WHO LEADS the world in jailing reporters? That's an easy one: China has been the champion for the past six years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At the end of 2004 its count of imprisoned professionals was 42, including several singled out by the two-year-old regime of Hu Jintao. Now Mr. Hu, who has been tightening rather than liberalizing China's totalitarian political system, is expanding the range of his repression. The government is holding two journalists working for foreign news organizations incommunicado and has charged both with major offenses, including espionage and revealing state secrets.
The details of the cases against Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times, and Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong citizen and correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times, are not publicly known, though both have been in detention for months. But Mr. Zhao was arrested shortly after a New York Times story last September accurately reported that former leader Jiang Zemin would step down from his last post on the Central Military Commission. Mr. Ching's wife said that he disappeared in April on a trip during which he hoped to obtain copies of unpublished interviews with Zhao Ziyang, a senior party leader who opposed the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and who died in January.
The Times has said that its researcher, Mr. Zhao, who was a well-known investigative journalist before going to work for the paper's Beijing bureau, did not provide any secrets to its reporters. Mr. Ching's wife, Mary Lau, published an open letter to Mr. Hu last week saying that her husband, far from being a foreign spy, had worked on reports for the Chinese government about political conditions in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The stories at issue -- Mr. Jiang's retirement and Zhao Ziyang's interviews -- ought to be legitimate subjects for reporting in both the foreign and Chinese press.
Mr. Hu seems intent on intimidating foreign as well as domestic media from reporting on Chinese affairs his regime deems taboo, from Tiananmen and its legacy to his own consolidation of power. That he could succeed, even at home, seems far-fetched at a time when the Internet, cell phones and other technologies have rendered 20th-century totalitarianism obsolete, at least when it comes to the control of information. Still, China's youngish but distinctly unmodern leader appears determined to keep trying -- which is why China will probably lead the world in jailing journalists for a seventh consecutive year in 2005.