Xu Jiatun: the Communist cadre who reached out to all sectors in Hong Kong
Former Xinhua director dies in Los Angeles at the age of 100; he fled to the United States after sympathising with pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989
Loyalist, liberal, conservative – it all depends on who you ask.
Xu Jiatun could be described as fitting any of these labels. And even then, many could not quite decide which camp he was in as some called him Communist China’s man in Hong Kong while others referred to him as the capitalist city’s man on the mainland.
Such was the tact and skill that Xu, a former Communist Party cadre who served as Beijing’s top envoy in Hong Kong for seven years, displayed throughout his life, most notably through a period of political turbulence on the mainland and anxiety in the city.
But mostly he will be remembered for sympathising with students in the 1989 pro-democracy movement that sprung up around Tiananmen Square in Beijing, an event that prompted him to seek refuge in the United States.
His dream of returning to his homeland never materialised. Xu died at the age of 100 in Los Angeles where he spent the last 26 years of his life after fleeing his homeland in 1990.
In May this year he was admitted to hospital with renal failure and heart problems.
In 1938, as a young man from Jiangsu province, Xu joined the Chinese Communist Party when the country was still under Kuomintang rule. He spent his entire career with the Communist Party, serving as a political commissar of a guerilla detachment fighting Japanese invaders during the second world war and later rising through the ranks to become a member of the party’s Central Committee.
In 1983, at the ripe age of 67, he arrived in Hong Kong to take up a position directing the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua News Agency, Beijing’s then de facto embassy in the city. As Hong Kong entered a crucial period during which Chinese and British negotiators discussed its future, Xu’s job was not at all easy.
His approach towards creating a “united front” differed from that of conventional communists of his time. Xu certainly understood the influence of capitalists in the then British colony and saw the need to establish ties with them. Soon after his move to Hong Kong, he visited media mogul Sir Run Run Shaw at his TVB premises and would later watch movies at Shaw Studios every weekend.
Eyebrows were again raised when the party cadre appeared as one of the eight pallbearers at the funeral of Richard Charles Lee, a second generation tycoon who expanded the business empire founded by his father and property developer Lee Hysan. All the other seven were businessmen.
During his term in office, he arranged meetings between local tycoons and state leader Deng Xiaoping, who formulated the “one country, two systems” principle, with the belief that Beijing should cultivate a group of pro-China local businessmen to pave the way for the smooth transition of sovereignty.
In his memoir published in 1993, Xu revealed that he had even encouraged local businessmen to establish political parties.
While Xu saw building links with the rich as a pragmatic approach to his work in Hong Kong, this became a cause for those in the Communist Party to question him. Rivals accused him of leading a decadent lifestyle in the city and fleeing with bags of cash and a mistress, all charges he strenuously denied.
He once relayed a proposal to Deng by local tycoons to pay Beijing HK$10 billion in exchange for self-rule in Hong Kong for 10 years after 1997. The idea drew fierce criticism from then deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Lu Ping, who criticised it as amounting to treason.
His extensive network in Hong Kong also stretched to the political opposition. In a crucial period of a burgeoning democratic movement in the run-up to the first Legislative Council elections in 1985, he built ties with local democracy fighters.
Late democracy stalwart Szeto Wah once revealed that Xu invited him in 1984 to join the Communist Party, which he rejected. In a later interview, Xu confirmed that Szeto was a target the Communist Party had sought to bring on board. But he denied a claim by Szeto Sim, a sister of the pro-democracy politician, that he had attempted to nurture Szeto Wah as a prospective Hong Kong chief executive candidate.
As a member of the reformist faction of the Communist Party, Xu was in the relatively liberal camp among his fellow communists. In his memoir, he broke the taboo of the party’s underground activities in Hong Kong and suggested that it should “exist openly” in the city. He also proposed that the party should have a separate status from the so-called news agency.
For many, Xu will be remembered for where he stood in 1989 – a watershed year for both his country and his life. When the whole world was watching China in the wake of Beijing’s bloody crackdown, he witnessed thousands of Hongkongers braving heavy rainstorms to protest outside the Xinhua office.
His sympathy towards the mainland student movement and his reported close relationship with then Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang landed him in a tight spot.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post in 2007, he recalled his role in the Hong Kong chapter of the movement: “I decided they [local pro-Beijing groups] could participate in June 4-related protests under certain conditions. They should not make public speeches, call for the downfall of leaders and chant inappropriate slogans.”
He also told mainland-funded enterprises that wanted to hold memorials for those who died in the crackdown that “we should not stop their staff from doing so if they acted on their own, but senior executives should not take part”.
His support for the movement angered Beijing. In 1990, Xu abruptly fled his country for the United States, after learning that a special team had been set up to investigate him. He revealed 17 years later that it was Kam Yiu-yu, a former chief editor of the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper, who helped him apply for a US visa. Another renowned journalist, Lu Keng, helped him settle in Los Angeles.
Leading a quiet life in retirement in suburban America, Xu made plain that his heart was with mainland China and Hong Kong in his publications and media interviews.
Although his liberal side might have become widely known in the years of turbulence, his views were much more conservative when it came to political reform, whether it concerned the whole of China or just Hong Kong. A decade after the 1997 handover, he warned Hongkongers that “universal suffrage does not guarantee that people are able to become masters of their own future” and called on pan-democrats not to oppose one-party dictatorship any more.
On his first-ever visit to Taiwan in 2013, Xu, in a wheelchair, even said it was not yet the right time to vindicate the June 4 movement, which had led to his exile. He also maintained in an interview with Taiwan’s United Daily News that people still largely enjoyed freedom of speech on the mainland except for restrictions on sensitive issues.
His trip was arranged by Master Hsing Yun, the most influential Buddhist monk in Taiwan who was an advocate of Taiwan’s unification with the mainland.
Throughout it all, Xu expressed only one wish repeatedly: “I want to and am always ready to go back [to mainland China], but Beijing has not given permission.”
Alas, it was not to be. On Wednesday, instead of going home, Xu, as his fellow Communists liked to say, went to “see Marx”.