BEIJING – A Hong Kong reporter for a Singapore newspaper was sentenced Thursday by a Chinese court to five years in prison on charges of spying for rival Taiwan, a high-profile verdict in a government crackdown that has seen dozens of journalists jailed.
The conviction of Ching Cheong came a week after a Chinese researcher for The New York Times was acquitted of espionage charges but jailed for three years on a fraud claim.
Ching, a Hong Kong-based correspondent for The Straits Times, was detained in April 2005 during a visit to the mainland and for months the government released little information about his situation, prompting an outcry by Hong Kong journalists and press freedom groups.
In one of the first official explanations of the government's case, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said that Ching was convicted for selling unspecified "state secrets and intelligence" to a Taiwanese foundation that was really a spy agency. Xinhua said Ching contacted the foundation, which it didn't name, while working as a reporter in Taiwan.
The company that publishes The Straits Times expressed concern at Ching's sentence and defended his behavior as a journalist.
"We wish to reiterate that since his recruitment in 1996, he has served us with distinction and has never given us cause to question his integrity and professionalism," Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. said in a statement. It called for "leniency and compassion," saying he was in poor health and suffers from high blood pressure.
President Hu Jintao's government has engaged in a sustained effort to tighten control over media and information, seeing a more aggressive, freewheeling press as a threat to its authority. Dozens of Chinese journalists and Internet essayists have been jailed, often on charges of violating vague secrecy or security laws.
Allegations of spying for Taiwan, a democratically ruled island which split from the mainland in 1949 amid civil war, are common. Both sides maintain robust espionage operations against the other.
Though China's maximum penalty for espionage is death, Xinhua said the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court gave Ching a lighter sentence because he confessed.
Ching stood trial Aug. 15 in a one-day proceeding, according to his lawyers.
Ching was detained during a visit to the southern mainland city of Guangzhou, near Hong Kong.
His wife, Mary Lau, has said Ching was set up by an unnamed intermediary who claimed he could help get tapes of interviews with the late leader Zhao Ziyang, who was deposed after the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests and held under house arrest until his death last year.
Lau said Ching may have been targeted because of his ties to a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, who had access to confidential discussions between China's leaders.
In an open letter to Hu that was published in Hong Kong newspapers in June, Lau wrote that the researcher, Lu Jianhua, "frequently shared with Ching Cheong classified comments made by leaders, including yours and those of other leaders."
The letter said Lu shared the information in hopes that Ching would be able to help him conduct interviews and prepare briefings for the Chinese leadership about Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Lu Jianhua stood trial on Aug. 17 in a closed proceeding that lasted less than two hours, according to Frank Lu, a Hong Kong-based activist who runs a small news agency.
It was not clear what charges Lu Jianhua faced.
In the Times case, researcher Zhao Yan was accused of "leaking state secrets to foreigners." The government didn't release details of the case, but it was believed to stem from a 2004 report by the newspaper that former leader Jiang Zemin was preparing to step down from his last major post.
Zhao was acquitted of the secrets charge because the court ruled that prosecutors failed to prove their case, according to Xinhua. He was jailed on unrelated fraud allegations in what his supporters was an attempt to save face for authorities.
China has made similar claims in the past that Taiwanese foundations serve as fronts for spying.
Li Shaoming, a Chinese-American academic who was among several people convicted in 2001 of spying for Taiwan, said the only evidence presented at his trial was a letter from China's main security agency saying that a Taiwanese foundation to which he had applied for a grant was really an espionage organization.
That foundation, the Taiwan Three-Principle Reunification Alliance, denied spying on the mainland.