Chen was a successful Hong Kong businessman with links to the Chinese underworld. But through his money and connections, Chen and others helped dozens of wanted dissidents quietly escape China after the Tiananmen Square protests.
Some said their involvement was motivated by idealism; others by money-making or a taste for excitement. But whatever their motives, an odd alliance of human-rights advocates, diplomats, smugglers, crimelords, and Hong Kong businessmen like Chen Da-zheng (Cantonese, Chan Tat-ching) came together in a heroic underground movement that rescued more than 500 intellectuals, student activists and supporters of the June 4 protest movement from imprisonment or worse.
Chen’s efforts were part of a secret network called “Operation Yellow Bird,” after a Chinese proverb: “The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind.” With extensive assistance from the British colonial government, the network got dissidents out of China to Hong Kong and the west, often by using “snakeheads”– Chinese human trafficking groups. It was organised by a small number of activists in Hong Kong who sent agents to the mainland to bring back the fugitives through a host of sympathisers who gave them refuge at the risk of arrest and imprisonment. One of those smuggled out was Chen Yizi, an adviser to the disgraced Communist party chief Zhao Ziyang: Yizi hid in the south of China until two Yellowbird members exfiltrated him in the sweltering hold of a 7,000-ton freighter.
Breaking twenty years of silence, Chen Da-zheng revealed his involvement a few years ago and claimed to have helped 133 people escape between June and December 1989 by using thousands of dollars of his own money. The average cost of an escape was HK$50,000-100,000. Chen said he helped leaders of the protest movement escape because he had been in Beijing in June 1989 and seen the killing of Chinese citizens first hand. Like many others, he had also suffered from political persecution during the Cultural Revolution. But then he was smuggled to Hong Kong in 1972, where he made a new start and quickly became rich through luck, hard work and perseverance.
It was not just Chen who was involved, but dozens of influential politicians, actors, and businessmen in Hong Kong. Perhaps even more remarkable was the quiet collusion of many sympathetic Chinese officials– most of whom keep their secret to this day. The majority of Yellow Bird operations are still unknown, to protect those involved– yet we now know that someone dared to dream of freedom for others.