The wife of the chief China correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times newspaper denied Tuesday that her husband had engaged in espionage on the mainland, rejecting the Chinese government's first public explanation for the detention of the prominent Hong Kong-based journalist.
In a brief written statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said authorities detained Ching Cheong, 55, on April 22 for investigation "on suspicion of being involved in spying matters," adding that he had confessed to accepting payments for collecting intelligence.
"Ching admitted that in recent years he engaged in intelligence-gathering activities on the mainland on instructions from foreign intelligence agencies and accepted huge amounts of spying fees," the statement said. "Currently, relevant departments are investigating his spying activities."
But the government provided no evidence to support its allegations, and Ching's wife, Mary Lau, denied her husband was a spy. She said security agents detained him after he traveled to the mainland to obtain a collection of interviews secretly conducted with Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist Party chief who was purged for opposing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and died in January after nearly 16 years under house arrest.
"It's very clear to friends and relatives that Ching Cheong has been a thrifty and hardworking patriot since a young age," she said. "We have no children and live plainly. Why would he engage in spying and hurt the country?"
Lau said she believed security agents tricked her husband, lured him to the mainland and detained him in an attempt to pressure him into revealing information about the politically sensitive manuscript and to intimidate other journalists and publishers from trying to obtain it.
If charged and prosecuted, Ching could be the first correspondent for a foreign newspaper to be imprisoned by the Chinese government since Mao Zedong's 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
A spokeswoman for the Straits Times expressed shock at the Chinese government's allegation. "We have no cause to doubt that in all the years that Ching Cheong has worked with us, he has conducted himself with the utmost professionalism," she said. "Until we see incontrovertible evidence, we stand by our belief that he has always acted in the best interests of The Straits Times."
The Foreign Ministry's statement noted that Ching is a resident of Hong Kong, a signal that the authorities are unwilling to offer him special protection because he is employed by Singapore's main English-language newspaper. Ching is a permanent legal resident of Singapore, but turned down a chance to become a citizen several years ago, his wife said.
The government did not specify which intelligence agencies it is accusing Ching of spying for, but used a Mandarin phrase for "foreign" that could also include Taiwan.