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Hong Kong Deadline, Journalism, The Big Baxter

China Watching masterclass with Francis James

In November 1969 Australian Francis James was last seen in China, trying unsuccessfully to cross the border back into Hong Kong. For three years there was no word on his whereabouts although it was widely assumed he was being held by the Chinese. In 1971 my father the Big Baxter wrote a three-part feature for The Age newspaper in Melbourne on the Francis James mystery which today is a masterclass in China Watching. After setting out the story of his disappearance in part one, Bax turned his attention to why James was of interest to China in the first place. 

While the Chinese authorities were silent on Francis James, Bax cited one report, unattributed but accepted as reliable by experienced China-watchers, that James had been held ‘for making profit out of lies about China’. That report, according to Greg Clark writing after James’ death in 1992, came from Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett.

FJ2To appreciate the full meaning of such a charge Bax wrote, “we must re-examine why James went to China in 1969, not once but twice, and what he did the first time he was there”.

But before we get into the second part of our masterclass, who was Francis James before he made his highly contentious visit to China in March 1969? His obituary in the UK’s Independent newspaper describes him as, among other things, “publisher, businessman, journalist, airman, churchman and prisoner.”

His attire included silver-buckled shoes and breeches of purple velvet, finished on a flourish with a cape, a wide-brimmed hat and dark glasses. The hat and glasses were to protect his eyes, seriously damaged when his Spitfire was shot down in World War II.

Your bespectacled Girl Reporter can attest that Francis’ contact lenses, made especially for him by a Harley Street specialist, were terrifying thick, hard discs of enormous size which were enough to convince me to go glasses all the way.

Back in Sydney after the war, James edited and published The Anglican, an independent newspaper with a distinctly High Church Tory tone, and never stopped referring to what we today call the ‘mainstream media’ as the ‘secular press’.

He printed the original Oz magazine on The Anglican’s hallowed presses when no other printer would touch it and was consequently a defendant in the first Oz trial of 1964.

He was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War and in 1965 persuaded Australian bishops to write an open letter to Robert Menzies, then prime minister, calling for an honourable and peaceful settlement.

In 1966 he stood, unsuccessfully, for Parliament on an anti-war platform and, in March 1969, where Bax resumes his story for The Age, James was in Hong Kong after a friendly visit to Hanoi.

Bax, stringing for the Sydney Morning Herald, was asked to get a comment from James who had just been named in the Australian Parliament by then prime minister John Gorton as a “well known apologist for North Vietnam”.

In the course of their half-hour conversation, James told my father that he was heading to Russia, via the remote areas of north-western China and would be leaving Hong Kong “in three days.” It was this first trip to China and its aftermath that Bax explored in detail in the second part of his feature for The Age.

James had returned from this visit with sensational claims that he had visited the Lop Nor nuclear weapons site in the remote province of Sinkiang and interviewed three of China’s leading nuclear scientists.

The trouble was that experts and prominent journalists – including the respected Editor of Hong Kong’s Far Eastern Economic Review Derek Davies – regarded many of his claims as unlikely, right down to whether he had actually visited China at all.

I imagine James’ humiliation would have been complete when he attended a luncheon in New York with a group of church leaders on the very day in July 1969 that a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry denied James had visited the nuclear test sites.

For anyone who knew Francis James, the idea that he would return to China in an effort to clear his name seemed reasonable according to Bax, who again starts at the beginning and works through the evidence, clearly showing us his workings, including his own failure to ask an important question.

Bax admits he was puzzled as to how James had scored a visa for China but never got around to asking about it because “James is one of those people who make the impossible sound easy and the difficult sound trivial”.

He retraces James’ known movements in the days before he left Hong Kong bound, not for China, but for New Delhi and compares his claimed itinerary with flight schedules to determine, in the end, that the disputed China trip was possible, if unusual.

What was also unusual was that when James returned to Hong Kong in October that year on his way back to China he failed to contact any of his Hong Kong friends, a group which included my father although he does not make that explicit in his articles.

Bax also noted that the October trip to China, which ended in mystery, was not on James’ itinerary when he left Australia six months earlier.

James crossed the border into China on 24 October 1969 and was seen four or five days later “holding court” in a lounge in a Canton hotel.

On 4 November he caught the train from Canton to Hong Kong.

“According to the Foreign Affairs Department in Canberra he was seen on the train by a group of travellers and these same people later saw him arguing at the border with Chinese officials,” Bax wrote.

“They crossed over the bridge into British territory, but he did not. And since that day nobody outside China has seen or heard anything of him.”

Part Two of a Baxter Special Report into the arcane art of China Watching, based on a three-part feature written by my father as the Hong Kong stringer for The Age newspaper in Melbourne. 

You can catch up with Part One here: A masterclass in China-watching

And Part Three here: China Watching masterclass – why was Francis James in jail?

 

Further reading:

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

Burchett, Wilfred Graham (1911-1983) – Tom Heenan for the Australian Dictionary of Biography

And more from Your Girl Reporter on Francis James:

Francis James – international man of mystery

The Curse of James 

© Sally Baxter 2015

This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network

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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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