Reporter freed to counter negative publicity on rights


BEIJING's unexpected release at the weekend of a Hong Kong journalist is being interpreted by western diplomats as a step to counter negative world publicity over plans to reduce civil liberties in Hong Kong, rather than a sign that China is wavering in its tough stance against dissent and an open press.

Xi Yang was imprisoned in March 1994 for a story about China's financial policies. He was released on parole on Saturday after a three year campaign by his Hong Kong newspaper, Ming Pao. He was sentenced to 12 years on charges of stealing state secrets.

Xi was set free because he showed signs of repentance for his article in Ming Pao which revealed details of Beijing's interest rate policy and its gold reserves, the official Xinhua news agency said.

A People's Bank of China official, Mr Tian Ye, was jailed for 15 years for leaking the information. There was no announcement about his fate.

The vice chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, Mr Yeung Sam, said the hand over factor was the most logical reason behind China's decision to release Yang.

It comes after bad publicity for China over plans to scrap several items of civil liberties legislation in Hong Kong after Britain returns sovereignty of the territory at midnight on June 30th.

Pro democracy activists wearing tall caps similar to those worn by victims of China's cultural revolution protested at the weekend outside the office of chief executive designate, Mr Tung Chee wha, over the plans, announced by a pro Beijing preparatory committee.

Mr Tung welcomed Xi's release in a statement, saying it was good that he could be reunited with his family ahead of the Chinese new year next month.

His office dismissed speculation in Hong Kong that he was behind the release.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said yesterday: "At the eve of the hand over of Hong Kong sovereignty, we appreciate that the Beijing authority has sent a positive signal to Hong Kong. We always believed Xi Yang was doing his job as a professional journalist and his imprisonment was unwarranted."

A commentator in the English language South China Morning Post said senior Beijing leaders may have wanted to create a more relaxed atmosphere in the 157 days to the change by allowing Xi to return home but they would have to do far more to dispel fears that civil liberties were about to be curtailed.

Western diplomats in Beijing said they felt the release of Xi Yang was an easy way to make a gesture to Hong Kong in the light of increasing concerns there about the curtailment of rights after Britain leaves.

Beijing prison authorities notified Xi Yang at 8 a.m. on Saturdays that he was being released on parole. Some 12 hours later, he arrived in Hong Kong on a flight from the Chinese capital.

At an emotional press conference, Xi said he hoped his release would create an auspicious atmosphere for the hand over.

In a statement, his father, Mr Xi Linsheng, said: "Our whole family is grateful for the lenient policy of the Chinese government."

Though he comes from mainland China, Xi would not be allowed to cover news there for his paper, the chief editor of Ming Pao, Cheung Kin bor, said.

The Governor of Hong Kong, Mr Chris Patten, said: "His release is very good news as we approach the lunar new year."

China has in the past released dissidents at strategic moments. It set free pro democracy activist Wei Jingsheng in 1993 when it was seeking the 2000 Olympic Games - which went to Australia - and paroled dissident Chen Ziming a year later in a successful attempt to persuade Washington not to revoke its "most favoured nation" trading status on grounds of human rights violations. Wei has since been imprisoned again.