Journalist tells of 1,000-day ordeal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am


When Ching Cheong was a pupil at the elite St Paul's College four decades ago, he made a name for himself as a bit of a troublemaker - not for bad conduct, but for his uncompromising outspokenness.

A head prefect, he refused to read the daily Bible passage for assembly because he was an atheist.

He caused an even louder furore when he wrote an article in the school newspaper lambasting teachers for their lack of interest in students' welfare - a move that led him to being labelled 'impertinent and reckless'.

In retrospect, he said his character was later to determine his fate. He spoke in an interview ahead of today's launch of his book, My 1,000-Day Ordeal: A Spiritual Journey.

'Many people think I'm a fool, but this is my character,' he said. 'I can't turn a blind eye to things that are wrong and not say anything.'

Ching, a veteran mainland-born Hong Kong journalist well known for his dogged patriotism and idealism, believed he could help push for changes on the mainland, but he paid a heavy price for his belief.

He was detained in April 2005 and sentenced to five years in jail in Beijing the following year, on suspicion of spying for Taiwan. He has always maintained his innocence and was freed on parole in 2008.

To many, his ordeal was a chilling example of what could happen to someone who loves his country but dares to criticise it.

In his book, he details for the first time the mental turmoil he went through during 105 gruelling days in solitary confinement under 'residential surveillance' - a form of detention outside the judicial system - 508 days in police custody and 407 days in jail.

Ching, 62, tells how he felt betrayed by the values of honesty and patriotism he has held dear throughout his life, how solitary confinement pushed him to the brink of suicide, the human rights abuses he witnessed in jail and how he tried to seek solace in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism but in the end turned to the religion he used to have so much contempt for - Christianity.

'At first I wasn't searching for Christ, but the philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism ... but these couldn't relieve my depression, until I picked up the Bible,' he writes in his book.

He said he was moved to tears when he read verses from the Book of Psalms, such as 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.' The Bible also inspired him to want to talk to God.

'Praying to God seems like a trivial matter, but it gave me a lot of strength to overcome the calamity in my life and so I became a Christian,' he writes.

Ching admitted that, in his over-zealous passion to do good for his motherland, he made a mistake by overstepping his role as a journalist and crossing over into politics.

Anxious that the enmity between Taiwan and the mainland should not lead to war, he tried to mediate in cross-strait relations by using his connections to bring about ground-breaking co-operation between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang in Taiwan in 2005 to undermine Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which was in power on the island at the time.

'Yes, I made a mistake by mixing up the two roles: journalist and [political] participant,' he said. 'But when Chinese journalists see their country embroiled in suffering, they feel obliged to do something.'

But Ching said his ordeal had not changed his determination: the interests of the motherland remained his overriding passion and he said he could not rule out continued participation in politics, even if it might land him in trouble again.

'Yes, this is a possibility if one gets too involved in politics,' he said. 'I will be more cautious in the future to make sure that, legally, I won't stray onto dangerous ground, but I think it will be very difficult to separate the two roles very clearly.

'Nobody wants to have this kind of experience again, but I won't stop caring about my country just because of my experience. I will continue to do whatever is within my capacity to help improve my country.'

In his book and in the interview, Ching refrained from spelling out the reason for his incarceration, citing political sensitivity. But he said his jailing was most likely the result of high-level power struggles - judging from the questions he was asked during interrogations.

'I believe I got caught up in the Communist Party's power struggles in the top echelon and was targeted by one side in order to get at the other side,' he said.

Ching's arrest was reportedly related to an article he wrote in 2004, in which he accused former president Jiang Zemin of selling out China's interests by signing a Sino-Russian border agreement that codified the current border between the two nations, effectively ceded 1.6 million square kilometres of land to Russia.

At the time, his wife also said Ching was helping a researcher at a government think-tank to write reports for the Chinese leadership about Hong Kong and Taiwan so had access to classified comments made by leaders, including President Hu Jintao .

Ching, whose book details the human rights abuses and frequent breaches of rule of law he saw in jail, said he had 'no regrets' and would not be deterred from his sense of duty towards China. Instead, he hoped the experience recounted in his book would help highlight problems and bring about changes. 'It might just be a drop of water in the ocean ... but every nasty experience constitutes a force for change,' he said. 'If you feel a sense of commitment and responsibility towards your country, you should go ahead with courage.'

Before the interview ended, he pointed out an essay he wrote as a precocious 16-year-old and reprinted in his book. In classical Chinese, he depicts a fictional ancient character whose righteous and outspoken personality gets him in trouble with the authorities. 'For someone who has talent but little idea about protecting himself from trouble, his reputation will be tarnished and ill fate will be bestowed on him,' he reads.

'When I look back, this is an apt reflection of my life,' he said with a smile.