When state secrets are the rule

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2006, 12:00am

The sentencing of Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong to five years in prison is one in a flurry of cases that suggest China is backtracking on human rights. Ching was convicted in the wake of jail sentences for blind activist Chen Guangcheng and New York Times researcher Zhao Yan .

Chen was clearly a thorn in the side of local authorities in Linyi city , Shandong province , where he exposed officials who had forced residents to undergo illegal abortions and sterilisations. He was sentenced to four years and three months on a charge of damaging property and organising a mob to disrupt traffic.

Zhao, who had been held since September 2004, was originally charged with leaking state secrets. The New York Times published an article predicting, accurately, that former leader Jiang Zemin would step down as head of the Central Military Commission.

Zhao was picked up 10 days later. Apparently Beijing believed that he had provided that information - considered a state secret - to the newspaper.

Both the newspaper and Zhao denied the accusation. The Bush administration repeatedly called for Zhao's release. He was finally acquitted on the state secrets charge but convicted of fraud in an allegation unrelated to his employment at the newspaper.

It appears that when the Chinese government makes up its mind to get someone, it can do so whether it be on one charge or another.

For his part, Ching had crossed the border into the mainland to get information about the late Zhao Ziyang , the former party leader who was purged for opposing the Tiananmen Square military crackdown in 1989. But instead of charging him for pursuing journalistic activities, Beijing accused him of espionage.

When the charge was announced, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Ching had confessed to having received instructions from 'a foreign intelligence agency' and engaging in 'intelligence gathering activities in China'.

Ching pleaded not guilty, and now plans to appeal against his conviction.

The mainland's definition of a 'state secret' is so wide and vague that it could be applied to almost anything. Any information that has not been published in the state-controlled press is considered secret.

Ching's trial was closed to prevent the release of any 'state secrets'. The trial even generated state secrets of its own: the text of the guilty verdict was not released - evidently because it, too, is a state secret. (But that text has appeared, mysteriously, on the internet).

If the government is right and Ching did sell state secrets to Taiwan, then what is the point of keeping everything secret? The only people still being kept in the dark are the public.

Beijing should realise that, in this age of globalisation, it is simply unrealistic to try to shroud everything in a veil of secrecy. After having been in power for almost 60 years, the Communist Party still acts as though it were an underground organisation, afraid of having its activities exposed.

The government cannot keep its people perpetually in ignorance of events and policies that affect their lives. China is their country, too; not the private possession of the party.

The internet and other technological developments will make it much harder for the Communist Party to control all information. Besides, if China wants to develop its economy and raise people's standard of living, it must expect an increasingly well-informed public who can thrive in a knowledge economy.

Besides, why should the government of a country that calls itself a people's republic need to keep its people in ignorance?

A ruling party needs to be accountable, and that is done by making information public.

A genuine people's republic should be one where the people participate fully in their own governance and are able to make informed choices - such as whether they want to keep the current ruling party in power.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator