NEW YORK — Y.C. Jao was a respected Chinese correspondent working for The Associated Press in April 1949 when Mao Zedong’s Red Army stormed into Nanjing, defeating the Nationalist forces of leader Chiang Kai-shek and paving the way for the Communist takeover of China.
A family man in his late 40s, tall and erudite with liberal views, Jao was an intellectual deeply committed to news, and to modernizing journalism in China. He had studied at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism in the 1920s, before returning after 10 years to teach journalism and to start an English-language paper.
He was recommended to the AP as a local correspondent by the then U.S. ambassador to China, and worked under the supervision of Seymour Topping, the head of the AP bureau in Nanking, which was the capital city of the Nationalist Chinese government.
Jao’s passion for journalism led to his death. The new authorities ordered his execution in April 1951. They accused Jao of spying and of counterrevolutionary activities, all owing to his work for AP.
Sixty-eight years later, the AP on Wednesday recognized his sacrifice by installing Jao’s name on its memorial Wall of Honor for journalists who have fallen because of their work for the AP. Two of Jao’s children, Rao Jian and Rao Jiping, traveled from China to attend the ceremony. Also honored Wednesday was Mohamed Ben Khalifa, a freelance photographer and video journalist killed in Tripoli, Libya, in January covering fighting for the AP.
Jao’s story was almost lost to AP’s history. It came to light when a nephew, Jilong Rao, wrote to AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt in 2018, calling attention to Jao’s death. He enclosed a copy of an official document — a Chinese court’s rejection of the family’s 1983 request that Jao be rehabilitated posthumously on grounds that there was no evidence he ever engaged in espionage.
The court had ruled that the verdict would stand. It said it had been proven that Jao would write regularly to the AP in Hong Kong even after its American correspondents were expelled from the country. The court claimed that these letters contained “rumor, calumny and counter-revolutionary speech” and amounted to collecting intelligence “on behalf of imperialism.”
Rao’s letter to Pruitt was the catalyst for reexamining Jao’s forgotten history. There was little mention of him in AP’s corporate archives, but his surviving colleague, Topping, now 98, who was a veteran of AP’s foreign service and later the longtime managing editor of The New York Times, remembered Jao immediately and was able to flesh out the story.
Jao had worked as Topping’s assistant in Nanjing, then known as Nanking. After the Communists took power, American correspondents for AP were banned from working in the country and left for Taiwan or for the British possession of Hong Kong, both outside the Communists’ grasp. When Topping departed Nanking, he left Jao the keys to the AP bureau. Jao himself apparently never considered leaving. He did not feel he was in personal danger, according to his son, Rao Jian. Rather, he saw himself as a potential bridge between the new Communist authorities and the AP.
Caught up by the talk of “liberation,” Jao initially looked upon the Communists’ arrival with optimism, Topping wrote in one of his books, “On the Front Lines of the Cold War.”
“As the summer wore on, however, and the Communists began to tighten their controls, he began discreetly to voice sour observations. When I left Nanking, … he was distrustful of the Communists,” Topping recounted.
Topping left Nanjing in September 1949. In January, Jao traveled to meet with Communist authorities in Beijing on AP’s behalf to ask for a visa for Topping to resume reporting on China for AP. Soon after, Jao wrote a letter to Fred Hampson, the former AP bureau chief in Shanghai who was then in Hong Kong, talking about the result of his trip and about his unease.
“I must in the interest of truth say that Peking is not a very pleasant place for American correspondent to live in. … The prolonged and violent anti-American propaganda has some effect among the Chinese,” Jao’s 1950 letter said.
“While a foreign correspondent must exercise care to avoid being expelled, a Chinese writing for a foreign press needs to exercise double care. True it is that he cannot be expelled, but worse things can happen to him. You therefore can readily understand my wish that as soon as we open here a foreigner be appointed, so that I can confine myself to the duty of a translator and interpreter.”
Within a few months, Jao was summoned for communist indoctrination sessions and asked about his ties to AP. He wrote to Hampson that he was under pressure to join a communist publication, where he would be expected to write propaganda. Not long after, all contact between Jao and the AP ceased, although his family said he continued to send letters to the AP openly in the Chinese post.
In February 1951, with hostility between the United States and China heightened by the Korean War, the Chinese began a massive internal purge. Citizens were urged to denounce counterrevolutionaries, and a wave of executions followed mass trials.
Jao’s son said he was not too worried, even when they came to arrest him. He told his wife he would be home soon.
On May 5, 1951, the Liberation Daily of Shanghai reported that Jao was among hundreds of people seized by the secret police on April 27 in raids in Nanjing, Hangzhou, and two other cities.
An AP story on the Liberation Daily report identified Jao as a “well-known newspaperman” and a former employee of AP. “We never heard anything from Jao, or anything about him, thereafter,” wrote Topping.
Jao, though, had already had been executed. His family later learned the date of death: April 29, 1951.
The bereaved family never got over it, and Jao’s children suffered persecution for much of their lives afterward, Jilong Rao said. Jao’s mother died brokenhearted shortly after his execution, and his wife — who took up sewing to support their children — died in the 1960s in part from grief and hardship.
It is unclear why Jao’s work was not recognized earlier. At the time of his death, Western journalists were barred from mainland China and the war in Korea was garnering most of the attention in the Far East. The AP also had no contact with his family.
Adding Jao’s name to the AP’s wall of honor is an overdue act, said AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee.
“Y.C. Jao was killed in a turbulent time in China, but that cannot erase the fact that he died in the cause of independent journalism,” Buzbee said. “We honor his courage and the ultimate price he paid to report about China for AP’s worldwide audience.”
Jao’s name and Khalifa’s will appear among 35 other names of AP journalists who died for their work since the founding of the news cooperative in 1846.
“My father sacrificed his life for his work for the AP. It is certainly right for AP to hold a ceremony. It will console the spirit of my father in heaven. All my sisters and brother feel the same,” said Jao’s eldest son, Rao Jian.
“I have no idea why my father stayed behind in Nanjing, but he continued to report for AP and I remember I saw him typing English with a typewriter. He wrote a story each week and sent them to AP’s Hong Kong office via post mail, while he received $150 per month from AP via the post.
“All these activities were open, and he tried to understand the development of society and wrote stories based on information from newspapers and radio broadcasts. It had nothing to do with espionage.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the honored photographer’s name to Mohamed Ben Khalifa, instead of Mohamed Bin Khalifa.
John Daniszewski, vice president for standards for the AP, is a longtime foreign correspondent and the former senior managing editor for international news.