BEIJING – China formally arrested Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong on Friday on a charge of spying for rival Taiwan, the official Xinhua news agency said, the first such case since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
Ching's detention in April sparked fears that Beijing was tightening its noose over media freedom in Hong Kong.
Beijing public prosecutors approved Ching's arrest by the Chinese capital's State Security Bureau, Xinhua said, an indication that the 55-year-old China chief correspondent for Singapore's The Straits Times newspaper could be indicted soon.
The state news agency quoted unidentified sources as saying Ching confessed to spying for Taiwan during interrogation.
It said Ching received millions of Hong Kong dollars from Taiwan's intelligence apparatus and used the money to buy unspecified information on China's political, economic and military affairs between 2000 and 2005.
Ching passed on classified documents, some of them labelled “top secret” or “confidential”, to Taiwan's National Security Bureau, which gave him the alias Chen Yuan-chun, the agency said.
His spy activities were “detrimental to national security”, Xinhua said. It did not say when the trial would start.
If charged and convicted, Ching could face the death penalty. In China, detainees are almost always indicted after they are formally arrested.
“We have no more details beyond what was given in the Xinhua news agency report. We have asked for our lawyers to represent Ching Cheong during his trial,” said Irene Ngoo, spokeswoman for Singapore Press Holdings, which owns The Strait Times.
FIRST ACCUSED OF SPYING
Ching is the first Hong Kong reporter accused by Beijing of espionage since Britain handed the city back to China.
In 2004, Cai Xiaohong, former secretary-general of the liaison office of the Chinese central government in Hong Kong, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for selling state secrets to Britain. Wei Pingyuan, a British national and a Hong Kong resident, was jailed for life in the same case.
Ching's wife, Mary Lau, expressed shock and disbelief upon learning of his arrest. “But since judicial proceedings have begun, I will discuss with our family on the next course of action,” she told reporters.
She said earlier that Ching had worked with an academic at a Chinese government think-tank who is now being held on suspicion of leaking state secrets, but was adamant that her husband had done nothing wrong and that he was set up.
International journalists' groups had pressed Beijing to release Ching or at least provide evidence substantiating claims of his wrongdoing. Ching's detention has also drawn heavy criticism from the United States.
The Taiwan government had no immediate comment.
Beijing and Taipei have been spying on each other since their split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
Ching quit as Beijing bureau chief of Hong Kong's leftist Wen Wei Po newspaper in 1989 in protest against the Chinese army crushing the Tiananmen Square demonstrations for democracy. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, died.
China-born Ching, like many Hong Kong residents, holds a passport of the Special Administrative Region as well as a British National (Overseas) passport issued in the waning days of British colonial rule. He is also a Singapore permanent resident.
(Additional reporting by Fayen Wong in SINGAPORE, Tan Ee Lyn in HONG KONG and Alice Hung in TAIPEI)