A body blow to progress
When the official Xinhua news agency reported the formal arrest of journalist Ching Cheong for spying 10 days ago, observers believed it heralded the beginning of the end of the saga.
Friends of Ching and commentators smelled a rat, however, when Beijing's mouthpieces in Hong Kong began to detail his alleged spying activities for Taiwan's intelligence agencies, quoting unidentified mainland sources.
The smear campaign, featuring money and sex, is seen as a character-assassination attempt to manipulate public opinion before Ching goes to court.
The story took a dramatic turn on Thursday when the woman whom Chinese-language newspapers claimed was Ching's mistress emerged in Hong Kong to rubbish the allegations. Huang Wei told Commercial Radio: 'The reports are fabricated ... They are unfair to Mr Ching and have caused harm to me.'
Ms Huang's surprise denial was a slap in the face for the Chinese media which was accused of campaigning against Ching at the expense of journalist integrity. For Ching's friends and supporters, it helped deepen their conviction that he is innocent. That, however, has been mixed with simmering feelings of frustration and disillusionment about the broader, deeper implications of Ching's case.
Known as a moderate patriot imbued with a deep love of the motherland, Ching's plight has shocked his peers, particularly in the pro-Beijing circle, who have reacted with disbelief and doubt over the spying allegations.
More damagingly, the way that the mainland authorities have handled the case has raised serious questions about the price of embracing the motherland.
Johnny Lau Yui-sui, a China watcher who was a long-time colleague of Ching, said: 'If people like Ching, who understand the practical situation in China so well, land in trouble, what about [the rest of] us?'
He is worried that feelings of alienation will prevail. 'People will shy away from politics,' he said. 'They will avoid being too patriotic and too intimate when dealing with the mainland authorities.'
Mr Lau and Ching, who gave up better-paid jobs to join the mainland-funded Wen Wei Po newspaper in the early 1970s, represent a sizeable group of people in the broadly defined pro-Beijing circle.
They are not 'yes' men; they attempt to bring about positive change through constructive criticism with a degree of balance and sensitivity. They have been at pains to confront the gulf between ideals and reality during the past decades, evident in events such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Driven by a sense of national and cultural affinity, they are convinced that the Communist Party will learn from past mistakes and remain committed to its modernisation drive.
There are high hopes that the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will take a big step towards political liberalisation in tandem with the rising economy.
Yet 27 years after Deng Xiaoping opened the country to the outside world, Ching's case has inflicted wounds to the hearts and minds of many in the pro-Beijing circle, and the community at large.
The truth is yet to be told. It may never be told, but Ching will be a loser if he is denied a fair trial. The media will lose its credibility if it becomes a tool of the powers-that-be. And Beijing will be the biggest loser if it fails to show its commitment to a rules-based society when handling the case.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large