The Real Francis James Story
THE INDEPENDENT MONTHLY – PEOPLE – October 1992
The Real Francis James Story
After his death in August, it is time for the full story of how and why Francis James found himself locked up in a Chinese jail in 1969. The story has the right ingredients spies, false passports, Chinese nuclear secrets, the CIA, sex, camels , chequebook journalism, politics-and, as GREGORY CLARK reports, the ideal leading man.
THE WORLD knows Francis James as an innocent Australian prankster who went to China in late 1969, was arrested, and then languished in a Chinese jail for four years on false charges. The reality is much more complex, and involves three very different visits to China, real and alleged.
The first was in 1956, when James went as a member of a delegation of Anglican bishops. Much publicity ensued, not just because the bishops got into China (something rather difficult in those days) but because they also got into the remote far western Sinkiang region, then closed to the outside world.
The second alleged visit was in early 1969 when, James claimed, he went to China secretly as a guest of anonymous, high-level Chinese. The third visit was his well-known stay in China from late 1969 to late 1973, as a guest of the Chinese prison system.
My involvement in all this begins with James calling on me in Canberra in advance of the alleged early- 1969 visit. He wants help in getting visas for the Soviet Union and a variety of South-East Asian countries. He says that he plans to go to Moscow for an eye operation, and he wants to get there via China. To get to China, he says, he will explore various South-East Asian routes, probably by way of Laos or Burma, which have common borders with China (the fact that no Westerners have crossed those war-infested borders since 1949 does not worry him). Failing that, he will take his chances on getting in through Hong Kong.
Sure enough, a few months later James shows up in London with an amazing story about how he got into China from Hong Kong, and how high-placed Chinese friends had arranged a guided tour of top-secret nuclear installations in remote areas of north-west China, accompanied by Kazakh cossacks, after which he had clandestinely crossed the Soviet border somewhere in central Asia and proceeded to Moscow to have his eyes fixed. To prove it, he has photos of the top secret installations he visited. The London Sunday Times pays him a large sum for his story and his photos. The world thrills to the sensation of it all.
However, the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review is much less impressed. It announces that CIA sources have discovered the James photos to be fakes taken from a school textbook. Further, the British authorities in Hong Kong have no record of anyone called James crossing into China at or around the time he says he did. James says angrily that he is the victim of coordinated CIA/British intelligence plots, that the photos are genuine, and that his China contacts had arranged for him to cross the Hong Kong/ China border in ways that British officials could not even guess at.
But the editor of the FEER, the wellknown and rather cantankerous ex-UK diplomat Derek Davies, is not discouraged. He comes back with a column in which he notes drolly that on precisely the day that James says he was going secretly into China, the name of someone called Francis James appears on the passenger list for PanAm Flight 001, headed out of Hong Kong for New Delhi and other ports west. What’s more, British diplomatic sources say James was seen in Kabul shortly after.
To China-watchers around the globe the FEER’s revelations are a bombshell.
Peking makes things worse by saying that James did not go to China and that his nuclear claims are part of a CIA black information plot. James’s credibility is in tatters. He tries to keep a brave face and tells us one day he will prove his critics wrong. Even Peking does not know about his high-level contacts in China, he says. He will return.
And return he does. Later the same year we discover that James has been seen being dragged out of the Dong Fang hotel in Canton (Guangzhou) by a squad of Chinese security agents. Strange details emerge later: James had got to Canton by saying he was a businessman planning to attend the regular Canton Fair, then the main venue for Chinese business contact with the outside world. On arrival in Canton he had insisted on wearing his trademark black cape and broad-brimmed felt hat among the boiler-suited, slogan-chanting Chinese, telling anyone who would listen that he had got into China on a false passport supplied by a foreign security service, and that he had crossed the border carrying gold bars in a false-bottomed suitcase. It sounds too silly to be true.
Or maybe it is true. Weeks turn into months and still no sign of Francis. The matter is raised with the Chinese every time someone with any connection to James visits Peking. The Chinese say they know nothing about him. Later, through Wilfred Burchett, the Chinese announce that James was arrested for espionage and other activities harmful to the Chinese state.
Espionage? Francis James? Back in Australia the media mills are working overtime. In the background The Age’s aggressive editor, Graham Perkin, is moving to turn James’s incarceration into a national issue, and to make The Age virtually the official representative for James and his family. Gough Whitlam cooperates by promising swift action to win James’s early release if the ALP gains office.
Whitlam does gain office, and a year later James is released, after intensive lobbying. At the time I am in Tokyo as The Australian’s correspondent. The order comes through to get to Hong Kong immediately, where the rest of the world’s press is clamouring to get the story on James as he crosses the border the next day. But James is brought out under wraps and is immediately taken by British military helicopter to a hospital where he is sup-posed to be under some sort of armed guard. I try the hospital anyway, get into his room, tell him why I am in town. He greets me and continues telling the story of his imprisonment to some Australian officials sent to debrief him. I end up with a rather good story in the paper the next day.
‘James claimed that he and his
Chinese nun-interpreter were caught
in, a snowstorm in 1956, stayed overnight
in a deserted hut, and, as a result, a
beautiful child was born.’
The Age is furious; Perkin seems to think he had arranged through the James family, and Whitlam, to buy James’s exclusive story. Maybe he had. But no-one had told James that. By day two an Age representative has finally signed James up. My usefulness as a supplier of scoops to The Australian dries up.
But James, propped up in his hospital bed, still wants to talk to me. In particular, he wants to use me as an intermediary to get through to FEER’s Derek Davies the “true” story of the alleged early-1969 visit to China. And thus unfolds a tale so fantastic that I should recount it fully, since I am sure Francis wanted not just Davies but the whole world to know about it eventually.
0ne morning during the 1956 visit to Sinkiang, James had broken away from the bishops to go for a drive in nearby mountains with the Chinese nun-interpreter attached to the party. Deep in the mountains they were caught in a snowstorm, and had to stay overnight in a deserted mountain hut. As a result, a beautiful child called Elena was born.
Over the years James’s Sinkiang sources had kept him informed of Elena’s progress. Then came China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966, and the messages turned urgent. Because Elena was partly of foreign blood, something terrible could happen to her. So Francis decided he had to get himself back to Sinkiang and smuggle her out to Moscow and safety.
Hence the confusion over his early 1969 visit. It was quite true that he had not gone into China via Hong Kong, that he had gone to Kabul instead. Why Kabul? Because if you check the maps carefully, you will notice that a small sliver of deserted high-plateau Afghanistan territory borders western Sinkiang (British colonial authorities had arranged this back in the nineteenth century to prevent Tsarist Russia from having a border with what is now Pakistan, James notes sagely). From Kabul he had headed immediately for that remote Sinkiang border. At a secret rendezvous his friends were waiting to take him by camel to Elena’s hideout.
From there everything had gone like clockwork. As he headed off with Elena to Moscow he took some time out to tour the secret nuclear installations at Lop Nor and elsewhere. He then crossed the Soviet border somewhere in central Asia, via routes so secret he cannot tell even me (this does not worry me too much, since my research has already told me that three days after the Kabul sighting James had been seen in Geneva). Elena had been delivered to a first-class Moscow school where she was continuing her education.
‘Get into China, behave
suspiciously, get arrested dramatically
and mysteriously, and the world will have
to believe that he could have roamed
secret nuclear installations.‘
Why is James telling me all these things? Because, he confides, he wants me to pass on the information to Derek Davies. He wants Davies to visit him at the hospital so he can brief him on the true story and there can be a formal reconciliation. I do as asked and Davies, who has a sense of humour, obliges. Francis confesses to great relief and happiness, and starts to fill me in on a few other details of his 1969 arrest, such as the false passports, the gold bars and some documents he had hidden in the Dong Fang hotel which the Russians want him to recover.
And there the matter would have ended, had not the rambunctious editor of The Australian at the time, Owen (Owie) Thomson, got the strange idea that I could and should produce another exclusive Francis James story. By this time The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are running blurbs about how they will be giving us the amazing story of Francis James in China in a 30-40 thousand word series lasting weeks. Thomson wants me to match this. No, he is not bothered by the fact that James already has a contract worth tens of thousands of dollars with The Age. The next day The Australian front-pages the news that I will be producing a multi-part series giving the real story of Francis James in China.
Perkin is thoroughly unamused. He slaps an injunction on me and The Australian, claiming that we plan to damage the value of the story James has already sold to The Age. Perkin knows well that in the time needed to fight the injunction my story will have lost value. The Australian’s executives back down, leaving me exposed by implication as having indeed tried to prevent the sick and impoverished James from earning something out of his four years of suffering.
In fact, if I had written anything, it would not have been about James and his stay in jail. It would have been a very different story. For in the fuss over the Derek Davies reconciliation, I have finally unravelled the mystery of the 1969 arrest, as follows;
After his 1956 visit James discovers he can dine out for years on the story about him and the bishops in Sinkiang. So he wants to do another visit and dine out for a few more years. He tries, early in 1969, and fails. So he decides to invent a story about another Sinkiang visit, and spices it up with tales about visits to secret nuclear installations.
The trick works: he is famous again. But then come the Derek Davies exposes. Overnight, James’s carefully crafted career as maverick and adventurer-extraordinary faces ruin. He must make a comeback. How?
The answer is ingeniously simple. Get into China via the Canton Fair, behave suspiciously, get arrested dramatically and mysteriously, and the world will have no choice but to believe that here indeed is a person who could once have roamed the secret nuclear installations of north-west China. Besides, when he gets out of China this time he will have another and different story to tell, and this time even Derek Davies cannot deny he was in China.
True, being arrested by the Chinese police in those days was no joke. But he has a plan. Because he behaves outrageously and courts arrest, the Chinese will quickly realise he is a harmless eccentric playing games and throw him out of the country. Being expelled from China will add even more to the James legend.
But things do not work out quite as Francis had planned. The Chinese decide. that he is not mad or playing games, that he really is on some secret spy mission. What James thought would be a short-term escapade ends up as incarceration and interrogation for four years. The joke very nearly ends up as a tragedy.
It would have been a great story, if I’d got it published. But thanks to the injunction imposed by that sturdy, self-proclaimed bastion of free, independent journalism, all we got was the concocted story of James in China (with the part about Elena and the nun conveniently omitted), introduced by a smarmy Age disclaimer to the effect that although there was some controversy about James’s early-1969 visit to China, it was important for Australian readers to learn about his brave fight for survival against the horrors of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment in China. A triumph of human will, we were told. And a triumph it was, for chequebook journalism and the arbitrary Australian legal system.
Even so, Francis gets the last laugh. A key part of his arrest-and-imprisonment story in The Age is the claim that the Chinese authorities were very worried about the security implications of his early-1969 tour of the nuclear installations. So worried, in fact, that during his imprisonment they took him, blindfolded of course, back to the area to retrace his steps. But as they led him off the plane at Urumchi, the Sinkiang capital, his blindfold slipped just long enough for him to read the English words “No Waiting” on the wall of the airport toilet.
Years later I asked someone visiting Urumchi to check whether that writing in English on the toilet wall really existed. Sure enough, it was there. Had Francis remembered it from his 1956 visit? Or had his persuasive powers fooled not just the Sunday Times but the Chinese secret police too? That’s one secret James will always be able to keep to himself.