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Shattered as a lover and a spy

He wanted to battle the Chinese communists and savor a young romance. Instead, the man's fate was to be years of prison, loneliness and heartache.

May 31, 2007|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

Shanghai — THE happiest time of his life lasted four days.

It was the winter of 1958. He had just run away with his lover to Shanghai. They went sightseeing every day and didn't mind the dark streets or meagerly stocked stores where coupons were used to ration food. Life was just beginning.

Until two plainclothes policemen walked up behind them one day and called out his name.

"Are you Kan Zhonggan?"

Blinded by happiness and love, he said yes.

"Take a walk with us."

Around the corner, a car was waiting. The couple got in. One officer sat between them. They drove for half an hour and then his lover was told to get out. As she was dragged away, their eyes met.

They didn't see each other again for 27 years.

This is the story of one man's broken dream to serve his country and love his woman.

Kan Zhonggan was a spy. His master was the government of Taiwan, an island that broke with mainland China in 1949 after a protracted civil war. Ever since, mutual espionage has been a way of life, but it was especially robust in the early years of the split.

Little was known about the lives of the secret agents who risked everything for the cause until a group of elderly former spies decided to speak out recently in hopes of seeking redress and compensation from Taipei. They say that instead of being treated as war heroes, they were abandoned by the island that recruited them.

"The Taiwan authorities don't want to unveil old wounds," said Andrew Yang, head of a Taipei think tank. "To them, these spies are considered redundant, disposable."

During the height of the Cold War, an estimated 30,000 Taiwanese spies were dispatched to the mainland, said Jiang Jianguo, 73, a former spy now living in Hong Kong who spent 13 years in prison. Of those, an estimated 20,000 were executed by the communists, he said. The rest probably died of old age or are living in exile, mostly in mainland China and Hong Kong, said Jiang, whose Cross Strait Relations Victims Assn. has contacted about 70 former spies.

An untold number were caught and thrown into Chinese prisons and labor camps. Kan spent 20 brokenhearted years in prison, turning into a perpetual loner fearful of more retribution.

He is the only known former Taiwanese agent willing to reveal his secret past who still lives in mainland China.

"Every man's life is a reflection of the times he lived in," the 72-year-old said, sitting in his dark and empty apartment in a distant suburb of Shanghai, where he lives alone. "I sacrificed my life and love for politics. Now no one wants me."

Born in Shanghai to working-class parents who wanted to give their eldest son a better life, Kan was sent to live with his uncle in Taiwan when he was 11 during the mass exodus that preceded the communist takeover in 1949. But the hostilities between the mainland and Taiwan continued into the '50s and '60s. The propaganda machines on both sides shifted into overdrive.

"They told us the communists were the embodiment of evil, that they shared wives and tossed landlords into the sea," Kan recalled. "It seems like a joke now, but I was a kid. I believed everything. I hated the communists so much I could eat their flesh and drink their blood."

AT 18, Kan began training for the island's version of the KGB. He saw it as a sacred act of patriotism, a chance to liberate his own people, including his parents and five siblings, who still lived in the mainland.

After two years, he graduated near the top of his class and volunteered to undergo additional training for the mission of slipping back to the mainland. He learned how to use explosives, radio secret messages, write coded letters. His assignment, he said, was to assassinate key Communist Party leaders, military officers, scientists and diplomats. Bomb key city targets, create domestic disturbances and stir international conflict. He was urged to take his own life if caught.

"When I got my assignment, I knew this was a one-way ticket," Kan said.

Then he met the woman who would change his life.

It was in Hong Kong, 1957. The decadent British colony was a major way station for espionage activities between Taiwan and China. Kan was only 22 when he was dropped off by boat in the cover of darkness to blend into the vast network of undercover agents there.

Come daylight, the lean and fit young spy would step into his disguise as a salesclerk at a local photo shop. At least once a month he would meet at a nearby cafe with his contact, who was to tell him when it was time to enter China.

He knew nothing about his contact, but the man indirectly introduced Kan to the woman he calls Xiao Zhen.

She was a teacher -- pretty, smart, honest and, most important, politically reliable. By that he meant that she understood his mission and he didn't have to lie. Her brother was a fellow agent, and her father was a Nationalist Party official.

There was only one problem. She was married, and even if she wasn't, his job forbade him to marry before he was 28.

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