It has been the plot of a hundred spy novels: a plane full of passengers is bombed to kill one man. In April 1955, that man was Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and the plane was Air-India's Kashmir Princess. However, unlike a spy yarn, the assassins missed their target and killed a planeload of passengers in vain.
New information uncovered by Oxford University scholar and Hong Kong native Steve Tsang, from British, Taiwanese, American and Hong Kong archives -- revealed in a recent China Quarterly article -- names Kuomintang agents in Taiwan as the culprits. Though Tsang says that the United States Central Intelligence Agency was not involved, questions persist.
On the night of April 11, 1955, the chartered Air-India flight was carrying a minor delegation of Chinese and East Europeans from Hong Kong to Indonesia to attend the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung. Around 7 p.m., at 18,000 feet, a time bomb detonated in the wheel bay of the starboard wing, blowing a hole in the No.3 fuel tank. The crew heard the explosion, the fire-warning light for the baggage compartment came on, and horrified passengers watched the fire travel up the wing. The captain shut off the right inboard engine, fearing it would catch fire, leaving the other three engines running. The crew sent out three distress signals giving their position over the Natuna Islands before the radio went dead.
Before the radio failed, the Jakarta control tower asked if Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was aboard. The answer was no, but the question must have bewildered the crew. Unknown to them, Zhou was the very reason they were now fighting for their lives.
Zhou's travel plans were kept in strict secrecy. In fact, the premier did not leave China until April 14 -- three days after the bombing -- when he flew to Rangoon to meet with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Burmese leader U Nu before continuing on to Bandung.
The secrecy that surrounded Zhou's travel plans saved his life -- and doomed the Kashmir Princess. The same Air-India plane was scheduled to fly to Rangoon to pick up Zhou for his trip to Indonesia. In fact, Tsang argues Zhou knew about the assassination plot.
"Evidence now suggests that Zhou knew of the plot beforehand and secretly changed his travel plans, though he did not stop a decoy delegation of lesser cadres from taking his place," Tsang wrote in the September 1994 issue of the academic journal, China Quarterly.
The Kashmir Princess was only an hour from its scheduled landing in Jakarta when the captain decided to ditch the plane at sea. The crew issued life jackets and opened the emergency doors to ensure a quick escape. As the cold wind rushed into the plane, the aircraft began the descent into the dark waters below.
The starboard wing struck the water first, tearing the plane into three parts. The flight engineer, navigator and first officer escaped. But the remaining 16 passengers and crew members died, including seven Chinese cadres, mainly journalists, and three journalists from Austria, Poland and North Vietnam.
Rumours of CIA and KMT involvement surfaced immediately. The day after the crash, China's Foreign Ministry issued a statement that described the bombing as "a murder by the special service organizations of the United States and Chiang Kai-shek," the head of the KMT government.
Zhou was a constant irritant to the CIA and KMT during this time. The CIA's covert war with China was in full swing during the 1950s. The agency created several front organizations to deal with Communist expansionism in Asia. These included the Asia Foundation, Civil Air Transport (later renamed Air America) and the China Quarterly.
Many in the West saw the Bandung conference as a gathering of communists and pro-communists. The CIA believed that China planned to use the conference to boost its image as a world power. In response, the agency sent agents posing as journalists to cover the conference. Some CIA officers may have had other ideas.
Eleven years later, a U.S. Senate committee investigating CIA operations heard testimony that gave murky details of a CIA plot to assassinate an "East Asian leader" attending a 1955 Asian conference. The leader's identity remained under wraps for another 11 years. In 1977, William Corson, a retired U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in Asia, published "Armies of Ignorance," identifying him as Zhou Enlai.
Corson told the Review that Gen. Lucian Truscott had brought the operation to a halt. Soon after his appointment as the CIA's deputy director in 1954, Truscott discovered that the CIA was planning to assassinate Zhou. During the final banquet in Bandung, a CIA agent would slip a poison into Zhou's rice bowl that would not take effect for 48 hours, allowing for Zhou's return to China. According to Corson, Truscott confronted CIA Director Allen Dulles, forcing him to terminate the operation.
Tsang found evidence in archives that points directly to KMT agents operating in Hong Kong as the perpetrators of the plane bombing. According to him, the Nationalists had a special-operations group stationed in Hong Kong responsible for assassination and sabotage. Designated the Hong Kong Group under Maj-Gen Kong Hoi-ping, it operated a network of 90 agents.
"The specific team actually behind this attempt to assassinate Zhou Enlai was the Number Five Liaison Group under Tsang Yat-nin," the Oxford scholar said. "In this operation, Tsang was under the command of Wu Yi-chin" of the KMT's Security Bureau.
In March 1955, the KMT's Tsang recruited Chow Tse-ming, alias Chou Chu, who had been a cleaner for Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co. since 1950. Chow's job at the airport gave him easy access to the Air-India plane. The Nationalists offered Chow the then-fantastic sum of HK$600,000 (currently $78,000) and refuge in Taiwan, if necessary.
The plane flew from Bombay to Hong Kong, and was grounded for 80 minutes to allow for refuelling and boarding. At this time, Chow placed the bomb on board. At 1:30 p.m., the Air-India plane made its last take-off, crashing hours later.
On May 26, an Indonesian board of inquiry announced that a time bomb with an American-made MK-7 detonator was responsible for the crash. The revelation triggered political shock waves in Hong Kong. The governor, Sir Alexander Grantham, had already announced that his office was satisfied no tampering had occurred in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong authorities offered HK$100,000 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible. They questioned 71 people connected with the servicing of the Air-India flight. When police began to focus on Chow, he stowed away aboard a CIA-owned Civil Air Transport aircraft on a flight to Taiwan.
The Hong Kong police concluded that the KMT had recruited Chow to plant the bomb. Apparently, he had bragged to friends about placing it aboard the airliner. He had also spent large sums of money before he left Hong Kong. Police tried to extradite Chow; Taiwan refused to acknowledge him as a KMT agent.
But the story does not end with Chow's escape. On October 24, 1967, the Soviet newspaper Pravda announced the defection of an American, John Discoe Smith. In his memoirs, entitled "I Was an Agent of the CIA," published in Literaturnaya Gazeta that year, Smith detailed his adventures as an agent -- including his delivery of a time bomb to a Chinese Nationalist agent. He says that in 1955, Jack Curran, a CIA officer attached to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, asked him to deliver a bag to a Wang Feng at the Maidens Hotel in the Indian capital. Smith claimed it was a bomb, the one used to destroy the Air-India plane.
According to a 1979 classified U.S. Senate International Operations report, the KMT planned another assassination of Zhou Enlai in 1971, this time using a trained "kamikaze dog wearing a remote-controlled bomb." The plot, the report says, was as bizarre as it was elaborate.
The KMT sent an agent to Switzerland to pay an Italian neo-fascist group to carry out the plan while Zhou was visiting Paris. KMT agents had acquired linens that Zhou had used in a hotel outside of China. They used them to train a police dog named Kelly to learn Zhou's scent. The dog was to be outfitted with a remote- control bomb, which would be detonated when Kelly made contact with Zhou. The KMT dropped the plan when China cancelled Zhou's trip.
The urbane Chinese leader later played an important role in reaching a detente between the U.S. and China, making the assassination attempts on Zhou's life now seem ironic.
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