''Unrepentant” was a word that became prominent in China during the Cultural Revolution, when Deng Xiaoping’s adversaries labelled him an “unrepentant capitalist-roader”. But the late paramount leader spent no time in jail or in chains. Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong has perhaps more of a claim to the word; having spent almost three years in jail on an espionage charge he denies, he declares he remains unrepentant for loving his country.

The title of his account of the ordeal, published last year, is, in direct translation: “My 1,000 Unrepentant Days”. Speaking on the eve of the launch of the English edition, published by Straits Times Press and titled My 1,000 Days Ordeal: A Patriot's Torture, Ching looks positively upbeat.

“I have no regrets whatsoever. In fact, my 1,000 days in prison are an empowerment. They allowed me to reflect deeply on why China can survive a long history of ‘unjust, false and wrong cases’, as the saying goes, and how to put a stop to it,” says the reporter for Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper.

His conviction was reflected in the first prayer he said after his conversion to Christianity in jail: “God, please give me strength, so that I can walk firmly on my path of patriotism, and strive for China’s reform and opening up, democracy and freedom, and peaceful unification.”

The veteran journalist spent 1,020 days, to be exact, in custody and prison on a contentious charge.

“Is anyone bringing dad here?” he asked at the family reunion, shortly after he was released and returned to Hong Kong, on the eve of the Lunar New Year, 2008. When he was told his father had died in 2006 – and that the news had been kept from him for his own sake – he fell to his knees wailing, “Father, I am very sorry; I have not been a good son, please forgive me.”

Five years on and the 63-year old has put his suffering in perspective: “What happened to me is very minor when compared with those who lost their lives and whose families were shattered in the past 60 years for writing or saying something disliked by the regime. It’s almost nothing when you put that in the context of the long Chinese history.”

Some of those who share Ching’s disillusionment are not so forgiving.

“The Chinese government violated his rights, put him behind bars, shamed him with unfounded accusations, ruined his reputation, alienated him and condemned him, yet Ching forgave China but not its government. I can’t do that. I am a lesser man,” Frankie Fook-lun Leung, an adjunct law professor at Stanford University, in the United States, writes in the preface to his book.

Ching was offered an olive branch in 2010, shortly after his parole had expired, when he received an invitation to a National Day reception in Hong Kong, where he shook hands with mainland officials. But the seeming act of reconciliation did not dampen his journalistic instincts, and there has been no followup invitation since Ching resumed writing and told his tale.

“I wrote my prison story not to vent my anger on anyone or anything, but to document my tribulations for the record. My objective is to promote China’s progress through my first-hand experience as a Hongkonger going through the arrest, the judicial procedure and the resulting imprisonment,” he says.

Singapore Press Holdings (of which Straits Times Press is a subsidiary) senior executive vice-president Leslie Fong, who was The Straits Times' chief editor and Ching’s immediate supervisor when he was arrested, says of the decision to publish the book: “Our stand on Ching Cheong is clear: we do not admit or accept the espionage charge levelled at him. If someone wants to quarrel with us over that stand, as I stated in the foreword, let’s quarrel.

“Our press has a history of over 160 years, and has published books by our own journalists before. But how many of them have been under arrest? Ching Cheong’s account is the only one, and thus a useful case study for journalists,” he says.

On April 22, 2005, Shenzhen border control officers stopped Ching, who was on his way back to Hong Kong after meeting a source who claimed to have a manuscript that had belonged to the late Zhao Ziyang, the party chief sacked for siding with students in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. For six days, Ching was locked up, interrogated under a spotlight, sometimes for 24 hours non-stop, and told things such as, “You will never leave here unless you confess.”

Then he was put on a train bound for Beijing. On arrival he was blindfolded and taken to an unknown location. He was put in a cell, where he would spend the next 105 days in solitary confinement.

“It was completely dark and I couldn’t tell day from night. My system became disoriented, resulting in severe sleeplessness, then constipation, which at one time lasted 10 days, and an irregular heartbeat, for which I am still on medication. Long periods of solitude drove me to the brink of insanity and even suicide. More than once I screamed, ‘Bring me to trial, right now!’” he says, slightly agitated.

Ching’s fate was unknown to outsiders at this time; not even his wife, former journalist Mary Lau Mun-yee, knew what had happened to him. Alone in the couple’s Kam Tin home, she, too, was suffering in solitude. It was the first time they had been separated for any length of time since they married, 22 years previously.

“I was like in a trance, very unreal,” she recalls. The first month, she says, was the toughest, “when thousands of passing doubts stormed my mind: ‘What if he’s gone forever?’; ‘Why me?’. But my Buddhist beliefs quickly set me straight.

“After some 5,000 rounds of chanting the Great Compassion Mantra, my mind was settled.”

Myriad rumours about what had befallen her husband made the wait all the more excruciating.

“Someone said I would need to pay HK$1 million or HK$2 million for his release, others advised that I should lay low for the benefit of Ching.

Our good friend Paul Yip Kwok-wah [adviser to first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa] spoke on our behalf to then central government liaison office director Gao Siren, who made a phone call and was told Ching had already been released.

“As we learned later, that was not true,” she says.

Out of desperation, Lau went to a fortune-teller and inquired into the whereabouts of a “friend’s boyfriend who had disappeared in the mainland”.

The subterfuge was necessary because news of Ching’s detention had not yet been made public.

“The answer was: ‘He will never return.’ I was so shocked that I told the truth. Then the master re-read the verdict, and resolved that the reading was good only for one year,” she laughs.

But she wasn’t laughing when it was reported that Ching had been betrayed by “his mistress in Shenzhen”. The woman, identified as Huang Wei, turned out to be none other than the source Ching had gone to meet. “When I saw that was the cover story in Eastweek magazine, the first thing that came to mind was Liu Shaoqi, the state president who was tortured to death during the Cultural Revolution. Liu was once vilified as a traitor but now he has a better name than Mao Zedong.

So I was at ease,” says Lau, adding that the story was carried by most local print media, with the exception of the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong Economic Journal and Apple Daily.

“Anyone with common sense can see the absurdity of the story,” she quips. “Meeting the mistress at a cha chaan teng for half an hour? How unromantic!” While the mistress story was circulating in Hong Kong, in August 2005 Ching became prisoner No 5022 at a detention centre in southern Beijing. When he arrived, he was stripped of everything, including his glasses and artificial teeth. The only thing he pleaded with his jailers to keep was his wedding ring.

“I begged the wardens to make an exception in the modest hope that I could feel Mary in the cell,” he recalls. “But they refused and forced it off by rubbing soap on it. I felt my heart pierced when the ring came off for the first time since Mary had put it on, at our wedding.

“But it was the slamming of the big iron prison door that broke my heart. There I was in the cell, handcuffed, feeling shamed and lost. My fate was sealed. I was a criminal, having been betrayed by the very beliefs I held dearly in life, namely patriotism, honesty and principle.

“I began to loathe myself,” he says.

As the initial shock wore off, Ching composed himself. He began to reflect on the country’s history of literary inquisition. He went all the way back to the emperor who built the Great Wall.

“Ever since the first emperor, Qin, burned books and buried scholars alive in the second century BC, Chinese intellectuals have been subjected to terror and bullying by repressive authorities. I am particularly intrigued by those who could have left but decided to stay in the People’s Republic some 60 years ago. They knew about the infamous purges in the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities during the rectification campaign in Yanan, Shaanxi province, in 1942. Literary giant Shen Congwen, for example, declared that the 1949 communist victory marked the change from an era of thinking to an era of belief.

But he, too, stayed, and suffered,” says Ching.

The silence of intellectuals, he adds, exacted a huge price from the nation as massive political campaigns occurred one after the other, starting with the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in 1957, followed by the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent disastrous famine, then the decadelong Cultural Revolution. Thirty years of reform and opening up have brought about spectacular economic success and a gross domestic product second only to that of the US, but the long tradition of literary persecution remains almost intact.

The best recent example is the long prison term handed to 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.

“Liu got 11 years [4,018 days] for the Charter 08 manifesto he drafted to call for improvement in human rights in China. Someone did a word count on the manifesto; it was 4,027. [That means he was sentenced to a] day in prison for each word,” says Ching.

“Each official policy [implemented] since 1949 would have toppled any regime in any other country. But not in China. There, the very regime that has inflicted disasters has survived and thrived.

Why?” Reflection brought questions for the imprisoned journalist: “Why have the Chinese tolerated bullying from above for 2,000 years?”; “Why do Chinese intellectuals give in so easily?”; “Is it the rulers being cruel, or is it that the people are incapable of defiance?”; “Is fear hereditary in the Chinese?”; “Is the life of one Chinese cheaper because there are so many of them?” “Throughout Chinese history many have suffered from ‘unjust, false and wrong cases’. I wonder why the victims have always chosen to keep their suffering to themselves, perhaps lamenting a little in memoirs at most. No one has really used their case to bring into the open how such gross but obvious injustice can come about, in order to eradicate the very soil that breeds it,” he says.

His own account has had its detractors, some of whom say it was not worth publishing because it is too “average”.

“I am not saying one individual can achieve anything substantial,” he says. “But if many individuals pulled together, that could garner power strong enough to change the system. That way, our suffering would not be in vain.

“So let it start with me.”

Ever the journalist, Ching’s book details his arrest, interrogation, detention and release, and includes reflection and analysis. Of particular interest is how his confession was obtained, the mental cruelty of the process shining a light on the tradition of unjust punishment.

But Ching’s story goes far beyond his recent misfortune. His is a case of a Hongkonger who gave up a promising career for the love of his country. Growing up in the turbulent 1960s, he was anti-colonial, for sure, but patriotic “with a question mark”.

“I saw with my own eyes bodies floating in Hong Kong waters that had drifted here from China, feet strapped and hands tied at the back, meaning they had been thrown into the water alive,” says Ching, referring to the corpses that floated down the Pearl River during the Cultural Revolution.

Corpses could be seen off the Western waterfront as Ching trudged up the hill to St Paul’s College. A prefect at the school, he embraced Chinese culture after reading the classics as a Form Two student.

“It was a key to unlock all the literary classics, from Confucius to Liang Qichao, a 20th-century great.”

To reconcile the sight of corpses with the nation’s great literary past, the young Ching developed a dual perspective on his motherland: a cultural China that he loved and a political China he hoped to improve.

The dichotomy solidified one summer, when he read Liang’s voluminous works. From Liang he learned that one can love one’s country without loving the regime that runs it, and one can demonstrate love of country by trying to set the regime on the right course.

“I joined [the newspaper] Wen Wei Po in 1974 because I wanted to get to know China better,” Ching says. “It was the year of the seventh Asian Games and China was taking part for the first time since the Cultural Revolution. But translation of the wire service reports was too much for the [translation] team, which had [been marginalised] in line with the paper’s anti-British stance since the 1967 riots. As a University of Hong Kong graduate, I offered my services. I ended up handling a workload equivalent to seven staff. But the salary was much lower than my previous teaching job.” It was a brave move for an HKU graduate, considered a contender for a career in government or as a professional, to join the main leftist paper in Hong Kong.

“My decision was genuine; that I put the interests of my country ahead of my own. I am and will always be proud of that.”

Eager to see the paper develop, Ching soon won a reputation for being confrontational with his editors. Before long he had a supporter, fellow HKU alumnus Mary, who had joined the paper in 1976.

“People often describe China in the early 1980s as having had a renaissance comparable with that of Europe after the Dark Ages,” says Ching.

“I was stationed in Beijing at the time and attended a lot of discussions and salons among intellectuals. There was certainly a progressive atmosphere. But it didn’t last.

“It was far from a renaissance.”

Groomed to be the paper’s first Beijing bureau chief, Ching tried to make the staunchly leftist mouthpiece reader friendly. He went out on a limb by publishing draft government reports ahead of their official release, a practice that has since become the norm.

In 1988, Ching was promoted to the position of deputy chief editor, the youngest person to have taken up that role – and a non party member, to boot. But he was not there for long.

The day martial law was declared in Beijing, in 1989, Ching and the editorial team did something unprecedented at the paper. Instead of an editorial, they printed just four large characters, reading “bitterness and resentment”. The May 21 editorial made history but it also marked the end of Ching’s 15-year career at the paper – and that of his wife.

In 1996, at Fong’s invitation, Ching joined The Straits Times, as chief China reporter. From 1998 to 2000, he was stationed in Taipei, where he made contact with a number of think-tanks specialising in cross-straits relations. One of them, the China Eurasia Foundation, was a front for Taiwanese intelligence agencies, mainland prosecutors would later claim. Although the foundation denied the allegation, Ching was sentenced as charged.

In practical terms, then, what protection was he afforded through the policy of “one country, two systems”?

“The biggest protection came from the Hong Kong people, who came out into the open, to my rescue. To go a little deeper, it is the environment they live in that prompted them to do so. Any infringement on the bottom line of the norm gets them to react, like in the case of Hunan rights activist Li Wangyang, who was not even a Hongkonger. [Li was found dead in a hospital ward four days after a defiant television interview he gave was broadcast. He had lost most of his sight and hearing during 21 years in detention, for having supported the 1989 pro-democracy movement.] “That’s what I call Hong Kong’s core value; that which we should all defend,” says Ching.

His wife looks at the protection issue from a different angle.

“I am relieved there is no Article 23 [anti-subversion law], with which the government would have stormed into my flat, taking anything they wanted, and arresting me,” Lau says.

The book quotes a warden as saying to Ching during his detention in Shenzhen: “Even if you were in Hong Kong, we would have been able to bring you over.”

“It’s not a bluff; that could happen,” he says, adding that the warden was elbowed by his colleague as a signal to say nothing further on the subject.

Ching worries about Hong Kong’s core values in the face of “the most organised regime in human history. Any individual challenge to it is like an egg against a rock.”

He warns that Hongkongers should not take for granted that which they enjoy every day – from freedom of speech to sunlight.

“Democracy and freedom are intangible, but the suffering is tangible once you lose them. Trust me, I know.”