Hidden History

Republican China’s Most Mysterious Man8 min read

An assassin who met a suspicious end – Kevin McGeary

The first half of the 20th century had many characters – T.E. Lawrence springs to mind – who excelled as both men of thought and men of action, living lives that dwarf any author’s imagination. As Orson Welles ad-libbed in The Third Man, there is something about living through the kind of times nobody wants to live through that brings out greatness.

Another such man was Dai Li 戴笠. A genius of military intelligence, Dai (also known as Dai Yunong 戴雨農) was China’s most accomplished assassin during the War of Resistance against Japan. As well as helping Chiang Kai-shek claim the scalps of high-profile enemies and defectors, he also bedded some of the most glamorous women of his day.

After Dai’s death in a plane crash on March 17, 1946, Chiang Kai-shek is known to have rallied his troops by insisting, “Dai Li never died.” His death was indeed mysterious and conveniently timed for those who might have wanted him dead. Several years ago, on the anniversary of his “disappearance,” Xinhua went over the whole story and the various conspiracy theories around the plane crash. However, none are as bizarre as the official history.

Born Dai Chunfeng in Zhejiang Province’s Jiangshan City in 1897, after showing early academic promise, Dai got into No. 1 Middle School in Zhejiang before moving to Shanghai. In 1924 he joined The Huzhou Military Academy, and in 1926 he began training at the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou, where he met Chiang Kai-shek. This was the beginning of a  fruitful period of collaboration during which Dai’s nicknames included “Chiang Kai-shek’s Personal Saber” (蔣介石佩劍), “China’s Global Bodyguard” (中國的蓋世太保), “China’s Himmler” (中國的希姆萊), and “China’s Most Mysterious Man” (中國最神秘的人). Here are just a few of the reasons why.

Dai Li, the most formidable assassin of his day.
Dai Li, assassin for Republic era China (Wikicommons)

In May 1933 in Beijing’s Grand Hotel, Dai personally assassinated Zhang Jingyao, a fearsome warlord who tried to help the Japanese set up a puppet Manchu government. In June of the same year he was responsible for assassinating the democratic activist Yang Xingfo. In 1934 he killed the celebrity journalist Shi Liangcai and Communist Party member Ji Hongchang.

From 1937 onwards, Dai Li would often carry out reconnaissance work in the most dangerous occupied territory. In January 1938, he was involved in trapping and killing Shandong Governor Han Fuju, who was suspected of colluding with the Japanese to spare his province and position. In March of the same year, he was part of the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Wang Kemin, who would later commit suicide while on trial for treason.

In February 1939 he assassinated Chen Lu, foreign affairs minister of the puppet government, in Shanghai. In March of the same year Dai was sent on a special mission to Hanoi to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek’s political rival and Japanese collaborator Wang Jingwei. Wang survived the bullet wound but died in Japan in 1944 when receiving treatment for an infection caused by it, avoiding a likely execution for treason. In August 1940 he shot to death Zhang Xiaolin, leader of notorious Shanghai criminal organization The Green Gang, and in October of the same year he stabbed to death Shanghai’s puppet mayor Fu Xiao’an.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor (which Dai had accurately predicted) he was invited to collaborate with American intelligence agencies. In 1943, Dai was behind the successful poisoning of Li Shiqun, who had defected from the Communist Party to the Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang (KMT) and later headed the No. 76 Spy Organization, which became notorious for torturing their political enemies. In January 1944, Dai was behind the bombing of a Japanese-occupied coal mine in Hebei. When the war ended in 1945, he began a campaign to arrest suspected traitors throughout the country.

As well as being a feared assassin, Dai was also a notorious lothario. His lovers included actress Hu Die, one of the most famous beauties of the era. However, the woman who brought out his softer side was Chen Hua, whom he affectionately knew as “Huamei.” Chen Hua was sold as a concubine at age 13, and at 16 she married Yang Hu, Sun Yat-sen’s Shanghai garrison commander. Dai met her on a train in 1932 and was enchanted by her beauty. He tried to arrange for his student Ye Xiazhui (the wife of General Hu Zongnan) to be her assistant, but Chen saw what he was up to and refused.

Hu Die (left), Dai Li (right)
Hu Die and Chen Hua (Wikicommons)

Later, they got to know each other and Chen found a kindred spirit in Dai. She later became his only close friend. It was she who helped Dai spy on Wang Jingwei and  many others. He later stated that she was 50% responsible for his successes. Dai Li had a taste for fast cars and lavish homes, but was never that rich himself, so he often relied on people like Chen for such luxury. She was known in intimate company to call him “Little Scrounger!” and “Little Penny Pincher!”

When Chen was stuck in Chongqing during the latter part of the war, he made sure she was kept in the lifestyle she was accustomed to, with mink coats and imported shoes and stockings. When those resources became too rare, he had her sneaked onto a plane to Hong Kong. On the last night they spent together in Shanghai, in March 1946, Chen Hua claimed that Dai said to her, “I keep telling you, Huamei. As soon as the old fella (Chiang Kai-shek) no longer needs me, I’ll be dead.”

Already anxious about her lover’s safety, Chen received a phone call on March 17 from local politician Wang Xinheng saying that Dai would fly from Qingdao that day to have dinner with him. Chen took the liberty of making her own way to Wang’s home. When Wang arrived, he told her that Dai’s plane hadn’t shown up. Then, in front of the already present dinner guests, Chen said with a mysterious grin, “It’s crashed!” before being reluctantly escorted away. Chen Hua opined that Dai Li killed himself, shooting the pilot before crashing the plane. Dai wanted to have a post-military career in politics but, according to Chen, Chiang Kai-shek saw him as more trouble than he was worth now that the Japanese had been vanquished.

Air travel was a lot less safe back then, so Dai Li’s death may well have been simply an accident, or Chen Hua may have been right. Conspiracy theories abound and debate continues to rage, yet none are as bizarre as the official story published by Xinhua. One theory posits that, considering Dai knew too much and had collaborated with the Americans, Chiang Kai-shek could not risk keeping him alive. Another suggests that he was done in by American agents. Some say he was murdered by the Communists – Wang Ruofei and several other senior Communists had recently died in a plane crash, so this may have been revenge.

However, the real story of what happened and who was responsible is even more fanciful. At 1:13 p.m. on March 17, 1946, when Dai Li’s plane crashed over the Jiangning District of Nanjing, all of the crew members escaped unhurt. This was widely agreed to be an accident until two years later, when Chiang Kai-shek received a top secret memo claiming that Dai Li was murdered by Dai’s Beijing-based colleague Ma Hansan. Ma and Dai went back a long way. It was Dai who helped Ma get promotions to Lanzhou, Ningxia and eventually Beijing. So why would Ma repay him this way?

In March 1946, Dai went in person to Beijing No. 1 Prison to interrogate Manchu princess-turned Japanese spy Kawashima Yoshiko. There she told him that Ma Hansan had been arrested in 1940 and told the Japanese everything he knew as well as handing over a priceless sword from the Qing Dynasty. Ma was sworn to secrecy and released, according to Kawashima. He later retrieved the sword from her house when the Japanese surrendered.

Though stunned by the revelation, Dai Li acted as normal, and even left a letter for Ma saying he trusted him to keep watch over Kawashima. On March 16, Ma and Dai were all smiles when they met for the last time at the Tianjin airport. It is here that Ma is alleged to have told his close friend Liu Yuzhu to put a time bomb on Dai’s plane in Qingdao. At the Qingdao airport, Liu used his identity as a member of the North China Supervisory Body to get to the plane as a safety checker. While supposedly checking the plane, he placed a time bomb in a wooden box that was due to detonate over Shanghai.

The next day the rain was too heavy to land in Shanghai, so they diverted to Nanjing, where they still could not land. After the plane veered off course, the time bomb went off, causing the plane to nose dive into a 200-meter tall hill just south of Banqiao Village in Jiangning. After a thorough investigation, Ma Hansan and Liu Yuzhu were arrested in Beijing on June 30 for conspiracy to murder. They were both executed at a secret location on September 27, 1948. ∎

This article was previously published on KevinMcGeary.com in June 2018. Header: Chiang Kai-shek and Dai Li (Wikimedia Commons).

Kevin McGeary

Kevin McGeary is a short story writer, essayist and musician. His satirical Chinese-language songwriting has been the subject of features in China Daily and on Guangdong Television. He is currently working on a book of short stories set in present-day Shenzhen. kevinmcgeary.com