Operation Yellowbird or Operation Siskin (Chinese: 黃雀行動), was a Hong Kong-based operation to help the Chinese dissidents who participated in Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 to escape arrest by the PRC government by facilitating their departure overseas via Hong Kong. Western intelligence agencies such as Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were involved in the operations.
After China's government announced the "Wanted on leaders of Autonomous Union of Peking College Student" list on 13 June 1989, the operation began in late June 1989 and continued until 1997. Yellowbird successfully helped more than 400 dissidents, who were smuggled through Hong Kong, and then onwards to Western countries; some 15 of the top 21 "most wanted" student leaders were rescued. These included Wu'erkaixi, Chai Ling, Li Lu, Feng Cong-De, Chen Yi-Zi, and Su Xiao-Kang. Three Hong Kong based activists were arrested by the Chinese authorities, but later released after intervention by Hong Kong's government.
The operation obtained its name from the Chinese expression "The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind" (螳螂捕蟬，黃雀在後).
Days after the Chinese government quashed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Beijing issued a wanted list of ringleaders of the protests. In response, activists in Hong Kong, including the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, set up Operation Yellowbird in mid-June 1989 to help wanted activists escape from China.
According to the posthumously-published memoirs of veteran Hong Kong political figure and leader of the Alliance, Szeto Wah, Yellowbird was financed mainly by Hong Kong businessmen and celebrities who sympathised with the plight of the activists, but extensive assistance also came from the colonial government.
The organizers of the Operation spent upwards of HK$600,000 (US$64,000) to rescue each activist and to cover other expenses to get them abroad. Amounts spent on the rescue would vary between HK$50,000 and $500,000 depending on the specific logistics taking account of the political risks, and number of attempts. More than HK$600,000 was spent and three attempts made before Wu'erkaixi managed to escape.
The operation was financed by Hong Kong businessmen, and a mobster, according to Newsweek; activists had initially collected $260,000 in donations from businessmen to fund the operation. One such businessman is Lo Hoi-sing, who was arrested during the operation. Other benefactors included chanteuse Anita Mui and filmmaker Alan Tang. According to Szeto, both lent significant financial and material support to help activists. Szeto said "Tang had a lot of influence in Macau and got involved personally to save time but he remained low-key and never claimed his share of glory."
Success and details of the operation
Newsweek maintains that rescue squads made incursions into Chinese territory, while US and British intelligence operatives were involved in the extractions. However, former US Ambassador to China, James Lilley, said Americans were involved "almost exclusively in legal exfiltrations." There was cooperation from foreign embassies for the asylum-seekers. An academic study of the operation revealed that a leader of the Sun Yee On triad organisation had actively involved his organisation, equipment and clandestine smuggling routes: its vertically organised cells that were in direct contact with the rescue targets and directly accountable for the success of each mission. The CIA supplied materiel in the form of sophisticated equipment and other means of escape and subterfuge, and even weapons.
Yellowbird successfully helped more than 400 dissidents, who were smuggled through Hong Kong, and then onwards to Western countries. Wu'erkaixi and Chai Ling were among those who were helped to flee their homeland. Li Lu, who later became an associate of Warren Buffett, was also one of the rescued. In addition to pro-democracy activists, escapees included People's Liberation Army soldiers and police staff, some of whom carried weapons when they arrived in Hong Kong.
Businessman Chan Tat-ching was described as a mastermind of the operation. Szeto's memoirs detail how the operation was highly confidential, and known to only six members of the Alliance. However, wine trader Chan Tat-ching, referred to by Szeto as only a logistician commanders, allegedly compromised the operation by divulging escape routes to mainland officials after his brother was arrested, and was sacked by Szeto.
Three Hong Kong based activists associated with the Operation were arrested by Chinese authorities on the mainland, but later released after intervention by Hong Kong's government. Chan himself managed to 'negotiate' himself out of trouble with the PRC in 1991, having convinced certain official interlocutors that his intentions were patriotic. However, Chan was seriously injured after being attacked by unknown assailants in Hong Kong in 1996. In 2002, Hong Kong democrat Leung Wah, who was also involved in the operation, died in mysterious circumstances in neighbouring Shenzhen. Although it was never proven one way or another, Leung's associates believe that he died at the hands of PRC security agents.
- Liu, Melinda (1 April 1996). "Still on the wing; inside Operation Yellowbird, the daring plot to help dissidents escape.". Newsweek.
- Anderlini, Jamil (1 June 2014). "Tiananmen Square: the long shadow". Financial Times. Retrieved 2 June 2014.
The extraction missions, aided by MI6, the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, and the CIA, according to many accounts, had scrambler devices, infrared signallers, night-vision goggles and weapons.
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