In a new interview with Radio Free Asia, Ching Cheong (程翔), chief China correspondent of the Singapore-based Straits Times, who was imprisoned for over 1,000 days on espionage charges and released earlier this year, gave his thoughts on the recent talks between Beijing and Dalai Lama envoys, Taiwan’s relations with the mainland and nationalistic fervour among Hong Kongers. On the arrest of Hong Kong student Christina Chan during the Olympic torch relay there, Ching Cheong laments that freedom of expression and the space for different opinions has “shrunk, or even disappeared” in Hong Kong after the handover.
Ching Cheong also reveals that he has gone back to work with the Straits Times, and that life for him has returned to normal, except that he will never step foot on mainland China again for reporting trips, on the advice of his family, friends and colleagues.
We repost this interview from RFA Unplugged since it is not accessible here:
Q: Mr. Ching, we learned that after you returned to Hong Kong, you are still working as a journalist for the Strait Times of Singapore. What do you feel about it?
A: I feel happy and am in high mood because I have been a journalist for my whole life. Now I’ve got the opportunity to resume my old profession, I am happy.
Q: Are you writing on China now?
A: Yes, I am writing on news related to the Greater China area.
Q: Do you also write on Tibet and Olympics?
A: Yes, I do.
Q: I think you might have a passion for Tibet, do you?
A: Yes. I first travelled to Tibet in 1983 in a group for foreign reporters in China. That was the very first foreign journalist group’s visit to Tibet organized by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The tour was short and we just visited Lhasa. Three years later, in 1986, I went back again by myself and stayed there for 40 days, touring many places. Therefore, I have a passion for Tibet and have my own view on the Tibet issue.
Q: Recently, the Dalai Lama sent two envoys to China. What are your comments on this?
A: I think that they can talk to each other is very good though the first round didn’t yield concrete results. But at least the atmosphere of the talks is friendly and both sides agreed to meet again. This is a very good start, and at least they can defuse the threats to the Olympics. The threats consist two parts. One is from terrorism, while the other is the pressure of foreign countries to boycott the Olympic Games. Above all, the talks are beneficial.
Q: It seems there is an allegation that Beijing is waiting for Dalai Lama to pass away, and then the overseas Tibet independence movement would disappear with it. What do you think?
A: China has the wrong idea if it believes that by dragging on until the demise of the Dalai Lama the Tibet independence movement will end naturally. China could then install a new ‘soul boy’ to solve the Tibet issue. I think this is wrong. If the Dalai Lama passed away while in exile, it would hurt the feelings of the Tibetan people quite seriously and the hatred would pass down generation by generation. Just like the February 28 Incident in Taiwan, which has become a cause of hatred passing on generation by generation over the past half century. Even today, the February 28 Incident is still a strong spiritual call for Taiwan independence movement. In exactly the same way, if Beijing drags on until the decease of the Dalai Lama, it would hurt the Tibetans tremendously. Therefore I hope the Chinese authorities could immediately discontinue carrying out this policy as a way to deal with the Tibet issue.
Q: You mentioned that you are also writing on Taiwan. After Ma Ying-jeou was elected Taiwan’s president, the Kuomintang will take back power. May we know you thoughts on Taiwan’s relations with mainland China in the future?
A: I think that things in Taiwan are sometimes not similar with things in other part of mainland China. Taiwan’s situation often develops in a way that surprises the mainland. For instance, mainland China was trying to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence amid the run-up to the Olympics. But the Tibet issue has caught Beijing unprepared. After Ma Ying-jeou was elected in Taiwan, relations across the Taiwan Strait have stabilized. I think it is fortunate that the situation evolved in this way, so when Beijing encountered the Tibet problem, the pressure on Beijing was not unbearable. Otherwise, if the situation in Taiwan didn’t go to the direction beneficial to both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Beijing would have had more headaches.
Q: How do you see the phenomenon that Taiwan’s young generation has less and less feeling of identity with China? Do you think this will pull both sides even further away from each other?
A: No, I don’t think so. If you just look at things geographically, even in today’s Hong Kong there are many people who know little about China. For example, a recent statistics show that about a half of Hong Kong students have never been to mainland China. There is nothing surprising about this. If you just make a judgment from a geographical perspective, you will see that many young Taiwanese don’t think of themselves as Chinese. But I don’t think that is a big deal. My point is that sort of thing is only important on crucial occasions when there is something related to national pride happening.
Q: On the topic of patriotic passions, how do you evaluate the recent mounting nationalism in China, as well as the Olympic flame relay in Hong Kong?
A: First of all, I think Hong Kong people demonstrated sincere patriotic passions during the Olympic torch relay in Hong Kong. I think it should be commended. In the meantime, we should also notice that the same Hong Kongers will be unhesitant in voicing their discontent on the streets whenever this is a problem in China. For instance, after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, a million Hong Kong people took to the streets to express their disapproval of how the Chinese central government dealt with the incident. In 2003, half a million Hong Kong people went out on the streets, rallying against the legislation of the Hong Kong Basic Law Clause 23, and expressing their anger over the limitation of various freedoms in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover.
Q: You just implied that a core value of Hong Kong is that people here can express different opinions. But during the recent Olympic torch relay, Christina Chan, a student from the University of Hong Kong, was arrested by police after unfurling a Tibetan flag.
A: I think this is really unfortunate. Hong Kong made a continual contribution to progress in China for more than a century, even promoting some positive changes in China. This can be ascribed to the freedom of expression in Hong Kong. However, after the handover, the space for different opinions has shrunk, or even disappeared. This is a potential threat to the traditional virtues of Hong Kong.
Q: My last question is about you. Does your current status bother you in any way on working or living?
A: Following advice from my family members, colleagues and friends, I am currently not returning to mainland China to do reporting trips. Other than that, my life is exactly the same as before.
Xin Yu: Ching Cheong again thanked people from all walks of life in Hong Kong for their support. He said he would continue to do the job he likes so much. Finally, Ching emphasized that his lifetime wish is to see China progress.
Straits Times: Drawing inspiration from Ching Cheong
Previously on Shanghaiist
Detained Straits Times journalist Ching Cheong ailing in prison
1000th day of Ching Cheong’s imprisonment
Released: Ching Cheong, journalist
Ching Cheong makes first comments after release
Video of Ching Cheong’s press briefing on 20 Feb shortly after his release