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    Greater China
     Aug 29, 2006
Trying times for journalists in China
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - With the Chinese government promising foreign journalists unprecedented freedom in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, the trials of Zhao Yan and Ching Cheong serve as a reminder of the reality on the ground.

Zhao, a researcher for The New York Times, was sentenced to three years in prison on Friday. Ching, chief China correspondent for Singapore's The Straits Times, was tried for espionage nearly

two weeks ago and is awaiting a verdict.

In addition, a blind activist for peasants' rights, Chen Guangcheng - who, like Zhao and Ching, was tried in secret - has received a four-year jail term for destroying property and organizing a mob to disrupt traffic.

The 35-year-old activist's sentence was handed down last Thursday in a Yinan county court in Shandong province, where his efforts to organize a class-action lawsuit against forced abortions and sterilizations riled local Communist Party authorities. Chen refused to speak during his trial in protest against the detention of his lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, who was picked up and accused of theft the day before the hearing began.

Ironically, Zhao's trial vindicated his work for The Times. He was cleared of the charge of leaking state secrets in connection with an article published in the paper in 2004 correctly predicting that former president Jiang Zemin would be replaced as head of the Central Military Commission by the current president, Hu Jintao. Zhao, 44, could have been jailed for a minimum of 10 years if he had been convicted of this charge. Instead, he was found guilty of the lesser, unrelated crime of fraud.

"On the charge against defendant Zhao Yan that he provided state secrets abroad, the evidence is insufficient," the court said. "The charge for this crime cannot stand, and this court does not accept it."

The ruling amounted to a stinging condemnation of the state security agents who have been building a case against Zhao since he was detained nearly two years ago. Indeed, no one is known to have been previously acquitted of such a charge.

The Times was upbeat about the ruling, with executive editor Bill Keller saying, "If the verdict is what it appears to be, we consider it a vindication. We have always said that, to the best of our knowledge, the only thing that Zhao Yan committed was journalism."

But Keller's words must bring only cold comfort to Zhao and his family. True, the two years he has already spent in detention will count toward his sentence, but Zhao will nevertheless be languishing in jail another year for a crime his supporters say he did not commit.

The fraud charge was not filed until several months after Zhao's arrest on September 17, 2004, for giving away state secrets. It involves the allegation that before he began his work for The Times, he bilked a village official out of 20,000 yuan (US$2,500). It is widely perceived as a face-saving political gesture for a security apparatus that failed to get the goods on Zhao.

"The fraud charge also has no basis in fact," the researcher's sister, Zhao Kun, said in Beijing following his conviction. "He should have been found completely innocent."

If not for the international attention that his case attracted, Zhao most probably would have been convicted of the more serious charge, despite the flimsy evidence against him. No doubt the tireless lobbying on his behalf by the powerful and influential Times aided his cause, as did diplomatic pressure from Washington.

Actually, things were looking good for Zhao in March, when his case was dismissed just prior to Hu's visit to the United States. But after the president returned to China, the charges were reinstated, and Zhao was tried in June.

In the end, Zhao was fortunate to receive only a three-year sentence. Ching, 57, may not fare so well. The Hong Kong native, who has already spent more than 16 months in detention, faces the likelihood of several more years in jail. After all, The Straits Times does not carry the journalistic heft of Zhao's employer. And Singapore, in contrast to the US, is a small city-state of 4.3 million people.

The Straits Times, however, has been unswerving in its support of Ching, as has the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, the Hong Kong Journalists' Association and others. According to the French group, Ching is just one or more than 30 journalists and 50 Internet campaigners in Chinese prisons, making the country the world's biggest hazard zone for free expression.

When Hu took over the presidency in 2003, there were signs of a new openness toward the media. In the face of rampant official corruption and fraud, the president called on journalists to play a more aggressive watchdog role in society. But that change of attitude did not last long. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Hu has presided over "a major crackdown on the media" over the last three years.

Ching is regarded as one of the most informed correspondents covering China and has developed a wide range of contacts in military and government circles over a career spanning more than 30 years. His wife, Mary Lau, a journalist herself, says Ching ran afoul of Chinese authorities in April of 2005, when he traveled to the southern city of Guangzhou to collect a manuscript of secret interviews with Zhao Ziyang, the former premier and Communist Party chief who spent 16 years under house arrest in 1989 after supporting the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Zhao died in 2005.

The interviews had been conducted by Zong Fengmin, a retired party official and friend of Zhao's who visited him repeatedly during his confinement. Zong had previously published a memoir in 2004 that included a smattering of quotations from his interviews with Zhao but said he was planning a second book, titled Conversations with Zhao Ziyang in House Arrest, which would be a full record of their talks.

Zong has admitted that, under government pressure, he decided not to publish the second book but, according to Lau, her husband traveled to Guangzhou to obtain the manuscript and bring it to Hong Kong for publication. Lau suspects that Ching was set up for arrest by government security agents.

Whatever the case, the Foreign Ministry announced that Ching had confessed to being a spy: "Ching Cheong confessed: Following instructions from a foreign intelligence agency, he engaged in intelligence-gathering activities in China and received a large spying fee."

The foreign agent has been identified as the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. The irony of this case is that, over the years, Ching had gained a reputation as a nationalist who supports Taiwan's reunification with the mainland.

No doubt, however, government officials ordered Ching seized because they did not want Zhao lionized in death and memories of Tiananmen, one of China's darker moments, revived. And there is a damning Tiananmen connection in Ching's past: After working for 15 years for Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong newspaper closely aligned with the Communist Party, Ching resigned in protest, along with 40 other journalists, following the violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen.

While the occasional high-profile arrest of journalists working for the foreign press attracts greater international attention, reporters who work for local media and dare to stretch the vague, sometimes even contradictory boundaries of journalistic protocol in China are routinely harassed and persecuted.

For example, not many in the West have heard of Yang Bin, Sun Xuedong and Li Duoyu - all editors at The Beijing News who were dismissed last year after the paper published reports detailing how a violent crackdown on a protest against plans to build a power plant in Hebei province left six villagers dead from beatings.
And just this month, Zan Aizong, a journalist working for the Hangzhou bureau of the Beijing-based China Ocean News, was arrested for "spreading rumors to disturb the public". Translation: he had posted critical reports on the Internet about the local government's demolition of a partially constructed church in the Xiaoshan district of Hangzhou.

Dismissal and/or detention is a way of life for any Chinese journalist or blogger who dares to do his or her job in the spirit of free expression. The paranoia in Beijing goes so far that officials have banned television stations from showing foreign cartoons like The Simpsons during prime time. And the strenuous battle against illegal satellite viewing and Internet postings is ongoing, if perhaps ultimately impossible to win.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

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