EVEN AFTER FLEEING BEIJING, Wuer Kaixi could still feel danger closing in on him. The flamboyant student leader--number two on the government's most-wanted list after the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre -- had struggled to reach China's southern border, finding refuge along the way in hospitals, temples, dingy safe houses and the suffocating trunk of a friend's car. But now he had a problem: everybody in southern China seemed to recognize his face from Hong Kong television, and martial-law troops were swarming around the border posts. One of his contacts ventured into Hong Kong looking for help. Local activists, wary of a Chinese trap, didn't trust him--until he showed them a Polaroid photo of Wuer holding the same day's paper with a message scrawled onto it: PLEASE SEND HELP.
Like more than 500 other Chinese dissidents over the past seven years, Wuer was rescued by Operation Yellowbird--an underground railroad run by an odd alliance of human-rights advocates, Western diplomats, businessmen, professional smugglers and the kings of the Hong Kong underworld. When Wuer's plea came, Yellowbird operatives set up a rescue team, and a mob boss paid $13,000 to bankroll it. Twice, Wuer waited in vain on a deserted beach. On the third try, he saw two infrared flashes across the black water. When he reached the powerboat, bloodied and exhausted, his rescuer pulled him aboard and sped off toward Hong Kong. They landed a few hours later on an isolated jetty, where two French diplomats were waiting. Within days, Wuer had a visa, a passport and a plane ticket to Paris. He was free.
Operation Yellowbird has long been shrouded in mystery. Its organizers--and the dissidents they rescued--have been reluctant to share details for fear of endangering those still defying Beijing. But by tracking down and interviewing insiders, NEWSWEEK has pieced together the most detailed picture yet of the operation. It is a story of miraculous escapes, devastating failures--and uncertain futures. More than 80 mainland dissidents are still stuck in Hong Kong, waiting to be offered asylum in third countries. Some have been there for years; others have trickled in over the past few months. But all are worried about 1997, when Hong Kong reverts from British to Chinese rule. "As 1997 approaches, the danger to us gets closer and closer," says Zhang Xiaojun, who fled to Hong Kong in 1993 after 16 months in prison. The bitter irony is that, because many did stints in the Chinese gulag, these dissidents may have escaped too late.
Operation Yellowbird was born the night of the Beijing massacre, when a notorious underworld boss called a Hong Kong executive and cried: "What can we do?" The unlikely pair decided to give China's dissidents what they needed most: a lifeline. Within hours, 40 pro-democracy activists united to form Operation Yellowbird. Taking their name from a Chinese proverb--"The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind"--they collected $260,000 in donations from the business community. They contacted Western consulates to work out asylum procedures. And they conspired with mob bosses and smugglers. Explains the Hong Kong executive: "These guys had the tools for the job."
Yellowbird's first missions were straight out of James Bond. On at least five occasions, "extraction" teams were sent into China to find and rescue top dissidents. They were equipped with scrambler devices, night-vision goggles, infrared signalers, even makeup artists to help disguise the fugitives. Some observers saw the hand of the CIA, but Yellowbird operatives vehemently deny such claims. So does James Lilley, the U.S. ambassador to China at the time and a former CIA official. U.S. personnel were involved "almost exclusively in legal exfiltrations," Lilley says.
The underground railroad could not have worked without the collusion of sympathetic Chinese officials. Yellowbird operatives developed contacts among border troops, local cops, even radar operators. Cops sometimes tipped students off about impending arrests or steered them through trouble spots. When student leader Li Lu arrived at one secret meeting point, he found himself shoved into a vehicle with a policeman. "That was the safest way to get him past the roadblocks," says one operative. "If stopped, the policeman would say he had Li in his custody." After several failed attempts, Li made it to Hong Kong and then was whisked to Paris.
The tale of Operation Yellowbird would be compelling enough if it ended there, with the image of Chinese fugitives making it through to the West. But the truth is more complex--and sobering. Not only did some missions fail, sending fugitives to the gulag. But the underground railroad is still running. It smuggles fewer dissidents these days and, because of the more relaxed climate in China, it no longer entails 007-style operations. The real struggle now is not so much about escaping China, but about getting out of Hong Kong before 1997.
And it isn't easy anymore. In the aftermath of the 1989 massacre, first France, then the United States threw the doors open for the escaping students. But the West no longer burns with the human-rights fervor of 1989--and many countries would rather not offend the world's next economic superpower. It is also a matter of who these second-wave arrivals are--or, rather, are not. The asylum-seekers still in Hong Kong bear little resemblance to the media darlings of Tiananmen Square. They are older, more provincial, less famous -- and their reports of persecution are harder to substantiate. Says one of the recent arrivals ruefully: "We are just small creatures."
None of this would matter much if it weren't for the specter of 1997. When Hong Kong cedes to Beijing rule next year, these dissidents fear they will be persecuted all over again. The group that takes care of new arrivals--the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China--recently launched a campaign to help them find refuge in third countries. Fourteen asylum-seekers even petitioned British Prime Minister John Major. "We fled the Chinese mainland to seek the safety and dignity which a society of law alone can provide," they wrote. "We must find asylum in a third country" before 1997.
For Wuer Kaixi, 1997 looks as much like an opportunity as a crisis. Now a California student, he plans to help coordinate protests in Hong Kong. "We'll give China some headaches," he vows. But a more recent fugitive, Zheng Sheng, is desperate to leave. After fleeing China in 1994, the ex-prisoner is stuck in Hong Kong, dreaming of America. Three of his cohorts recently stowed away on a Japanese ship, ending up in Seattle. Zheng thinks he may do the same. "If we can't leave here [legally], will we have to escape from China yet again?" he asks. Seven years after Operation Yellowbird began, the question hangs in the air, unanswered.