ST Correspondent Detained by PRC
Hong Kong Reporter Being Held By China
Writer Sought Records Of Secret Interviews
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 30, 2005; Page A01
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.
What Zhao said in those interviews is unknown, but months after his death, China's Communist leaders appear worried that his words might pose a threat to the party's grip on power by reviving memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre and triggering fresh demands for democratic reform.
The interviews were conducted by Zong Fengmin, a retired party official and longtime associate of Zhao's who managed to visit the fallen leader regularly while he was under house arrest.
In a memoir published last year, Zong quoted briefly from his interviews with Zhao and indicated he was preparing a second book titled, "Conversations with Zhao Ziyang in House Arrest." Ching was the first journalist to obtain Zong's memoir and write about Zhao's remarks.
Reached by telephone in Beijing, Zong confirmed the government had pressured him not to publish a book based on his conversations with Zhao. He said he had not finalized the manuscript and expressed surprise that Ching might have been detained for trying to obtain it. He denied ever meeting Ching in person.
Xiang Chuxin, Zong's publisher, said Chinese intelligence agents visited him at his apartment in Hong Kong in October and asked polite questions about Zong's memoir. But after Zhao's death on Jan. 17, police detained him in the southern city of Shenzhen and interrogated him for several hours in an attempt to discover who brought him the book, he said.
Police also placed one of Xiang's mainland employees, Huang Wei, under house arrest for several weeks. Reached by phone, she said she gave a copy of the memoir to Ching at Zong's request. She also said she sent text messages to Ching's cell phone pleading for help while trying to evade the authorities, but added the police never asked about him when questioning her.
Lau said her husband learned of Zong's second manuscript late last year and met with Zong's editor not long after Zhao's death. At the time, Zong's editor wanted to publish the manuscript but was worried security agents would intercept it if he attempted to use the same people who published Zong's memoir, she said. Ching then agreed to help bring the manuscript to Hong Kong, Lau said.
Lau said her husband told her a source attempted to e-mail the document to him several times without success. Then, in late April, he received a call from someone asking him to travel to Guangzhou to pick up the manuscript, she said.
Lau said Ching never disclosed the identity of the source to her and that she suspected Chinese security agents might have tricked him into traveling to the mainland. A day after he was detained, she said, he called her and arranged for his laptop computer to be brought to the mainland, too.
Security agents have allowed Ching to call her four more times, she said. In the latest call, on Sunday morning, Ching urged her not to tell reporters about his detention. But when a security agent picked up the phone and invited Lau to come to Beijing to see her husband, he grabbed the phone and told her to stay in Hong Kong, she said.
"He told me to work on his behalf in Hong Kong," Lau said. "He told me to visit his mother and father more."