Chilling Effect

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

If the fate of Zhao Yan, a researcher at the Beijing bureau of the New York Times, can provide any clue, then my friend Ching Cheong, Hong Kong-based correspondent of the Straits Times of Singapore, isn’t likely to regain his freedom anytime soon.

Mr. Zhao, arrested in September 2004 and accused of leaking state secrets, and Mr. Ching, arrested in April 2005 and accused of spying for Taiwan, share a few similarities besides sitting in a Chinese prison and facing possible long imprisonment. Hopes for their releases were raised last February when their trials were adjourned simultaneously, apparently for lack of evidence. Mr. Zhao’s charges, dropped temporarily before Chinese Communist Party secretary general Hu Jintao’s visit to America in April, were reinstated shortly after Mr. Hu returned. Mr. Zhao was tried in secrecy on June 16 at Beijing’s No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court and a verdict was to be rendered within one month, in accord with China’s laws. The verdict never came last Tuesday. Mr. Ching is expected to stand trial in the same court this week.

Even by Beijing’s own dubious “rule by law” standard, the mistreatment of the two journalists has been quite disturbing. Legal deadlines for detention, filing charges, facing trial and delivering verdict were completely ignored. Yet most critics miss the point when they demand Beijing follows its own rules.

Beijing knows exactly what it’s doing. By prolonging the ordeals and keeping everyone in darkness, Beijing in fact is maximizing the chilling effect on other journalists. If you don’t know precisely what Mr. Zhao and Mr. Ching were accused of doing, you’re more inclined to bend over backward not to do anything you think they might have done. Eminent Princeton sinologist Perry Link described this effect so well in an April 2002 article in the New York Review of Books: By not defining the offense, you encourage potential offenders to exercise more self-restraint. The Chinese have a saying: Kill a chicken to scare the monkey. The monkey is certainly going to be more scared if the chicken is killed under murky circumstances.

In the case of Mr. Ching especially, the more chilling it is, the better. Unlike this columnist, who is easily disliked and dismissed by Beijing as a “running dog” of the West, Mr. Ching evokes more hatred and fear from Beijing because he is considered as a “turncoat.” Before quitting his job in protest of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989,Mr. Ching was the deputy chief editor of Wen Wei Po, a Chinese state-owned newspaper in Hong Kong. He joined the paper right after graduating from college in the early 1970s, a rare move in the British colony. I got to know him when I started contributing to a China-watching magazine he co-founded after Tiananmen, Contemporary.While we don’t always see eye to eye — he’s too “patriotic” for my taste — I always respect his integrity and admire his vast knowledge of China, which he gathered first-hand as a Beijing-based correspondent in the 1980s.Unfortunately, the magazine didn’t last very long due to financial difficulties and Mr. Ching subsequently became a correspondent for the Straits Times in 1996.

Mr. Ching knows his subject well and enjoys unmatched connections in China. I still remember vividly back in 2003 when Mr. Ching, to the utter disbelief of all local and foreign reporters, broke the story of Beijing’s decision to shelf unpopular anti-subversion legislation in Hong Kong. No way, I thought. Well, I remain very grateful that Mr. Ching was proven right and I was wrong.

His expertise probably got him into trouble in the end. It’s widely believed that Mr. Ching was arrested when he went to China to collect a manuscript of memoirs of the late Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, who had been under house arrest since his downfall in 1989 for opposing a military crackdown on the students up to his death in early 2005. The manuscript is believed to be based on interviews by a former party official and long-time associate of Mr. Zhao, Zong Fengming. As long as the Tiananmen massacre remains a taboo in China, anything related to Mr. Zhao would be seen as sensitive by the regime, which, naturally, didn’t go easy on Mr. Ching for his interest in the matter.

When Mr. Ching was subsequently charged of spying for Taiwan, I knew something else must be going on. If, and it’s a big if, Mr. Ching would ever engage in espionage, it’s absolutelyinconceivable that he would spy against and not for the nation he loves dearly. Mr. Ching is all for Taiwan rejoining the “motherland”and against Taiwan independence. As prominent Taiwan journalist Antonio Chiang commented, during his stint in Taiwan from 1998 to 2000,Mr. Ching acted more like a Chinese critic on the island than a reporter. The current charges have to be phony.

An open letter to Beijing from Mr. Ching’s wife, Mary Lau, to appeal for his release confirmed my suspicion. To prove her husband’s patriotic credentials, Ms Lau disclosed a previously unknown fact: Mr. Ching,”in his spare time, has accomplished two major tasks for the nation related to the reunion of Hong Kong and China’s unification.”First, Mr. Ching has assisted many agents sent down from Beijing to collect views in Hong Kong. In particular, Mr. Ching helped one senior agent to get appointments with a number of movers and shakers in the political arena and the report was highly praised by the leadership. Second, Mr. Ching has submitted many recommendations to Beijing on the issue of unification.One of the strategies he suggested to Beijing was reaching out to the opposition in Taiwan in order to counter the ruling camp. Well, Beijing seemed to have followed the idea and did invite the leaders from the Kuomintang and the People’s First party for meetings. Interestingly, the agent Mr. Ching has assisted was also arrested around the same time and charged with leaking state secrets.

What was my friend thinking when he was “accomplishing tasks for Beijing?” I probably won’t be able to find out until Mr. Ching’s release, which doesn’t look imminent at all. Meanwhile, Beijing must be enjoying the great puzzlement Mr. Ching’s case inflicted on the rest of us and counting on us behaving properly like a monkey.

Mr. Liu, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and general manager of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, is a Washington-based columnist.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use