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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
music
Sport
Dave Mackay lifts the FA Cup in 1967 having skippered Spurs to victory
football
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
Arts and Entertainment
As depicted in Disney's Robin Hood, King John was cowardly, cruel, avaricious and incompetent
film
Life and Style
Travis Kalanick, the co-founder of Uber, is now worth $5.3bn
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executives - B2B

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Genius Ltd continue...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executives - B2B

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Genius Ltd continue...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you have the right attitude,...

Ashdown Group: Client Services Executive - Enfield, North London

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Client Services Executive - Enfield, North London ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn