HONG KONG—A Hong Kong-based journalist jailed by China for almost three years on spying charges says the former British colony’s freedoms have been eroded since the 1997 handover to Beijing.
“Hong Kong has made a continual contribution to progress in China for more than a century, even promoting some positive change in China,” Ching Cheong, formerly chief China correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, said.
“This can be ascribed to the freedom of expression in Hong Kong. However, since the handover, the space for different opinions has shrunk, or even disappeared,” he said in an interview.
“This is a potential threat to the traditional values of Hong Kong,” he added.
Ching was handed a five-year jail term by a Guangdong court in August 2006 for allegedly spying for Taiwan, which he denies. He had been held previously for some 16 months.
Tibet protest in Hong Kong
He spoke after a confrontation between Free Tibet protesters and supporters of the Chinese government during the Olympic torch relay in Hong Kong, where some spectators held large Chinese flags and others carried protest signs.
Ching said the temporary detention of Tibet protester Christina Chan, ostensibly a form of protective custody to protect her from an angry pro-China mob, was “unfortunate.”
Chan had wrapped the Tibetan snow lion flag around her body and later began waving it, drawing obscenities and angry comments from a group of Mandarin-speaking bystanders.
Several onlookers heckled Chan, shouting “What kind of Chinese are you?” and “What a shame!’ The 21-year-old Chan said, “Why can’t we just respect each other and express our views?”
Hong Kong people are outspoken
Ching said that while Hong Kong people were genuinely patriotic during the passage of the Olympic torch through China’s Special Administrative Region, which has been granted a “high degree of autonomy” and constitutional protection of its basic freedoms, he said they wouldn’t hesitate to show dissatisfaction as well.
“The same Hong Kongers will be unhesitant in voicing their discontent on the streets whenever this is a problem in China,” Ching said, citing a demonstration of more than 1 million people in the territory after the 1989 military crackdown pro-democracy protesters.
“In 2003, half a million Hong Kong people went out on the streets, rallying against the legislation in the Hong Kong Basic Law Clause 23 and expressing their anger over the limitation of various freedoms in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover,” said Ching, who has taken up his work as a journalist again but has no plans for any reporting trips to China.
‘A passion for Tibet’
Ching, who described himself as having “a passion for Tibet,” welcomed talks between Chinese officials and representatives of the Dalai Lama after the recent riots and anti-China demonstrations in Tibet and Tibetan regions of western China.
“At least the atmosphere of the talks was friendly, and both sides agreed to meet again,” Ching said. “This is a very good start, and at least they can defuse threats to the Olympics.”
Ching said he saw the main threat to Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics as coming from terrorism and international pressure for a boycott.
A call for change
But he also warned the Chinese authorities not to imagine that the problem of anti-Chinese feeling in Tibet would pass with the death of the exiled spiritual leader.
“China has the wrong idea if it believes that by dragging on until the demise of the Dalai Lama the Tibet independence movement will end naturally,” said Ching, who made two trips to Tibet during the 1980s.
“I think this is wrong. If the Dalai Lama passed away while in exile, it would hurt the feelings of the Tibetan people quite seriously and the hatred would pass down from generation to generation,” he said, likening the legacy of Tibet to the Feb. 28, 1949 massacre of Taiwanese civilians by Kuomintang (Nationalist) soldiers.
“I hope the Chinese authorities will immediately discontinue carrying out this policy as a way to deal with the Tibet issue,” he said.
Ching, who is also covering events in Taiwan, said he currently had no plans to return to mainland China, and was “very happy” to be back at work.
“Other than that, my life is exactly the same as
before,” he said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Chen Ping. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.