Sunday, August 27, 2006

Of Shame and Fame

A New York Times editorial, published August 27, 2006

Someone in China’s autocracy may have a sense of shame -- or vulnerability. But only up to a point. Last week a Chinese court dismissed a specious state secrets charge against a New York Times researcher and journalist, Zhao Yan. Unfortunately, the court then sentenced him to three years in prison on a lesser but still specious charge of fraud.

Beijing’s political leadership has been rightly criticized, including by the White House, for its unfair treatment of Mr. Zhao, whose prosecution was seen as a warning to anyone who dared report the truth in China. The court’s decision to drop the more serious charge of disclosing state secrets, which could have brought Mr. Zhao a sentence of 10 years or more, is most likely a reaction to those criticisms.

But dictators always need to save face. Ergo the lesser conviction for fraud. Mr. Zhao — who has already been held for two years — could be released by September 2007. That is still unacceptable. And China needs to be told that it is not off the hook.

Mr. Zhao was arrested after this newspaper correctly reported that former President Jiang Zemin was ready to give up his final post as military chief. The article infuriated China’s political leadership, and Mr. Zhao was arrested, despite The Times’s insistence that he never provided any state secrets to the paper. The fraud charge was tacked on later. Mr. Zhao was not allowed to call any defense witnesses at his trial.

China should be ashamed of this abuse of its legal system and of the mistreatment of Mr. Zhao. There is no face to be saved so long as his conviction stands.