In November 1969 an Australian named Francis James disappeared without trace. He was travelling by train from the southern China city of Canton, now called Guangzhou, to Hong Kong. He was last seen by his fellow passengers at the border arguing with Chinese officials.
A year had gone by with no word of James or his whereabouts when in January 1971 my father Jack Spackman, known here for literary purposes as the Big Baxter, sent a telegram to Chou En-lai, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China, pleading for information.
It was the springboard for a three-part feature Bax wrote for The Age which, in their entirety, make for a pretty good masterclass in the arcane art of China Watching.
From 1949 through to the 1970s the People’s Republic of China was largely closed to the outside world, making straightforward reporting of its affairs impossible. Thus was born the China Watcher – a term which covered journalists, diplomats and spies.
Most of them were based in Hong Kong and their work consisted of endless weighing and measuring of the official against the unofficial in an attempt to get a glimpse of what was actually going on behind the Bamboo Curtain.
What’s interesting about Bax’s articles on Francis James is the way he shows us his workings. He’s very upfront about the limits of his investigation and leaves it to us, the readers, to judge whether his conclusions stand up.
He’s less upfront about something which today would probably be considered a glaring journalistic omission. While he drops enough hints to make it reasonably clear, he never explicitly mentions that he and Francis James were friends.
While they were close friends in later years I have no idea how well they knew each other before James’ imprisonment but the nature of both men leads me to presume they would have taken a pretty instant liking to each other.
And, once he’d done his spell in the Matilda Hospital after his release, it was to the Baxter residence in Macdonnell Road, Hong Kong that James repaired for the remainder of his recovery.
When I read today Bax’s three-parter for The Age I find the same mixture of fond regard and caution that he always seemed to hold in equal measure for Francis.
Without his underlying friendship for his subject I wonder if my father would have written such a scrupulously detailed account of all his sources, named and unnamed – and for the purposes of our China Watching masterclass, note well when sources are unnamed.
Bax’s cable to Chou En-lai went unanswered, the latest failed attempt to establish James’ whereabouts.
“If one deals only in hard facts, all we can say is that nobody outside China knows where James is or what is happening to him,” Bax wrote for The Age.
“But, if one is prepared to accept reasonable theories and to believe there is a pattern in official Chinese behaviour, then it is possible to put together a fairly credible picture of what is happening to James today.”
Bax proceeded to lay out those theories and make the case for and against each one.
He drew on meticulous research of what little information was on the official record, the testimony of eyewitnesses and inferences drawn from what was known of James’ character.
It was possible that James had left China by some unknown route, said Bax, but highly unlikely.
“One of his better acquaintances has pointed out that if he had left China surreptitiously he would now have to be living somewhere in anonymity. To the people who know the gregarious Francis James such a suggestion is laughable.”
So, assuming that James was in China, Bax (prime suspect for the role of ‘better acquaintance’) next asked where exactly he might be.
He discounted a report that James might be under room arrest in a Canton (now Guangzhou) hotel called the Hsien Chiao.
No such place, Bax’s research confirmed, although there was a hotel by that name in Peking (now Beijing), well known to anyone in the China-watching business – citing two foreign correspondents who had stayed there.
One was Reuters’ Anthony Grey who stayed at the Hsien Chiao as a free man in 1967 on his first night in Beijing. He was later imprisoned (elsewhere) by the Chinese from 1967-69.
The other was British journalist Eric Gordon who was held under room arrest in the same hotel for more than a year with his wife and teenage son when his employment with the communist regime was disrupted during the Cultural Revolution.
“Any report that places it 1000 miles south of its actual position must be suspect, in full and in detail,” said Bax.
If James was in Canton, he was probably in the main prison. Bax related the story of another good friend of the Baxters, the cartoonist and journalist Bill Yim.
Yim had spent a year in the Canton prison after getting picked up by the authorities while on assignment for UPI. After six months behind bars he was tried as an American spy and sentenced to 12 months, with the time already served taken into account.
It was possible James had been transferred to a Beijing prison, depending on the charges he was facing but they were unknown. Bax explored that option with another renowned China Watcher, Norman Barrymaine, also a former prisoner of the Chinese.
Bax said there had been one report, accepted as reliable by experienced China Watchers, that James had been held ‘for making profit out of lies about China.’
No attribution is given for that one report and we’re left to assume that he’s run it past each of the experienced China Watchers he’s already mentioned and each has given it their blessing.
After all that meticulous showing of his workings, it’s a glaring omission but it allows him to finish part one with a set-up to part two – the complicated question of why Francis James might have been imprisoned in the first place.
First of a three-part of a Baxter Special Report into the arcane art of China Watching, based on my father’s original articles for The Age newspaper.
Part one: Francis James: where is he? – Jack Spackman, The Age 16 March, 1971
Part Two: Puzzle of his great scoop – Jack Spackman, The Age 17 March, 1971
Part Three: Was he pawn in war game? – Jack Spackman, The Age 18 March, 1971
And an excellent introduction to China Watching:
Assignment: China – China Watching – from the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute
© Sally Baxter 2015
This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network