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 Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
Ching’s April detention sparked fears Beijing was tightening its noose over media freedom in the former British colony.
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 the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times 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 labeled “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,” said Irene Ngoo, spokeswoman for Singapore Press Holdings, which owns The Strait Times. “We have asked for our lawyers to represent Ching Cheong during his trial.”
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.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association said in a statement: “We urge the Chinese authorities to deal with Ching Cheong’s case in a manner that is open, fair and consistent with the rule of law.”
The association also demanded that China respect Ching’s civil rights and allow him to have access to his relatives, legal representation and help from the Hong Kong government.
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 at her husband’s 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 of his supposed wrongdoing. The United States has also criticized his detention.
Beijing and Taipei have been spying on each other since their split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
The Taiwan government had no immediate comment.