The long road

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2008, 12:00am

After repeated disappointments over the past several years, the wishes of the Hong Kong community finally came true last Tuesday when journalist Ching Cheong was unexpectedly freed on parole by Chinese authorities and allowed to come home.

This was a Lunar New Year present for Hong Kong as well as the human rights community that had been campaigning for his release. It will also help alleviate Beijing's image as a repressive government that continues cracking down on human rights even as the Olympic Games approaches.

The phenomenon of Hong Kong standing united in support of Ching throughout the past three years - from his initial detention and through trial and sentencing on spying charges - was extraordinary.

It is testament to Ching that so many people - including old schoolmates, former colleagues, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and many others who had never met him - stood by him. Significantly, his supporters included leaders of the so-called patriotic camp in Hong Kong, many of whom signed petitions calling for his release, wrote letters on his behalf or spoke directly to officials in Beijing.

Most of all, his wife, Mary, was indefatigable in fighting for his release, despite facing one disappointment after another.

His employer, the Singapore Press Holdings, also deserves much credit for standing by him throughout his long ordeal, hiring lawyers to defend him at his trial and subsequent appeal, and for continuing to pay his salary while he was in prison and keeping his job open for three years.

Another Hong Kong journalist, Xi Yang of Ming Pao, was arrested in 1991 and sentenced to 12 years for spying and stealing state secrets. He was also freed early, in January 1997, in a gesture widely seen as a gift to Hong Kong to mark the handover to Chinese sovereignty.

Compared with Xi, Ching was treated relatively leniently and, no doubt, there are those within the Chinese government who feel he should have been dealt with more harshly.

But Ching's case shows that international pressure on the Chinese government and judiciary can lead to shorter sentences and earlier releases.

Of course, both men should not have been arrested at all and what they did would not be considered a criminal offence in most other countries. China is still operating in a way that is incommensurate with its current status as an economic superpower and with its own desire to be considered a responsible stakeholder.

It is time for China to overhaul its draconian and outdated legislation and to join the modern world. Until it shows it has genuinely turned over a new page and accepts 21st-century norms of behaviour, it will be difficult for Beijing to be accepted as a respectable member of the international community. Its increasing power may result in fear and apprehension on the part of other countries, but not genuine respect.

It is true that Beijing has made dramatic advances in many areas over the past 30 years. But while the country has performed incredibly well in the economic realm, it has made little progress in civil and political rights.

It is true that many of the worst offences are perpetrated by local authorities and not by the central government, but it is Beijing that sets the standards. Local officials will continue to bully peasants, confiscate their land and send thugs to beat them up if they think they can get away with it. It is not an excuse for Beijing to say that things cannot change overnight. Three decades have gone by and change is long overdue.

As for Ching, the three years spent in prison will undoubtedly leave a scar but he is young enough to make new contributions to Hong Kong and to China as a whole. It is unclear at this point just what he will do next, but it is good to learn that he has decided not to retire, as was his original intention.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.