Still on the Wing; Inside Operation Yellowbird, the Daring Plot to Help Dissidents Escape

By Liu, Melinda | Newsweek, April 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Still on the Wing; Inside Operation Yellowbird, the Daring Plot to Help Dissidents Escape


Liu, Melinda, Newsweek


EVEN AFTER FLEEING BEIjing, Wuer Kaixi could still feel danger closing in on him. The flamboyant student leader--number two on the government's most-wanted list after the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre--had struggled to reach China's southern border, finding refuge along the way in hospitals, temples, dingy safe houses and the suffocating trunk of a friend's car. But now he had a problem: everybody in southern China seemed to recognize his face from Hong Kong television, and martial-law troops were swarming around the border posts. One of his contacts ventured into Hong Kong looking for help. Local activists, wary of a Chinese trap, didn't trust him--until he showed them a Polaroid photo of Wuer holding the same day's paper with a message scrawled onto it: PLEASE SEND HELP.

Like more than 500 other Chinese dissidents over the past seven years, Wuer was rescued by Operation Yellowbird--an underground railroad run by an odd alliance of human-rights advocates, Western diplomats, businessmen, professional smugglers and the kings of the Hong Kong underworld. When Wuer's plea came, Yellowbird operatives set up a rescue team, and a mob boss paid $13,000 to bankroll it. Twice, Wuer waited in vain on a deserted beach. On the third try, he saw two infrared flashes across the black water. When he reached the powerboat, bloodied and exhausted, his rescuer pulled him aboard and sped off toward Hong Kong. They landed a few hours later on an isolated jetty, where two French diplomats were waiting. Within days, Wuer had a visa, a passport and a plane ticket to Paris. He was free.

Operation Yellowbird has long been shrouded in mystery. Its organizers--and the dissidents they rescued--have been reluctant to share details for fear of endangering those still defying Beijing. But by tracking

down and interviewing insiders, NEWSWEEK has pieced together the most detailed picture yet of the operation. It is a story of miraculous escapes, devastating failures--and uncertain futures. More than 80 mainland dissidents are still stuck in Hong Kong, waiting to be offered asylum in third countries. Some have been there for years; others have trickled in over the past few months. But all are worried about 1997, when Hong Kong reverts from British to Chinese rule. "As 1997 approaches, the danger to us gets closer and closer," says Zhang Xiaojun, who fled to Hong Kong in 1993 after 16 months in prison. The bitter irony is that, because many did stints in the Chinese gulag, these dissidents may have escaped too late.

Operation Yellowbird was born the night of the Beijing massacre, when a notorious underworld boss called a Hong Kong executive and cried: "What can we do?" The unlikely pair decided to give China's dissidents what they needed most: a lifeline. Within hours, 40 pro-democracy activists united to form Operation Yellowbird. Taking their name from a Chinese proverb--"The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind"--they collected $260,000 in donations from the business community. They contacted Western consulates to work out asylum procedures. And they conspired with mob bosses and smugglers. Explains the Hong Kong executive: "These guys had the tools for the job."

`Exfiltrations': Yellowbird's first missions were straight out of James Bond. On at least five occasions, "extraction" teams were sent into China to find and rescue top dissidents. They were equipped with scrambler devices, night-vision goggles, infrared signalers, even makeup artists to help disguise the fugitives. …

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