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When a Hong Kong reporter was freed from jail in China for espionage – ‘finally I stepped across the

  • Bill Yim was assigned by his news agency to interview an American in China seeking the release of his imprisoned brother, but was himself jailed for spying

  • A year later, following a court appearance, he was freed. Afterwards he wrote in the Post about how the communists never stopped trying to ‘reform’ him

By Dave Besseling

July 25, 2023

Bill Yim Yuen-lo, the United Press International reporter who was jailed in Canton (now known as Guangdong), China, accused of espionage, at the UPI office in Hong Kong with his mother following his release in July 1960. Photo: SCMP

“Mr Bill Yim Yuen-lo, staff correspondent of the United Press International in Hongkong, who left for China on July 19 on a news assignment, was detained by the Chinese authorities in Canton shortly after his arrival there,” reported the South China Morning Post on December 30, 1959.

“All efforts to secure his release, including inquiries by the International Red Cross and direct cables to Peking, have failed.

“The 25-year-old [was] assigned to go to Canton and interview William Downey, whose brother John is one of five Americans imprisoned in China. Downey had been given special US State Department permission to travel in China to see his brother and attempt to get him released.

“Yim purchased his train tickets and [arrived] on July 19 […] Downey did not arrive until late that afternoon and was accommodated in the Ol Kwan Hotel.

They wanted to make sure they had a ‘friend’ when I was released

Bill Yim, writing in the Post after his release

“When Yim tried to see Downey, he was refused admission by the management. He was then instructed by the UPI to take the train with Downey, but as he tried to get a ticket, he was told that there was no room on the train.”

That was the last the Hongkong Bureau was able to contact him.

John Downey (above, centre) crosses the border from China in 1973 after being imprisoned for more than 20 years on a charge of spying. Bill Yim was jailed on the same charge after being sent in 1959 to interview Downey’s brother, who was on a mission to secure his release. Photo: ISD

Yim wrote in the Post on August 20, 1960, that “on the night of January 31, 1960, six months after I had entered China, I was taken out of my cell [to court, charged with espionage]. At the left was my unrequested ‘defence attorney’.

“The communists never gave up trying to ‘reform’ me. Ten days before I was released […] the warden […] showed me buildings and construction to demonstrate the might of Communist China.

“ […] They wanted to make sure they had a ‘friend’ when I was released [and on that day, on the train to Hongkong] the questioning continued.

“Finally I stepped across the border to freedom.”


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