Beijing’s former top official in Hong Kong, Xu Jiatun, has died in self-imposed exile aged 100. He was hospitalised in Los Angeles earlier this year with heart and kidney failure and was reported to be in a critical condition.

Prior to leaving for United States, Xu was the head of the Xinhua news agency in Hong Kong between 1983 and 1990. The office was China’s de-facto embassy in colonial Hong Kong before it was replaced with the China Liaison Office.

In 1989, he publicly expressed sympathy with students who died in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. He fled to the US in May 1990, and was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party in 1991.

chinese dissident xu jiatun
Xu Jiatun. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho Chun-yan expressed his condolences said he hoped Xu passed away in a peaceful manner.

He said it was regretful that the underground work of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong could not be revealed by Xu before his death.

“He knew about the operations of the Hong Kong and Macau Work Committee, how the Chinese Communist Party operates in Hong Kong, and the united front work in the early days,” Ho told reporters on Wednesday.

Xu Jiatun Lee Ka-shing
Xu Jiatun and Lee Ka-shing.

Lawmaker Tam Yiu-chung of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong described Xu as an open-minded person.

Tam became acquainted with Xu when he was still head of Xinhua.

Regarding Xu’s inability to return to his home country, Tam told Apple Daily that Xu had made a mistake in leaving without permission and believed that the central government had certain rules regarding such action.

Xu Jiatun
Xu Jiatun in the United States, 1997.

During his time in Hong Kong, Xu allowed pro-Beijing institutions to support the 1989 student movements in China. Notably, the Communist Party mouthpiece Wen Wei Po published an editorial with only four characters meaning “deep sorrow” in protest of the declaration of martial law in Beijing and before the June 4 massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Xu fled to the US in May 1990, with the help of former Wen Wei Po chief editor Jin Yaoru, as he feared that the Chinese government might take him away. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1991 and banned from returning to China.

Xu Jiatun
Xu Jiatun at the first mainland fashion show in Hong Kong, 1984.

During an interview with RTHK in June 2014, Xu asked China to allow him to return, saying that the “condition is almost mature” but that he may not be able to wait that long given his age.

“I was born in China, I am a Chinese… after all, falling leaves must return to their roots,” he said in the interview.

He said that the condition to vindicate the student movements of 1989 was not mature yet, and that he opposed to the Occupy Central plan – which had yet to happen – saying that it would “destroy Hong Kong.”

Xu Jiatun
Xu Jiatun. File

Celebrating his 99th birthday in the US last year, Xu again expressed his desire to go back to the mainland, saying that he would invite family and friends to his hometown to enjoy its famous crab dish.

Gene Lin is a Journalism and Computer Science student at The University of Hong Kong. He worked as a reporter for the 'LIVE: Verified Updates' during the Occupy Central protests. He is also an editor at HKU's first English-language student paper, The Lion Post.