Kidnapped British journalist's link to China's founding father

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 November, 2014, 6:08am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 November, 2014, 9:13am

To viewers around the world, John Cantlie has become the unwilling voice of Islamic State, voicing the militant group's propaganda in a series of video released to the media.

The kidnapped British journalist was most recently seen in a video, purportedly filmed in the embattled Syrian town of Kobani, asserting that Islamic State fighters were defying US-led air strikes to close in on the town.

But what most television viewers - and probably the Islamist kidnappers - won't realise is that Cantlie's family has a long association with revolution. Indeed, his great-grandfather saved the life of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China.

Sir James Cantlie was a doctor in Hong Kong who, in 1887, co-founded the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese, later the University of Hong Kong.

Sun was one of its first students, qualifying with distinction as a doctor in 1892. He soon turned to revolutionary politics and, in October 1895, launched an uprising from Guangzhou against the Qing dynasty.

The authorities learned of the coup plot, a shipment of arms from Hong Kong never arrived, and most of the conspirators were arrested and executed. Sun, disguised as a woman, made it back to Hong Kong via Macau and went straight to Cantlie's home.

He was advised to flee and boarded a Japanese steamer to Kobe. He was banned from Hong Kong for five years.

Not long afterwards Cantlie returned to London, and Sun was also drawn to the British capital by the need to raise funds.

Sun arrived in England on October 3, 1896, but was soon in trouble. On his way to visit Cantlie, he passed the Chinese legation in Portland Street - still China's embassy today - and met fellow Chinese, who invited him to "enjoy a smoke and a chat".

Sun found himself a prisoner of the legation, being interrogated by Halliday Macartney, a British soldier who helped put down the Taiping Rebellion and became a trustee of the Manchu court. Fearing he would be taken back to China, tortured and even executed, Sun persuaded a British servant of the legation to smuggle a message to his friend.

Cantlie tried everything to secure Sun's release. He made a threat to the legation and contacted police and the British Foreign Office. The Times newspaper showed no interest and a judge refused a writ of habeas corpus.

Finally, The Globe, a red-blooded newspaper, took up the case under the lurid headline: "Startling story! Conspirator kidnapped in London! Imprisonment at the Chinese Embassy!"

Stunned into action, Britain's prime minister, Lord Salisbury, wrote to Macartney insisting on Sun's release. He was handed over to police after 12 days of incarceration.

Sun returned to China, but never forgot his friend's help. Cantlie was one of the first to receive a letter from Sun when he became president after the 1911 revolution.

"It makes me feel more grateful to you when, from the present position, I look back on my past of hardships and strenuous toil, and think of your kindnesses shown me all the while that I can never nor will ever forget," he wrote to the Cantlie family from Nanking on January 21, 1912.

Reverence for Cantlie, who died a few months after Sun in 1925, extended to his family.

His son Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Cantlie became technical adviser to the Chinese Ministry of Railways in the 1930s, and continued to be warmly received even after the communist takeover in 1949.

A discussion between the younger Cantlie and Premier Zhou Enlai in 1958 has recently come to wider attention amid the debate over democratic reform in Hong Kong.

A declassified Foreign Office document shows that Zhou told him: "China would regard any move to turn Hong Kong into an autonomous state like Singapore as a hostile act. China wishes for Hong Kong to maintain its status quo as a British colony."

Not that James Cantlie was impressed by the way the colony was administered. In 1898, he said in a lecture: "The elector trained in Britain to believe that he is entitled to a say in the affairs of the Crown Colony in which he has taken up residence will be woefully disappointed."

Kenneth Cantlie died in 1986. His son Paul Cantlie died last month after a moving appeal for the release of his son, John.

Additional reporting by Associated Press