The Wall Street Journal Asia
06 Feb 08
Beijing freed journalist Ching Cheong yesterday after two years and nine months in prison. That’s good news for Mr. Ching and his family, who will celebrate Chinese New Year together for the first time in three years.
We wish we could say the same for the 28 journalists still imprisoned in China, according to Human Rights Watch. But Mr. Ching’s early release, purportedly for health concerns, doesn’t signal a broader trend. With only six months to go before the Olympics, China has stuck to its habit of punishing those who speak out against the government.
Mr. Ching’s arrest in April 2005 showed that the Communist Party would not hesitate to turn against its own in its quest to exert control over sensitive information. The reporter carries a Hong Kong passport and was the China correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times. He was known for his Chinese patriotism and his belief in Taiwanese unification – ideas close to Beijing’s own heart. But he was sentenced to five years in September 2006 for “spying” for Taiwan. Theories abound about the reason behind his arrest – some say he was hot on the trail of sensitive documents about the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989; others say he simply knew too much about Beijing’s Taiwan policies.
Regardless of why Mr. Ching fell into disfavor, his arrest is a reminder of Beijing’s habit of locking up those it dislikes. You don’t have to look far for more examples. Last week activist Hu Jia was formally charged with “subverting state power” for the crime of speaking out about China’s human-rights abuses. He’s likely to be incarcerated for the duration of the Olympics. How convenient.
Illusions that the Olympics would pave the way for greater press freedom in China have long since been dispelled. Beijing is tightening its media grip as it gears up for August. Mr. Ching’s release is a feel-good move designed to make the government’s actions a little less loathsome before the holidays.