Hong Kong Reporter Being Held By China

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 30, 2005

HONG KONG -- China has detained a prominent member of Hong Kong's international press corps who traveled to the mainland to obtain a collection of secret interviews with a Communist leader purged for opposing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Security agents apprehended Ching Cheong, chief China correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, on April 22 in the southern city of Guangzhou, where he was scheduled to meet a source who had promised to give him a copy of the politically sensitive manuscript, according to the journalist's wife, Mary Lau.

Lau said Chinese authorities warned her and the Straits Times not to disclose her husband's detention, and she stayed silent for weeks in the hope he would be released. She said she decided to go public last week after a mainland official told her privately that the government was preparing to charge him with "stealing core state secrets."

If charged, Ching would be the second journalist for a foreign newspaper arrested by the government of President Hu Jintao in the past year. Zhao Yan, a researcher in the Beijing bureau of the New York Times, was arrested by the State Security Ministry in September on similar charges and has been held incommunicado without trial since.

The arrests could have a chilling effect on foreign news operations in China. The Chinese government often jails Chinese journalists and writers -- the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders says there are more journalists in prison in China than anywhere else in the world -- but in the past it has generally refrained from arresting individuals employed by foreign news agencies.

The Straits Times, which has not reported the detention of its correspondent, said in a written statement Sunday that it had been told by the Chinese Embassy in Singapore that Ching "is assisting security authorities in Beijing with an investigation into a matter not related to the Straits Times."

"Ching Cheong has served us with distinction as a very well-informed correspondent and analyst," the newspaper added. "We have no cause to doubt that throughout his stint of reporting and commenting on China, he has conducted himself with the utmost professionalism."

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Ching, 55, a Hong Kong citizen and a permanent legal resident of Singapore, is widely considered one of the most knowledgeable correspondents covering China, and he enjoys extensive contacts in the government and military developed over a 31-year career.

His detention could prompt an outcry in Hong Kong, where residents have complained since the return of the former British colony to Chinese rule in 1997 about their lack of consular protections when traveling on the mainland. Though China has granted Hong Kong residents some special rights and privileges, they are treated as Chinese citizens under international law.

In his writings and in conversations, Ching has developed a reputation as a Chinese nationalist who favors the mainland's unification with Taiwan and objects to U.S. interference in the Taiwan Strait. He spent 15 years working for Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong newspaper with close ties to the Communist Party, but resigned in protest with 40 other journalists after the violent 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

Ching's detention appears to be related to a high-priority government investigation aimed at preventing the publication of a series of secret interviews conducted over the past several years with Zhao Ziyang, the former premier and party chief who opposed the Tiananmen massacre and died in January after nearly 16 years under house arrest.

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