The house arrest of veteran journalist Ching Cheong and detention of two mainland academics have had a chilling effect on mainland journalists and intellectuals, while seriously denting China's international image. The exact circumstances surrounding Ching's house arrest remain unclear, and state security officials and the state-controlled media have remained reticent. Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan made the only official acknowledgement when he said Ching had been held for spying for overseas intelligence agencies. The allegation was vehemently denied by Ching's wife, Mary Lau Man-yee. In what could be an indication of its serious nature, Ching's case is apparently being handled by a special group headed by Luo Gan , Beijing's top official in charge of law enforcement and a member of the Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee. For Chinese and foreign journalists working on the mainland, Ching's house arrest is a chilling reminder of the political minefield they have to navigate each day, between doing their job and avoiding being accused of stealing state secrets. Ethnic Chinese journalists are particularly vulnerable, whether they hold foreign passports or not. While Caucasians are most likely to be expelled from the mainland if they are accused of violating laws on state secrets, Chinese journalists have a much higher likelihood of being jailed. Although President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have vowed to improve government transparency, little progress has been made to modify regulations governing state secrets. As the definition of 'state secrets' is so loose, anything that is not reported by the official media can be defined as such. Mainland intellectuals and the western media once held hopes for increased political liberalisation under President Hu, but they are likely to remain disappointed for some time. The western media has started portraying Mr Hu as a hardliner who uses crackdowns on dissent to consolidate his grip on power. Some argue he is even more conservative politically than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin . Hopes were raised when Mr Hu came to power in 2002, promising to pursue a policy of putting the people first and creating a more equitable and harmonious society. However, his popular policies - including giving the official media more leeway to expose low-level corruption - are merely aimed at bolstering support for the Communist Party and ensuring that its monopoly remains challenged. Zhen Xiaoying, vice-president of the Central School of Socialism and an influential party scholar, highlighted this recently when she urged the mainland leadership to keep up its guard against what she saw as 'the colour revolution'. In remarks that most likely reflect official thinking, Ms Zhen warned that western countries were stepping up efforts to groom opposition parties and force a multi-party political system on China. However, it is important to note that it would be politically suicidal for any new Chinese leader to be seen as being soft on dissent and praised as liberal-minded by the western media while they are trying to consolidate their power.