Caught in a Chinese Box

On Jan. 16, Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong passed his thousandth day in a Chinese prison on espionage charges. There is little sign that he will be released despite some hope that Beijing could relent in advance of the 2008 Olympics.

The China correspondent for the Straits Times of Singapore, Ching was lured across the border with a promise of access to secret memoirs written by former Communist party boss Zhao Ziyang, who was deposed after the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989.

Ching had worked for a pro-communist newspaper in Hong Kong prior to 1989 and had been a supporter of Zhao, who died in January 2005. Ching, who was known to be searching for the memoirs, was arrested in Guangzhou on April 22, 2005 and charged with spying for a foreign intelligence agency. Five hundred days later, he was found guilty of spying in a closed trial and sentenced to five years in prison with no credit for time served.

Ching has the misfortune to be a political orphan. Early in his career, he rejected opportunities to obtain a foreign passport and insisted on remaining a Chinese citizen. On his visit to Guangzhou he was carrying the huixiangzheng (return home certificate), issued to Hong Kong passport holders who travel in China, so legally he was a Chinese citizen with no access to foreign consular intervention. Detaining him involved little diplomatic cost for Beijing and served as a warning to his fellow journalists in Hong Kong on the limits of press freedom after the 1997 handover of the territory to China.

Ching also works for a newspaper based in Singapore, whose government cherishes relations with Beijing – and has its own poisonous relationship with the press. As a result, it seems Singapore has done little to help secure his release. The Straits Times itself does not have much clout in Beijing.

The “spying organization” to which Ching was tied is the Chung Hua Euro-Asia Foundation of Taiwan, which Beijing says is led by Taiwan’s National Security Bureau. The Foundation’s deputy CEO, Xie Hong-yi and Director of Planning, Dai Dong-qing, were called agents of the Taiwanese NSB, an allegation that has been challenged by Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), the Paris-based press watchdog. Xie allegedly induced Ching to send him pictures of the Chinese Navy’s visit to Hong Kong.

“If the version of the judgment circulated in the Internet is genuine,” said Professor Johannes Chan, Senior Counsel and dean of the Law Faculty at the University of Hong Kong, “the judgment (by the China court) “is full of rash statements with loopholes everywhere. Many aspects are unconvincing, and one simply cannot find sufficient proof to support a conviction. The justice administered by China’s judiciary is still at a disheartening level.”

The jailed journalist first served time in two prisons in Beijing before being transferred to a jail in Guangzhou in January 2007, to allow easier access for his family members. The anniversary was marked last week by an appeal for medical parole from his family and Hong Kong members of the National People’s Congress.

The government has ignored previous appeals from Hong Kong NPC and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress members, his newspaper and his family.

“We miss him terribly and so do all his many friends,” said his brother, Ching Hei. “In his cage, he has lost his freedom to work and rest and is subject to shame and humiliation. But what we did not expect is that, from his letters and our visits, we have seen that, like a reed that has been damaged but grows again, he has risen above his misery and depression to a new level in life. He has come out of the deep valley of pain and suffering … For this, we express our amazement and gratitude.”

Ching’s family also says that he converted to Christianity while in prison and that he draws inspiration and hope from his new-found faith. His wife, Mary Lau, said that a recent medical examination of her husband had revealed nothing abnormal and that his health and mental state were stable. She plans to apply for parole for him.

Reporters Sans Frontières and press advocacy groups worldwide were outraged by the five-year sentence and the fact that the defense at the trial was denied the right to speak. In its annual press freedom index for 2007, RSF ranked China 163rd out of 169 countries, ahead of Burma, Cuba, Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. China has imprisoned 50 of the 64 people who are in jail in the world because of what they posted on the Internet, the organization said.

Ironically, Ching was deeply patriotic. From 1974 to1989, he worked for the pro-China Wen Wei Pao of Hong Kong, including a posting in Beijing, and rose to the post of vice editorial manager. A graduate in economics from Hong Kong University, he could have earned substantially more with a non-Communist newspaper or in business but chose not to for the sake of his ideals.

After the June 4, 1989 massacre of students and others in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, he and 40 other journalists resigned in protest from the paper. In 1996, he joined the Straits Times and was its chief China correspondent at the time of his arrest.

A strong advocate of Taiwan’s unification with the mainland, he had contacts with think tanks in Beijing and Taipei, including the one cited in the trial. Such contacts are hardly unusual for a journalist, and they are certainly not illegal in Hong Kong.

The most plausible explanation for his arrest is that he became a pawn in the intense debate in Beijing over Taiwan policy. The Chinese military favors an aggressive posture, including the threat of force, while others, including the current leaders, are more pragmatic and believe unification may come naturally, especially after the decisive defeat of the Democratic Progressive Party in legislative elections two weeks ago. They believe that using force against Taiwan would be catastrophic.

With China enjoying good relations with its neighbours and conflict increasingly unlikely, the prestige and importance of the military is declining. The “unification of the motherland” is its best weapon in the struggle for money and resources in Beijing.