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Hong Kong Deadline, Journalism, The Big Baxter

China Watching masterclass: Why was Francis James in jail?

Why would the Chinese detain Francis James, a man long regarded in Australia as being sympathetic towards China and North Vietnam? That was the question posed by the Big Baxter in the final part of his series for The Age newspaper in Melbourne in 1971, which we’ve been revisiting as an example of the arcane art of China Watching.

If it was true that he was being held for “profiting from lies about China” what might those lies be? China had already denied that James’ visit to Sinkiang had taken place at all, putting a seal for many observers on their own doubts about his story that he had interviewed nuclear scientists there and found their program far more advanced than had been widely believed.

Since James had been widely discredited, there seemed little point in going to the trouble of locking him up. But what if there was enough truth in his report to make the Chinese keen to check his story out for themselves?

FJ3Among the many people who had cast doubt on Francis James’ story were experts from Columbia University and at least some of the Hong Kong-based journalists known as China Watchers.

What was China Watching? Bax described it as “counting the Mao badges in every picture and checking the top-people lists out of Peking (Beijing) more diligently than any teenager ever studies the top 20 pops.”

In spring 1969, when James’ controversial visit took place, Sino-Soviet relations were openly hostile. “China and Russia were in confrontation along hundreds of miles of their border and war – even nuclear war – was a real danger,” Bax wrote.

In March 1969, just before James entered China, armed skirmishes had broken out resulting in heavy casualties and for months there were fears the Soviet Union would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. At the same time Moscow was wooing unaligned Asian nations with the Brezhnev Plan, a security pact aimed at isolating China among its neighbours.

And then along came Francis James with his claims that China’s nuclear capacity was far more advanced than anyone realised.

What if, Bax wondered, James had made some error “in fact or in interpretation” when reporting on his visit to Sinkiang? How would the Chinese react, especially since James had also travelled through Russia?

What if the Chinese assumed that he got some of his material from the Soviet Union?

“So the most popular theory is that the Chinese arrested him because they suspected he had used material gathered by the Soviet intelligence system and because he embarrassed them among their Asian neighbours,” Bax wrote.

If James was facing espionage charges, there would no trial – and no official word – until he had written a satisfactory confession. “That is a pity, because the Chinese are bound to prove far more stubborn than James.”

One thing Bax was sure of, and went to great pains to stress, was that James would be treated well, contrary to the prevailing ideas of the time in Australia and the West:

“Stories of torture and brainwashing during the Korean war and Hollywood trash like Fu Man-chu films have done great damage to the image of Chinese prison officials. One old nun I once met believed all prisoners in China were given weekly ‘manicures’ by plier-wielding gaolers.”

In fact, foreigners imprisoned in China reported afterwards that they had been well treated and Bax included the testimony of a few in his report.

It was a small consolation in the absence of any news but, as Bax detailed, there was little more that could be done to find out what was happening until the Chinese were ready to speak.

Official approaches had yielded nothing, enquiries from friends and supporters had met with silence. In London a committee had been set up to work for James’ freedom, presumably through companies with Chinese business interests and diplomats from friendly countries.

Apart from that, Bax reported he had raised the matter many times with journalists from Hong Kong’s communist newspapers who visited China.

“They always return with no news and I have great doubts as to whether they actually made inquiries,” Bax wrote.

“Any communist reporter from Hong Kong who runs around in China asking questions about foreign prisoners would risk having questions raised about his political integrity.”

And there the story rested for almost another two years until, just as Bax had predicted, James turned up one day at the border.

“An immigration official on the Hong Kong side will reach for a telephone and that will be the first anyone hears that the ordeal has ended,” Bax had said. And so it proved, but that’s a subject for a later post.

Final part of a Baxter Special Report into the arcane art of China Watching, based on a three-part feature in The Age newspaper. Links below to previous posts or skip to Further Reading if you just want to read my father’s original articles for The Age.

Part One:  The Francis James mystery: A masterclass in China Watching

Part Two: China Watching masterclass with Francis James

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

Sino-Soviet Border Disputes (March 1969) – from ‘Nixon’s China Game,’ PBS

© 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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