China plays its press card with Hong Kong

The unpredictable nature of China's legal system was again exposed at the weekend when Peking unexpectedly paroled a Hong Kong newspaper journalist who had served three years of a 12-year sentence for "stealing state secrets".

When the harsh sentence was originally passed on Xi Yang, it was interpreted as a blunt warning to Hong Kong reporters that the territory's press freedoms did not extend to the mainland.

Saturday's release of Mr Xi was similarly seen as a political decision, this time an attempt by Peking to try to calm the mood in the colony after a week of rising anger over China's plans to scrap key parts of the Bill of Rights after 1 July.

Mr Xi, a mainlander living in Hong Kong, was arrested in October 1993 after writing an article for his newspaper, Ming Pao, about China's interest-rate policy and planned gold sales. In many countries it would have been considered a scoop, but Mr Xi was tried and sentenced in March 1994.

There was no news at the weekend on the fate of Tian Ye, a People's Bank of China official who was sentenced to 15 years for providing information to Mr Xi, but he is unlikely to have received similar leniency.

The Chinese government maintains that the judicial system is completely independent of the government, but several well-timed releases in recent years have occurred at politically advantageous moments. In 1993, just before the international vote to decide whether Peking would host the year 2000 Olympics, China's leading pro-democracy activist, Wei Jingsheng, was paroled. The following year, in the run-up to Washington's decision whether to renew China's most- favoured nation trading status, the activist Chen Ziming was let out of prison.

This time, the official Xinhua news agency said Mr Xi had been freed on probation because he "showed signs of repentance".

Having decided to release him, the Chinese authorities moved swiftly. Ming Pao's chief editor was told on Thursday that a release might come "fairly soon". On Saturday morning, Mr Xi was informed that he was being paroled, and by the evening was back in Hong Kong.

The release was welcomed in Hong Kong from both ends of the political spectrum. But its seemingly arbitrary nature is unlikely to put people's minds at rest about human-rights protections and freedom of the press after Hong Kong returns to China in five months. The Hong Kong Journalists Association called Mr Xi's parole a positive signal, but added: "We always believed Xi Yang was doing his job as a professional journalist and his imprisonment was unwarranted."

Earlier this month a Chinese court refused parole for Gao Yu, 52, a mainland journalist who in 1994 was sentenced to six years for articles she wrote for the Hong Kong media. Ms Gao is suffering from heart and ear ailments. Peking's tolerance for journalists who stray from the official line remains virtually zero. President Jiang Zemin recently described reporters as "engineers of the human soul".

In keeping with this approach, China yesterday published new directives for China's journalists on how to report news - to promote patriotism, collectivism and socialism, "uphold the truth in news", and also protect the secrets of the party and the state.

As Mr Xi discovered, those who misjudge what the government considers secret will pay a heavy price.

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