Ching's release helps heal old wounds

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am

Ching Cheong broke down in tears last week when he learned his father had died while he was serving a five-year jail sentence following his conviction by a mainland court of spying for Taiwan.

Journalist Ching was released on parole from a Guangzhou prison on Tuesday after serving half his sentence. Ching's family had not told him of his 82-year-old father's sudden death in May 2006 to avoid causing him more pain - he was awaiting trial at the time.

He learned of his father's death after reuniting with his family. A friend told the Chinese-language Ming Pao Daily News that it had been the first thing they talked about in a phone call following Ching's return to Hong Kong. 'The first thing he said to me was: 'It's a nightmare'.'

The news lent sadness to his release, which was unexpected; Ching, the China correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, had not held out much hope of even seeing his family over the Lunar New Year holiday, let alone celebrating it with them as a free man.

The communist authorities' belated show of reason and humanity in freeing the 56-year-old was widely praised. It has healed the wounds many in Hong Kong had suffered over Ching's imprisonment.

There have always been doubts about the case against him, and Ching pleaded not guilty at his trial. Friends, fellow journalists and those in the community who know him had openly affirmed their trust in him.

That Hong Kong's chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, other officials and leaders of the pro-Beijing camp quietly lobbied for his release from prison says something about the depth of doubt there was about the case.

Coming as it does about a month before the newly elected Hong Kong deputies to the National People's Congress attend their first annual session of the legislature in Beijing, and with fewer than 200 days to go until the Olympic Games, Ching's release will remove a source of unease between the mainland and Hong Kong and foster renewed cross-border harmony.

The stakes for the Olympics are high. They come a year before the Communist Party celebrates the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, and are being seen as a milestone in China's opening up to the world.

The central government is keen to show the world that China's pursuit of economic development, social harmony and democratic development is in line with the values of humankind.

There is no doubt Ching, like many other Chinese citizens in Hong Kong, will hope the Olympics are a success. This is not simply because of their pride and sense of identity.

That China has come such a long way to attain the status of Games host, after decades dotted with political turmoil, periods of economic malaise and outbreaks of social unrest, has given the August event special meaning. As well as being able to compete with major countries in the arena of 'hard power' - namely political and economic muscle - hopes are high that the hosting of the world's premier sporting event will be a catalyst for advances in China's exercise of 'soft power' in areas such as press freedom, the environment, urban management and the hospitality of its people.

Ching shares the long-held dream of many Chinese people that the nation can be prosperous, socially open, fair, politically free and democratic. They hope their dream will become reality before too long.

Ching and the many others denied justice have faced a political ordeal, but if their plight helps bring about change in such important areas as freedom of information, rule of law and the justice system, this may offer them some solace.

Ching's friends and fellow journalists are hoping his nightmare experience will soon fade and that he will be able once again to pursue his 'China dream' with the passion, professionalism and independent thinking of old.