Verdict outrageous

SENTENCING a Hong Kong reporter to 12 years in prison for breaking some exclusive business stories is shocking and disturbing. But it is hardly surprising because Beijing apparently wants to use the case to dispel any illusions that China will relax its tight control on information and the press any time soon.

The Beijing Intermediate Court said yesterday that Xi Yang, a China-born reporter for Ming Pao, and Tian Ye, a clerk at the People's Bank of China, had both been found guilty last week. Mr Xi was sentenced to 12 years in prison and an additional two years deprivation of political rights for ''stealing state secrets''. Mr Tian was jailed for 15 years and had his political rights removed for a further three years for helping foreigners steal, and for illegally providing information about, state secrets.

Mr Xi will appeal against sentence but Mr Tian will not.

Mr Xi was arrested in September and charged 10 days later for ''stealing state financial secrets''. He reportedly wrote several stories last summer on China's interest rate policies and other financial strategies. He has been treated badly ever since, allowed to see no one except a brief meeting with his father. During the secret trial, he was not represented by a lawyer.

All he did was what a good journalist would have done: going after good stories. Beijing never accuses Mr Xi of bribery or corruption. It is true that China has different sets of regulations that foreign journalists must abide. No one would object to that. Mr Xi might have inadvertently trespassed certain grounds in obtaining information for his stories. But putting him behind bars for 12 of the best years in his life is an overkill.

Had Mr Xi spied for some foreign governments, the stiff punishment might have been justified. But Mr Xi did not. The chief procurator of Beijing's Municipal People's Procuratorate, He Fangba, had told Xu Simin, a Hong Kong delegate of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, that Mr Xi was not connected to any sort of espionage activities and his case was purely a journalistic issue.

Beijing might have achieved its objective in sending a clear signal to Hong Kong and foreign journalists that they had better think twice in reporting sensitive issues in the mainland. Anything they report that has not been released by the official Xinhua news agency could put them at risk. The warning, however, carries a heavy price tag. Hong Kong people will be less assured of a more open and tolerable Chinese Government. They cannot help but wonder what kind of press freedom Hong Kong will have after it reverts to China in 1997. This will undermine Beijing's efforts in building confidence in the territory.

Mr Xi will appeal his verdict. Let us hope that Beijing will be more lenient to the promising 38-year-old reporter who was just doing his job.