When Ching Cheong left his wife, Mary Lau, in Hong Kong to cross the Chinese border 45 minutes away, he thought he was scoring a major publishing coup in Asia. Instead, he wound up in Chinese custody charged with espionage.
According to Ms. Lau, her husband, a prominent Hong Kong journalist and ardent Chinese nationalist, was to bring home an unpublished manuscript titled "Conversations with Zhao Ziyang Under House Arrest." The work, by retired official Zong Fengmin, is about as hot as it gets in the world of Chinese politics.
The contents of Mr. Zong's "Conversations" are unknown. But a central point of Zong's recently published memoir of Mr. Zhao, a purged former premier, was that in the run-up to the June 4, 1989, massacre around Tiananmen, the demand by students for greater openness and democracy was the same demand being made by wide swaths of mid-level and high-ranking party members in Beijing.
"When Western journalists write that China lost a chance for democracy in 1989, no one in China pays attention," says a Beijing-based foreign eyewitness to the Tiananmen massacre, the anniversary of which is Saturday. "When a senior party member says that it was not just bohemian students that wanted democracy, but senior party members too, that is powerful and sensitive."
Mr. Ching left his Hong Kong residence on April 22, was arrested on the mainland, and charged this week with espionage - though authorities have offered no evidence or details. Ching, who writes for the Straits Times of Singapore, is not allowed to see family, visitors, or legal counsel. Nearly every newspaper and press freedom group in Asia has called for his release.
Diplomats and foreign reporters see Ching's arrest as part of an ongoing pattern in China to control history and censor open discussion. Zhao's death in January, after 16 years under house arrest for supporting pro-democracy students prior to the 1989 crackdown, brought huge vigils in Hong Kong. But in Beijing it brought a large police, press, and Internet crackdown.
Foreign journalists' groups express concern that Ching's arrest is a heavy-handed tactic to thwart the publishing of a sensitive manuscript - and that it sets a bad precedent, since foreign reporters have rarely been arrested and then held in China.
"If formal charges are to be laid against Mr. Ching, the exact nature of his alleged offense ... must be made public," notes an official release by the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club. "Any subsequent proceedings must be transparent."
Thursday, in a surprising move that reflects on the control Beijing holds in supposedly autonomous Hong Kong, Donald Tsang, the chief candidate in this summer's election for Hong Kong chief executive, refused to meet with Ching's wife, Lau.
Ching was born and raised in Hong Kong, and is widely known there for his excellent sources inside China, developed over 30 years. The 1989 Tiananmen episode affected him deeply. At the time, many Chinese journalists at state media such as Xinhua were sympathetic with student demands. Some famously carried a huge banner through Tiananmen that read, "Don't Make Us Lie Anymore." Ching, along with nearly 40 journalists, resigned his post at a Beijing newspaper after troops and tanks opened fire on students and workers in the alleyways and roads around the square, and killed hundreds who had gathered peacefully on the square.
Chinese leaders today unswervingly state the Tiananmen bloodletting was a necessary price for taking the path of economic reform that has made China famous for low-cost manufacturing and new wealth. Officials argue that democratic reform must come gradually. Indeed, two days ago Xinhua released a statement saying that Chinese must one day prepare for more diverse views. Yet currently, those who disagree openly and advocate democratic reforms are jailed or silenced.
While Chinese media are more diverse and lively, these changes do not extend to coverage of subjects like politics, religion, ethnicity, and many current affairs.
"The new Hu Jintao regime has by no means relaxed as outsiders once hoped it would," argues Mr. Link in a recent essay on former Chinese journalist He Qinglian's study of Chinese media. About 34 journalists now reside in Chinese jails - making China the largest incarcerator of media in the world, according to Human Rights Watch.
Foreign correspondent clubs exist in Asian cities as fixtures of press solidarity; they occupy prominent addresses in Hong Kong, Japan, Bangkok, and Seoul. But no formal foreign media club is allowed in Beijing. Currently, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which has more than 180 members from media groups around the world, meets in restaurants and hotels. It is not technically legitimate, and could be closed anytime.
In the past year, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China made three separate representations of concern to the Chinese Foreign Ministry about treatment of foreign journalists, and its executive board (of which this reporter is a member) is sending a letter on the Ching case Friday. The three cases the club has formally protested include:
• The severe beating last August of a foreign-based photographer trying to photograph Chinese soccer fans after China's loss to Japan in the Asian Cup finals.
• The arrest in September of New York Times assistant Zhao Yang, who was charged with giving out state secrets shortly after the Times broke a story on Zhang Zemin's departure as head of China's military. The charges were dropped for lack of evidence, but new charges of fraud were levied this week.
• A January incident where plain-clothes security officials barged into a press conference of Korean lawmakers, switched off the lights, and roughed up Japanese and Korean journalists.
Press groups often point out that the 2008 Olympics, hosted by Beijing, will bring droves of Western reporters to China, and thus de facto force changes toward greater openness. Yet few major changes have been so far spotted.
If anything, foreign journalists here say that official problem incidents are on the rise, and it will be simple for China to manage the media in 2008.
Last month, it came to light that the Chinese government had entered into an arrangement with the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. The prestigious foundation, whose mandate is to expand press freedoms, had agreed, for pay, to conduct training sessions for Chinese officials who will interact with foreign media.
Many Nieman alumni felt such sessions ran "directly counter to the Nieman's ... core mission," as one put it. The foundation has withdrawn from the venture.