Falling Short: The Spy Trap

The Spy Trap

Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times, was arrested in Guangzhou in April 2005 while trying to obtain transcripts of interviews with the late Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted in 1989 for expressing sympathy with Tiananmen demonstrators. Ching was later sentenced to five years in prison for espionage, a charge he and his supporters deny. His family says he suffers from heart problems and abdominal pain. CPJ interviewed his wife, Mary Lau, about the case.

How did you learn about Cheong’s arrest?

From the peculiar tone of his voice. In the beginning I didn’t know that he had been arrested. At 1:30 a.m. on April 23 [2005], he gave me a ring and said he was sorry he wouldn’t be back and that he was staying in Guangzhou. I was just thinking that he had changed his plans. He was supposed to be reporting in Beijing for all of April and May. I think his employer had a suspicion earlier than me because my husband told him he was sick. I joked that he just had jet lag.

On the 27th, he gave me a ring and said, “Don’t tell other people my situation. After I settle the problem, I will be back.” So I said, “You are arrested.” He repeated, “Don’t tell other people my situation. After I settle the problem, I will be back.”

So I said again, “You are arrested.” He kept silent, so I knew he was in trouble.

What do you think your husband’s imprisonment had to do with his efforts to obtain the Zhao transcript?

It was a trap. He knew there was a manuscript and he was trying to make arrangements to get it. I think the state security people lured him there.

Why do you think they targeted him?

For writing articles that offended authorities. Later, friends told me he had been writing an analysis about a secret pact ceding to Russia land that had been under dispute since the Qing Dynasty. My husband felt very indignant about that pact because it was done without the knowledge of the Chinese people, and they gave up such vast territory to the Russians.

Soon after Cheong’s detention became public, authorities in China said he had confessed to espionage. How do you explain this?

He confessed that he wrote articles for a Taiwan think tank. He kept very detailed records of the titles of articles and the dates. It has nothing to do with classified information—there was no classified information.

How has public attention affected his case? 

The authorities are more cautious in dealing with the case now. I think they felt they needed to charge him, however, to show the righteousness of their actions.

Can you describe your recent visit with your husband?

Smooth and brief. He was very thin, with very deep wrinkles in his forehead. Our family has applied for his early release via medical parole. We are still awaiting a reply from the authorities.

What more can the international media and organizations like CPJ do to speed Cheong’s release from prison?

Continue to raise the issue to the Chinese authorities, to remind them from time to time, and to ask for his early release.