• Wed
  • Apr 16, 2014
  • Updated: 7:53pm

Lest we forget another 'spy' in a mainland jail

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2008, 12:00am

It is wonderful that journalist Ching Cheong, imprisoned on the mainland on ludicrous, trumped up charges of spying, has been released and is back with his family.

It would be nice to think that, in this Olympic year, his release was a sign that the mainland authorities were heeding Martin Lee Chu-ming's message that China should mark the occasion by improving its human rights record.

However, one swallow does not make a summer. All other signs are that repression of free expression is as severe as ever. Vast sums of public money are spent, for example, on censoring the internet, including personal e-mails, as journalist Shi Tao learned to his cost in 2004, when Yahoo assisted in the tracing of a private e-mail he had sent to the United States. As a result, Shi was sentenced to five years in prison.

Another person who did not spend the Lunar New Year with his family is Hong Kong resident Xu Zerong (also known as David Tsui), sentenced in 2000 to 13 years for supposed theft of state secrets.

Xu is an Oxford-trained academic historian who was convicted for publishing an article about assistance by the People's Republic to the Malayan Communist Party during its war with the British in the 1950s.

The article which led to Xu being charged with theft of state secrets was re-published in full by Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor shortly after his imprisonment. It was a description of the long-disused radio station in Hunan province from which Radio Free Malaya had broadcast to Malaya, and an interview with a local person who had once worked there.

In a free country, Xu's article would have been a worthy addition to an academic CV as a contribution to the extensive literature on the 1950s war in Malaya. Xu's arrest caused worldwide outrage, leading to an appeal - albeit unsuccessful - by hundreds of academics to then president Jiang Zemin .

There is a double agenda to Xu's harsh punishment. One aim is to 'kill the chicken to frighten the monkeys': that is, to deter others from writing independent articles about China's recent history. The second is to frighten those who, like Xu, come from well-connected families and are well-connected themselves.

Xu's father was a People's Liberation Army general who once headed the Political Department of the Guangzhou Military Command Area, while his mother is said to have been the head of the Communist Party at Zhongshan University. Xu was once said to have been close to the former Hong Kong New China News Agency director, Xu Jiatun , now an exile in the US.

Xu has not committed any crime under any reasonable legal system. His punishment is savage, and is being imposed in large part not because of what he has done - harmless and normal though that was - but because of who he is. This is the hallmark of a society governed not by the rule of law but by political expediency. If Beijing really wants to show the world it has changed, one easy way is to release Xu today.

Paul Harris is a barrister and was the founding chairman of Human Rights Monitor

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