Cynicism only winner in journalist's ordeal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am

Barring a pleasant surprise this week, Saturday will mark the first anniversary of the detention of Hong Kong-based journalist Ching Cheong on the mainland.

Ching, a correspondent for The Straits Times of Singapore, has been held incommunicado for alleged espionage since April 22 last year.

In yet another attempt by concerned groups to appeal for the 55-year-old's early release, the Hong Kong Journalists' Association has organised a signature campaign as part of an advertisement to be published on Saturday.

This follows strenuous efforts by his wife, jourmalist Mary Lau Man-yee, friends, former University of Hong Kong classmates and people from various walks of life in the past 12 months to lobby the mainland authorities with some simple demands.

More details about the case and a fair, open trial if need be, are by no means unreasonable requests, however different and unique the system on the mainland may be. Yet this seems to be like asking for the moon.

Calls for the fair treatment of Ching have seemingly dissipated into a black hole, deepening a feeling of helplessness, futility and gloom and doom among supporters and society in general.

The failure of the campaign comes despite the heartfelt support expressed by a cross-section of society, including some prominent figures in pro-Beijing circles. Last month, a veteran former Hong Kong delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Xu Simin, joined calls for Ching's release if the mainland was unable to find prima facie evidence against him.

Last summer, a group of friends and colleagues attested to the integrity and character of Ching in a book that sought to reveal the inner world of the journalist and highlight his patriotism. One article was based on an interview with Joseph Lian Yi-zheng, a former member of the Central Policy Unit and chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, who has known Ching for 32 years.

Dr Lian was quoted as saying: 'Do I believe in a government that repeatedly made mistakes in this kind of case [of alleged espionage]? Or do I believe in a friend I knew for 32 years? I choose the latter.'

Although full details of Ching's case have not yet been revealed, the truth is fewer people now believe the authorities have a strong case against him, or even one that has any validity at all.

The further the delay in bringing the case to a conclusion, the deeper the public's distrust in the mainland's authorities and systems. Ching's supporters and the public will be more inclined to believe he has fallen victim to the power interplay between mainland authorities.

Their scepticism towards the case will become embedded regardless of the outcome and any details that are eventually released.

More importantly, allowing the case to drag on far beyond a reasonable period of time will damage the image and trustworthiness of the leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao .

Realistically, it is a tall order to expect speedy progress of democratic politics and greater protection of civil liberties on the mainland. Although a rule-by-law system is vastly different from that of the rule of law, it marks an important step in the right direction. That the detention of Ching has apparently violated mainland laws has raised disturbing questions about the leadership's commitment to an open society with the rule of law in the long run.

Ching's ordeal has struck an odd note in the chorus of upbeat rhetoric about the ascendancy of China and its aspirations to play a bigger role in world affairs.

For many who hope to see more progress in their motherland, just a single Ching case is one case too many. If they had given the mainland authorities the benefit of the doubt in the past year, the feel-good sentiment is wearing thin and is likely to be followed by a return to the cycle of cynicism directed at China's development.