For three decades, patriotism and a desire to see China prosper was a hallmark of the conduct of Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong.
A year after graduating from the University of Hong Kong in 1973, he joined the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po as a reporter after shunning more lucrative options in the government and business sectors. As a young man he was paid about HK$600 a month, about one-third of the salary then earned by a civil servant with a university degree.
So it is a bitter irony that after more than 16 months in prison on the mainland, a Beijing court yesterday sentenced Ching to a five-year jail term and one-year deprivation of his political rights for accepting money in return for spying for Taiwan.
Alumni who graduated in the same year as Ching rose to prominence in various professions, including Secretary for Economic Development and Labour Stephen Ip Shu-kwan, Secretary for Environment, Transport and Works Sarah Liao Sau-tung, Secretary for Financial Services and Treasury Frederick Ma Si-hang, former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung and former deputy chief executive of Hang Seng Bank Roger Luk Koon-ho.
Ching's friends said he was motivated by a desire to serve the mainland. His love for China dates back to the 1960s when he was studying at St Paul's College, an elite school in the Mid-Levels. Timothy Ha Wing-ho, who was the college's principal from 1968 to March this year, described Ching as a principled person with high ideals and patriotic fervour that was evident in his secondary school years.
'Ching Cheong was an outstanding student and was named the school's head prefect after he was promoted to Form Six. He had good command of both Chinese and English,' Mr Ha said. 'But he joined the Wen Wei Po in pursuit of his ideals at the expense of material returns.'
In 1972, Ching joined a group of fellow students at the University of Hong Kong on a visit to Shaoshan , Hunan, the birthplace of Mao Zedong, and Jinggangshan in Jiangxi , the first stronghold set up by the communist-led Red Army.
The delegation, which was seen as unusual and politically sensitive amid the anti-communist sentiment in Hong Kong, dominated newspaper headlines at the time.
Kwan Pan-fong, a fellow member of the delegation to the revolutionary bases in 1972, said Ching was supportive of the 'revolutionary causes' of the communist regime to the extent that he defended the infamous Great Leap Forward of 1958-61 - a bold initiative spearheaded by Mao to speed up the country's economic development - during debates with other university students on campus.
Mr Kwan, who also graduated from the University of Hong Kong in 1973, said Ching considered the national campaign an effective way for the mainland to catch up with developed countries. As many as 38 million people are believed to have died of starvation and overwork during the Great Leap Forward.
In 1981, Ching and his wife, Mary Lau Man-yee, moved to Beijing as correspondents for Wen Wei Po. Veteran China-watcher Johnny Lau Yui-shui, a close friend of Ching's and his colleague at Wen Wei Po between 1974 and 1989, remembers the couple's thrifty lifestyle in the capital. Mr Lau said their office in Beijing was a small room in a hotel.
'The equipment there was simple and crude and the lamplight was rather dim. Obviously, they lived frugally to save money for the newspaper,' Mr Lau said.
Ching, who served as chief of the pro-Beijing newspaper's Beijing bureau until 1987, covered the Sino-British talks on the future of Hong Kong between 1982 and 1984.
Allen Lee Peng-fei, a Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress, recalled the moments he met Ching at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in May 1983 when he led a 12-member 'young professionals delegation' to the capital.
The group, which included Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, now vice-chairwoman of the Liberal Party, and Martin Lee Chu-ming, who later became founding chairman of the Democratic Party, raised the bold proposal of extending British rule beyond 1997 with the central government. They were the first group in Hong Kong to raise the 'Chinese sovereignty-British administration' proposal for Hong Kong after 1997.
'I was a bit surprised to learn Ching Cheong was a graduate of the University of Hong Kong and was willing to accept the low salary offered by Wen Wei Po,' Mr Allen Lee said. 'I really respect people like Ching who sacrificed their personal gains to pursue their ideals. That's why I can hardly believe Ching served as a spy for Taiwan intelligence unit in return for money.'
The mainland blitz on the pro-democracy movement in 1989 changed the fate of Ching, who was seen as a rising star in the pro-Beijing establishment. A month after the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 1989, Ching, then the deputy chief editor of Wen Wei Po, resigned in protest, along with 39 of his colleagues.
They then founded Contemporary magazine in October 1989. But the money-losing news magazine, which was critical of the Beijing government, closed in 1995. He joined Singapore's The Straits Times as a senior correspondent specialising in mainland news.
Xinhua reported yesterday that Ching, who has been detained on the mainland since April 22 last year, received 300,000 yuan for providing 'state secrets' to an unidentified foundation in Taiwan from May 2004 to April last year.
In another report in August last year, state media said Ching was recruited in early 2000 by Taiwan's National Security Bureau and was given an alias, Chen Yuanchun. Between early 2000 and March last year, the report said, he followed the instructions of the Taiwanese intelligence agency and set up several channels for espionage in Hong Kong and on the mainland.
Mr Allen Lee's disbelief is shared by many people who have known Ching for decades.
'I absolutely don't believe that Ching would engage in spying against his country for material gain. I hope the episode simply arose from misunderstanding and I'm confident he will be released very soon,' Mr Ha said.
Ching's plight has sparked a campaign joined by people from different sides of the political spectrum. Four hundred people, including former Highways Department director Mak Chai-kwong and director of broadcasting Chu Pui-hing, signed an open letter to President Hu Jintao organised by a group of University of Hong Kong alumni in a bid to free Ching. Their signatures on an open letter appeared in several Chinese-language newspapers in June last year. The campaign was also backed by High Court Registrar Christopher Chan Cheuk, former executive councillor Rosanna Wong Yik-ming, Lingnan University president Edward Chen Kwan-yiu, DAB lawmaker Choy So-yuk and Lau Nai-keung, a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
'In our impression, Ching Cheong is an upright and sincere person leading a simple life. He has had a passion for both China and Hong Kong for many years. As a professional journalist, he has shown concern for and written many reports on the development and unification of China,' the letter read. 'We sincerely hope that in handling this case, full and impartial consideration should be given to his past record of love for and contributions to China, including Hong Kong.'
A total of 770 serving and former journalists have taken part in another signature campaign organised by the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
It is not an exaggeration to say that patriotism has been a hallmark of Ching's life, though at times it may have been naive. In a letter published in three newspapers in June last year, Ching's wife wrote that he helped Lu Jianhua, a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher, meet politicians and academics in the city to compile a report on Hong Kong's situation following the mass rallies in 2003 and 2004.
'Regarding the reunification of China, Mr Lu often asked Ching Cheong for his opinions. One of our proposals was that, if the Democratic Progressive Party continued to be the ruling party after Taiwan's presidential election, the central government should first develop friendship with the pan-blue camp in Taiwan, namely the Chinese Nationalist Party [Kuomintang] and the People First Party,' Ms Lau wrote. 'I know well that it is Ching's proposal that the mainland has adopted as the blueprint to develop its ties with Taiwan recently,' she wrote. Ms Lau suspected Ching's arrest could be related to computer records of President Hu's internal speech provided by Mr Lu.
Ching would no doubt find irony in re-reading the foreword he wrote for The Reflection on the 10-year Reform, written by mainland dissident Chen Ziming in the early 1990s, which reads: 'It is a crime to throw such a talented young intellectual into prison. It can only cause serious loss to our nation.' Chen was jailed in 1991 for 12 years for subverting the mainland authorities and instigating 'counter-revolutionary rebellion' in 1989.