As a Hong Kong native and chief China correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times, Ching Cheong (程翔) was taken into custody by Chinese authorities in Shenzhen on April 21, 2005. Ching stayed in custody for nearly three years before the Chinese government responded to Hong Kong and international pressure and released him on parole.
Ching Cheong at his Hong Kong book launch in February 2012.
In his recent book My 1000-Day Ordeal (千日无悔), Ching chronicles the time he spent in custody. Earlier this year, he spoke to Dui Hua about his experience and, more generally, the treatment of Chinese prisoners. We previously wrote about the 105 days Ching spent under residential surveillance, which he described as “solitary confinement” and “psychological torture.” Guards were forbidden from talking to Ching or telling him their names, but one man, though terse, broke the rule. “I was so sad when he left,” Ching said, “I kneeled in front of him in gratitude.”
Ching himself left residential surveillance for Beijing’s Dahongmen detention center on August 5, 2005. Dahongmen holds people suspected of involvement in state security cases and senior officials involved in non-political crimes. According to Ching, treatment was better at the detention center than it was under residential surveillance. Ching was able to request and receive a Bible, on the condition that he did not proselytize or share it with others, and was also allowed three family visits of two relatives each. While grateful for the visits, Ching saw his visitation privileges as discriminatory, saying they were not granted to detainees who were mainland Chinese. He also stated that, although accustomed to speaking to his family in Cantonese, guards required that they use Mandarin during the visit.
Ching stayed in a detention cell with five or six others including Xu Jianyi (徐建一). Xu was sent to Geneva, Switzerland, to study western human rights theory and help compile China’s first human rights white paper, which was released in 1991. Xu refuted western criticism of China’s human rights situation, but according to Ching Cheong, Xu was also as a Maoist who supported underground publications that criticized Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping.
When Ching met him, Xu had been in detention for six years. Ching called this “absolutely lawless.” Under Chinese law, the whole procedure from detention to sentencing should not take more than 11 months. Detained in 1999, Xu was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment on December 13, 2003. Charged with “embezzlement,” he was reportedly released in 2006, presumably with time spent in detention counting against his sentence.
Ching was indicted and allowed to hire a lawyer after spending about six months in detention. Beijing lawyers were pressured not to take his case, so he hired two lawyers in Guangzhou. Ching was allowed to meet with them for a total of 10 hours for both the original and appellate trial. They advised him that his actions did not constitute espionage, which was the charge against him, since he lacked subjective intent and did not see or possess any documents marked “confidential” or “secret.” During the trial, the defense was interrupted so frequently that Ching was left to defend himself. On August 31, 2006, after a two-week trial, Ching was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and one year of deprivation of political rights (DPR).
Ching Cheong was moved to Beijing’s Tianhe Prison on December 26, 2006. Tianhe holds non-Beijing residents who are convicted in Beijing until they can be sent back to their place of residence to complete their sentences. Ching stayed in Tianhe for one month before being transferred to Guangzhou Prison. As a temporary location, Tianhe requires prisoners to perform less penal labor and as a result provides less food. Yet, according to Ching, neither Tianhe nor Guangzhou prison provided enough food to meet China’s minimum legal standards. Ching went to prison weighing 178 pounds and came out weighing 128.
Ching credited the prisons for decent sanitation—hot water was available twice a day and showers were allowed once a week—and said he did not witness any physical torture or overcrowding. He did say, however, that prisoners were treated like “talking dogs.” In both Tianhe and Guangzhou, prisoners were required to squat down when reporting to prison guards and to squat and bow their heads when prison guards addressed them. Guards also administered regular “security checks” involving oral and anal searches.
In a number of prisons, political prisoners are held in separate cell blocks. Guangzhou Prison is not one of them. Instead, as a political prisoner, Ching was constantly accompanied by a “mutual surveillance group” (互监组) that limited his interaction with other prisoners. That said, political prisoners are not the only prisoners organized into these groups. Composed of three to five prisoners, mutual surveillance groups are used to prevent rule breaking and escapes by making each member of the group responsible for the actions of all.
Chinese law requires prisoners to admit their guilt in order to obtain clemency. This is reflected by the inclusion of a question on prison admittance forms and sentence reduction applications: “Do you admit the crime?” However, some people, including Ching Cheong, have chosen not to provide a “yes” or “no” answer. When Ching was admitted to Guangzhou Prison, he responded by writing, “I accept the verdict and maintain my right of appeal.”
Although Ching eventually obtained clemency, he does not necessarily see the “acceptance of a verdict” as an alternative to admitting of guilt. Due to pressure from Hong Kong and the international community, “even if I didn’t confess, or acknowledge the court verdict, they would have [had] to release me anyway once the half-way mark [on my sentence] [had] passed, and for political considerations.” Under Chinese law, a prisoner becomes eligible for parole once half of his or her sentence has been served.
A banner sponsored by the Hong Kong Journalists Association calls for Ching’s release from prison in 2007.
Ching believes that he was treated better than other prisoners because of his supporters. He was allowed to move back to Hong Kong after being released on parole (which requires checking in with local police) and to give interviews to the press (which is prohibited during DPR) “solely because of international support.” The supporters who effectively helped nullify parole and DPR restrictions included Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, then US President George W. Bush, and other government officials and NGO activists including those from Hong Kong Journalists Association, Reporters Without Borders, and Dui Hua.
That international attention expedited Ching’s release is evidenced by the fact that Lu Jianhua (陆建华), a man accused of providing information to Ching but not the subject of public outcry, remains in prison serving a 20-year sentence. Lu was also given six years of DPR—one year in excess of the legal limit—to serve after his release. Once a prominent sociologist, Lu is not scheduled for release until May 26, 2025.
Continuing the Struggle
Ching Cheong was released from prison in February 2008 after completing about half of his sentence. From his home in Hong Kong, he continues to write and has witnessed some welcome changes to China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL). Passed on March 14, 2012, the amended CPL includes provisions to notify family members within 24 hours of the imposition of residential surveillance—Ching’s wife waited 30 days—and to count time served under residential surveillance against sentences of imprisonment. Once effective on January 1, 2013, people subjected to residential surveillance will receive a one-day credit against their prison sentence for every two days in residential surveillance. Under the existing CPL, such credit has been withheld from prisoners like Ching, Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), and Lv Jiaping (吕加平). Lv is 71 years old and only one year into a 10-year sentence for publishing articles critical of the Chinese government. He suffers from heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments but has yet to receive medical parole.
Ching is now working towards abolishing solitary confinement, which he claims Chinese authorities use to extort confessions during residential surveillance. He described the isolation of residential surveillance—a measure that is not always carried out in one’s home—as “psychological torture.” Perhaps with this in mind he said that although the amended CPL now includes a “presumption of innocence,” it is of little use without guarantying a defendant’s right to silence.