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Media Advocates See Journalist's Sentence as Warning From China

The case involving spy charges shows Beijing won't tolerate perceived challenges to its rule.

September 01, 2006|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The sentencing of a Hong Kong reporter Thursday to five years in prison on espionage charges sends a chilling message to the journalism community in China to not cross the party line, analysts watching the case said.

Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based correspondent for the Straits Times newspaper of Singapore, was detained in April 2005 during a visit to southern China and convicted two weeks ago after a closed-door trial in Beijing that lasted one day.

The case brought widespread outcry from international advocates of press freedom. They fear a further tightening of media control in China that might intimidate foreign as well as domestic journalists. China is believed to have put more journalists behind bars than any other country, often under vague charges of violating national security laws.

"We are very dissatisfied with the outcome of this case because since Mr. Ching was charged, we have all been kept in the dark," said Serenade Woo, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Assn. "We are very concerned about the future of press freedom in China. We worry all journalists may try to restrain their hand. They are in a dangerous situation. The laws are so vague. They never know what is categorized as national secret."

According to the official New China News Agency, Ching was convicted of selling unspecified "state secrets and intelligence" to an unnamed foundation in Taiwan that Chinese officials maintain is a spy agency.

Ching's conviction follows a recent crackdown on the media and legal community by the Beijing government, seen by many observers to be increasingly concerned about losing its grip on the flow of information and political control.

Last week, New York Times researcher Zhao Yan was acquitted of charges of "leaking state secrets to foreigners" but sentenced to three years in prison for a fraud conviction.

A day before that verdict was announced, Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who had exposed forced abortions and other abuses by family planning officials, was sentenced to more than four years in prison on charges of damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.

"Certainly these phenomena demonstrate the Chinese leadership has no intention of giving up on their monopoly on political power and is ready to suppress any challenge to their rule," said Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong.

Under the maximum punishment for espionage, Ching could have faced the death penalty. But the government said the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court handed down a more lenient sentence because Ching had confessed to selling military secrets to Taiwan and setting up a spy network. China views Taiwan as a renegade province.

Ching called the verdict unfair and planned to appeal, his wife said in the Hong Kong media today.

Ching's family and lawyers say he is innocent and describe him as a patriot who would never harm the interest of China.

Ching's wife, Mary Lau, has said that her husband was set up by an unnamed intermediary who claimed he could help obtain exclusive material related to Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party leader who fell from power after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and lived under house arrest until his death last year.

Lau said she believed her husband might have been targeted because of his ties to Lu Jianhua, a sociologist at a government think tank who shared with him confidential discussions between China's leaders.

A Hong Kong rights activist said Lu was tried last month in a closed proceeding that lasted less than two hours on unspecified charges believed to be related to Ching's case.

"This is the dangerous point. As an academic or a journalist one can easily feel having access to certain documents and manuscripts are part of the normal working process," said Cheng, the professor. "The Ching Cheong case is clearly aimed at generating a deterrence effect. Any act perceived as unfriendly toward the Chinese authorities may bring about severe sanctions."

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chingching.ni@latimes.com

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