HONG KONG—The wife of a Hong Kong-based reporter detained in China has rejected spying charges leveled against her husband, saying Chinese authorities entrapped him as he went to collect a highly sensitive manuscript about disgraced late Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang.
"We don’t have any children and we have a modest lifestyle. Why would he be a spy and endanger China’s national interests?" Ching Cheong’s wife, Mary Lau, told Radio Free Asia Mandarin service reporter Shi Shan.
Ching spent most of March in Beijing to cover annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, she said. "Why didn’t they arrest and charge him with espionage then, if he is really guilty of spying? Why did they wait until April 22 to lead him into a trap with a manuscript about Zhao Ziyang?"
On April 22, Ching traveled to Guangzhou to secure from a middleman the manuscript of a second book about Zhao Ziyang by Zong Fengming. Ching Cheong was taken away by state security right there and then.
Ching’s arrest appears to have been aimed at stopping the release of the manuscript, a collection of interviews with Zhao Ziyang over a period of 15 years by his aide Zong Fengming. Zhao, who died in January, was ousted for opposing the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. His political legacy, like the 1989 democracy movement, still haunts Chinese leaders.
A previous book by Zong said Zhao was protected from a show trial and imprisonment by China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping—even as he continued to advocate liberal political reform in writings.
Ching, 55 and a correspondent for the Singapore Straits Times , was detained April 22 in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. He holds Hong Kong and British passports and is a permanent resident of Singapore.
He is the second employee of a foreign media organization to be held by the Chinese government in a year, after New York Times researcher Zhao Yan was formally arrested for allegedly revealing state secrets in September 2004. Eight months later, Zhao has yet to face trial.
In a statement on Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Ching had "admitted that in recent years he engaged in intelligence-gathering activities on the mainland on instructions from foreign intelligence agencies and accepted huge amounts of spying fees."
"On April 22, Ching traveled to Guangzhou to secure from a middleman the manuscript of a second book about Zhao Ziyang by Zong Fengming," Lau said. "Ching Cheong was taken away by state security right there and then."
"Ching Cheong was the first journalist who reported on Mr. Zong’s first book on former secretary-general Zhao Ziyang. His report first appeared in the Aug. 7, 2004 issue of Singapore’s Straits Times , [and it] was subsequently widely quoted by Hong Kong media and also international media," she said.
"Had Ching Cheong managed to secure the manuscript this time round, he would have been the first journalist to report on Mr. Zong’s second book on Zhao Ziyang. Both times Ching Cheong was doing his job as a journalist. Both times he worked through a middleman. Ching Cheong never tried to hide his comings and goings," Lau said.
Ching, who was born in China, has reported for the Straits Times since 1996. He quit as Beijing bureau chief of Hong Kong’s left-leaning Wen Wei Po newspaper in 1989 to protest the Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protests in which hundreds of people died.
"I didn’t know about his detention until April 27," five days after Ching was taken into custody, Lau said. "He called and sounded strange on the phone. So I knew he had been detained. On May 1, I reported his detention to the police."
Any journalist could run into the same problems that Ching Cheong is now experiencing...The biggest headache for us is that the Chinese Communist Party’s definition of what constitutes a state secret is really too broad. Anything they don’t what you to know is considered a state secret.
"Between May 5-8, I registered the case with the Office of Assistance for Hong Kong Citizens. I submitted my request for his early release. On May 11, I submitted a letter to interim Chief Executive Donald Tsang. I asked him to forward my letter to Liao Hui, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office," Lau said.
"Someone from Donald Tsang’s office later told me that my letter had been forwarded to the Hong Kong government’s Political Affairs Bureau, to be forwarded to its Beijing office and then the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office."
"We’ve been told by a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Singapore that Ching Cheong is assisting security authorities in Beijing with an investigation into a matter that is not related to the Straits Times ," Wu Aiming, vice-president of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) which publishes the Straits Times , told reporters Monday.
SPH, listed on the Singapore Exchange, is one of the most profitable media companies in Asia. It publishes 13 newspapers in four languages and more than 70 magazine titles, with interests in television and radio as well.
Hong Kong’s relatively free media were buzzing with news of Ching’s arrest, which, like the sentencing of Ming Pao reporter Xi Yang in the 1990s, has reminded Hong Kong journalists of the dangers of reporting in China.
"Any journalist could run into the same problems that Ching Cheong is now experiencing," Kaifang magazine editor Cai Yongmei told RFA’s Mandarin service. "The biggest headache for us is that the Chinese Communist Party’s definition of what constitutes a state secret is really too broad. Anything they don’t what you to know is considered a state secret."
"This is a huge risk for anyone working in the news media. You might be engaged in normal newsgathering activities and suddenly find you’ve stepped on a landmine," Cai told RFA.
Media watchdog groups have meanwhile expressed outrage at Ching’s detention and demanded his immediate release.
"While it is common for the Chinese government to jail Chinese journalists, in the past the government has refrained from jailing foreign journalists and those employed by foreign news agencies," said Christopher Warren, president of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists.
"The latest crackdown by Chinese authorities on foreign journalists and media outlets is indicative of their systematic policy of silencing the media," Warren said in a statement released at a Hong Kong news conference.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association also called on the Chinese government to immediately release Ching. "The Association urges the authorities, should they have evidence, to release them as quickly as possible, and deal with this in an open, fair, and lawful procedure and manner," it said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Shi Shan and Fang Yuan. Translation by Mandarin service director Jennifer Chou and Luisetta Mudie. Written and produced for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.