellowbird’s Heyday

Political activist Chen Gaungcheng’s escape from China recalls a time when Operation Yellowbird helped hundreds of dissidents escape.

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How did the blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng manage to elude numerous guards, escape confinement in his rural home in Shandong province, travel 300 miles to Beijing, and remain hidden from authorities? After being released from prison last September, he's been kept under illegal house arrest by security personnel who've turned away and even attacked visitors, including Hollywood celebrity Christian Bale. “A miracle,” is how another activist, Zeng Jinyan, described Chen’s disappearing act after she met him clandestinely last week in Beijing.

Chen, now believed to be under the protection of the U.S. embassy in Beijing, was assisted by a loose network of human-rights advocates and sympathizers–and he isn’t the first Chinese activist to feature in a dramatic great escape. In a little-known cloak-and-dagger endeavor nicknamed “Operation Yellowbird,” hundreds of Chinese protestors who organized or participated in the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests were smuggled out of China in 1989 after Chinese troops cracked down on their activities. Only a relatively small number, though, first made pit stops in foreign diplomatic facilities, such as the American and Australian embassies, before fleeing the mainland.

In that regard, Chen’s startling case most resembles that of the late dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, former vice president of the University of Science and Technology of China, whose liberal writings inspired pro-democracy activists in the late 80s. Just days after the Beijing Spring protest movement ended in a bloody crackdown during early June 1989, Fang and his wife entered the U.S. embassy in Beijing asking for political asylum, which was granted.

More than a year elapsed before U.S. and Chinese officials negotiated a resolution to the diplomatic standoff caused by Fang’s case–suggesting that Chen’s dramatic April 22 escape may still bedevil Sino-U.S. relations when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrive in Beijing later this week for annual high-level talks known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. On June 25, 1990, Fang left the U.S. embassy and was allowed to fly into exile on a U.S. military transport plane. Before his departure, then-U.S. ambassador to Beijing James Lilley had called Fang’s presence in the U.S. embassy “a living symbol of [the U.S.] conflict with China over human rights.” (Fang died in Tucson, Ariz., less than a month ago.)

Today, Chen’s case is playing a similar role. If anything, the current diplomatic quandary may prove even more vexing. So far Chen has told friends he intends to stay in China, and is simply trying to gain his freedom to live a normal life with his wife and 6-year-old daughter, who remained at home so as not to alert their guards to Chen’s escape plan. Also, Beijing has a lot more diplomatic and economic muscle than it did in 1989. And the U.S. has less leverage with China than it had when Beijing was feeling isolated, defensive, and vulnerable after the June 1989 bloodshed.

What Chen’s escape confirms however is the existence of a network that–albeit more ad hoc and less extensive–can still manage to evade the Big Brother surveillance techniques and technology of Chinese officialdom--much like the web of activists, sympathizers, business executives, religious believers, diplomats, underworld characters, Hong Kong celebrities, and even sympathetic local Chinese officials who took part in Operation Yellowbird from 1989 to around 1997.

Indeed, many elements remain the same. There are safe houses to allow dissidents to sleep in different locations every night. There are code words used to make communications seem innocuous; when Chen’s friends say he’s in “the safest place in Beijing” or “is 100 percent safe,” it’s code language meaning he’s under U.S. diplomatic protection. There are sympathizers who donate various resources and activists who risk their lives to help.

Some 20 hours after Chen climbed a wall at night to escape from his home, he was met at a rendezvous point by Nanjing-based activist He Peirong who drove him by car to Beijing. Friday morning, he was visited and escorted out of the house by public-security agents right after talking on the phone with Bob Fu, who heads a U.S.-based Christian human-rights group called ChinaAid, which acted as a facilitator in the case.

In terms of scope and resources, today’s activist web pales in comparison to the heyday of Operation Yellowbird. That network came to life in early June 1989 after Chinese troops opened fire on pro-democracy protestors. A notorious underworld boss phoned a Hong Kong executive he knew and cried, "What can we do?" The unlikely pair decided to organize an “underground railroad” to help give China's dissidents a lifeline. Taking their name from a Chinese proverb--"The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind"—they collected donations from the business community. They contacted Western consulates to work out asylum procedures. And they collaborated with mob bosses and people-smugglers because “these guys had the tools for the job,” as the Hong Kong executive explained to Newsweek at the time.

Yellowbird operatives set up rescue teams to organize and bankroll the escapes of individual protest leaders. The flamboyant student organizer Wuer Kaixi was hidden in hospitals, temples, safe houses, and the suffocating trunk of a friend's car before reaching a rendezvous point in southern China. There, after two aborted attempts, a speedboat met him and transported him to Hong Kong where he landed at a remote pier—and was met by two French diplomats. Within days, he was clutching a plane ticket to Paris. Altogether Yellowbird spent about $64,000 to rescue each individual and to transport him or her into exile, according to the posthumous memoirs of Hong Kong political figure Szeto Wah. Wuer Kaixi told Newsweek that he later learned a Chinese mob boss had contributed $13,000 to help bankroll his escape.

Tellingly, Yellowbird escapees talked of being helped by sympathetic local authorities and even cops, who tipped them off to coming arrests or trouble spots. After student leader Li Lu arrived at one secret rendezvous point in China, he was shoved into a vehicle—with a policeman. That was the best way to get Li Lu past any checkpoints, one operative told Newsweek, because "if stopped, the policeman would say he had Li in his custody." After several failed attempts, Li made it to Hong Kong and then the U.S., where he attended Columbia and eventually went into banking.

Though many Yellowbird escapees were famous Tiananmen protest organizers, the vast majority were less well known; altogether about 500 activists escaped China via this network between 1989 and 1997. Chen, a "barefoot lawyer" who championed a number of human-rights causes and spent four years in prison on what many say were trumped-up charges, may be as high-profile as those earlier dissidents. But the big difference is his desire to continue living in China–at least for now–instead of travelling into exile where he would be separated from relatives and politically marginalized. Bob Fu of ChinaAid spoke on the phone with Chen after his escape last week and says Chen declined his offer to help him leave China via “the underground railroad.”