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China's Chill on Foreign Media

Being a foreign correspondent in China can be all cloak and no dagger. The game's a bit unfair, however, when the Communist Party plays with daggers.

A foreign reporter working for Singapore's Straits Times, Ching Cheong, was recently detained and accused of espionage. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. Given his friendliness toward China in the past, and the fact that he was arrested while trying to obtain a controversial memoir of a former party chief, this action smells like a new campaign to put a chill on the foreign press in China.

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Indeed, the short reign of new party chief Hu Jintao has witnessed tougher crackdowns on academics and Internet users, and lately, bloggers. Even foreign cartoons may be banned from primetime TV. Domestic journalists, too, get nailed - at least 30 remain in jail. In a similar case to Mr. Ching's, a New York Times researcher has been held since September under suspicion of fraud and leaking state secrets.

Last week, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, said China needs "growth in political freedom." The US sees that as critical to global peace. China's one-party state, however, sees democracy and a free press as destabilizing to its rule. Still they are experimenting with local democracy, and local press is encouraged to uncover corruption.

If Mr. Ching fails to get a transparent and fair trial, the rule of law will suffer in China and foreign reporters may further restrain their probing of the party's inner workings. The state keeps a vague definition of state secrets. But there's nothing vague about their fear of the truth.