Old habits in the new China

ON April 22, 2005, Ching Cheong, the 55-year-old chief China correspondent for Singapore’s The Straits Times, left his home in Hong Kong’s semi-rural New Territories and crossed into mainland China.

This border is still more heavily policed than most international boundaries and it separates two very different worlds for journalists.

Ching’s journey was to end in a disaster that illustrates the hopelessness of journalists who become entangled in the web of China’s opaque security and justice systems.

He was travelling light because his aim was to obtain a potentially explosive document from a contact in China: an unpublished book by Zong Fengmin, a retired cadre and practitioner of qigong, a traditional breathing and exercise regime.

Zong had transcribed, secretly, more than 100 conversations with Zhao Ziyang, the reformist communist party general secretary sacked by Deng Xiaoping after meeting students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Zhao was then held under guard, though allowed to receive occasional visitors, at his modest courtyard home in central Beijing until he died in January 2005.

Zong, who for years had instructed Zhao in qigong, later said that he had been told by the government not to publish the document.

Many mainland Chinese writers publish in Hong Kong books that are unlikely to receive censorship approval within the People’s Republic, so Zong had got in touch with Hong Kong-based publisher Xiang Chuxin. Xiang was then interviewed about the publication at his apartment in Hong Kong by Chinese intelligence agents. After Zhao’s death, he had been briefly detained and quizzed about it while on a visit to Shenzhen, the thrusting new city that borders Hong Kong.

Ching’s wife, Mary Lau, who is also a journalist, said a source inside China had tried without success to email the text to him. Then someone in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province bordering Hong Kong, phoned and invited him to travel there to obtain a hard copy.

A version of the book was eventually published in Hong Kong in Chinese in January 2007, titled Zhao Ziyang: Captive Conversations.

Soon after Ching crossed into Shenzhen en route to Guangzhou, he was arrested. Shocked, he asked his wife to send his laptop computer over the border, convinced this would help prove his innocence.

Instead, it provided the security agents interrogating him with ammunition for the potentially capital crime for which he was eventually tried four months later: spying for Taiwan, which is viewed by Beijing as a rebel province. “Looking back,” he now says, “that was the most naive thing I could have done.”

The computer contained articles that Ching had written – and for which he was paid – for a well-known academic think tank in Taiwan, the Foundation on International & Cross-Strait Studies.

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