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
weeks ago and is awaiting a verdict.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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