One-Sided Asymmetrical Information WarfareHere are some of my thoughts on the reception of the Ching Cheong case at this point (background: Grand Unification of Theories about the Case of Ching Cheong). In The Standard today, there is an article titled 150 'puzzled' Ching allies rally round for petition. I wish to key on the presence of the word 'puzzled' in quotes. This is a general sentiment at this point. In a Ming Pao article, legislator Choi So-yuk said: "我現在好混亂，唔知點睇件事。我認識程的為人，如果他真的做這些事，我會很驚奇。" (translation: "I am very confused. I don't know how to look at this matter. I know Ching as a person. I would be very surprised if he really did these things.")
Ching Cheong does not lack supporters, and they come from across the entire political spectrum in Hong Kong, from democrats like Szeto Wah to core members of the pro-Beijing DAB like Choi So-yuk. But some are 'puzzled' and 'confused' because of the information war that is being waged by China. This information war is conducted by releasing bits and pieces of information, sometimes through official channels and other times through anonymous surrogates speaking to various media (including Ming Pao, Sing Tao, Oriental Daily, The Sun, East Week). When the information comes out, people feel necessary to respond and their responses often unsettle, confuse or contradict each other. Here are some examples:
- When Ching Cheong was first arrested, some supporters objected to the black-box operation and demanded disclosure of the details. When more details were leaked this week (see see 030, 032, 037, 039, 040 and 049), some supporters objected to this invasion of privacy, and said that none of the information should have been released before a trial. So do you want the details or not? Or do you want only the details that exonerate him? The discourse has been kidnapped to become a debate on the classification of the leaks by acceptability. (Digression: There is an interesting ongoing story in the matter of Chinese-American scientist Wen-ho Lee suing former Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson for leaking information to the press (see Free New Mexican)).
- When Ching Cheong was first arrested, the supporters adopted the traditional approach of protesting the arrest of a journalist doing his professional job. Then Ching Cheong's wife Mary Lau published an open letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao to say that Ching should be credited for having helped to develop national policies for China. She said that this was the reason why there were files of internal speeches by Chinese leaders on Ching's laptop computer now in the hands of the Chinese National Security Bureau. This was a rude awakening to many, because that was certainly not the traditional function of a journalist. Notably now, this is not a straight petition about freedom of press but this has become a call for an open and fair trial for a fellow journalist or friend.
- Did Ching Cheong really had any national secrets to sell anyone, beyond what a reporter can find out during regular journalistic work? An experienced journalist like Ching Cheong must surely know what the boundaries were and so at first no one believed that he could be so careless. Then, in Mary Lau's open letter, she mentioned that there were some files of internal speeches by Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin and other Chinese leaders on Ching's laptop computer now in the hands of the Chinese National Security Bureau. She also said that the information had come from Lu Jianhua of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also under detention. The more recent disclosures say that the two Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researchers Lu and Chen were running around Beijing using hotel business centers to fax documents to Ching in Hong Kong. At this point, no outsider is qualified to say whether that type of information is harmless or not.
- The recent round of gossip from anonymous sources hinted at a woman, and then more details have been given about this woman named Huang in Shenzhen. One line of defense was that Ching was known to live like an 'ascetic monk' and could not possibly have been involved romantically with anyone outside his marriage. Another line of defense was that Ching had so many 'options' on his many business trips to China that he could not possibly have been interested in a plain-looking middle-aged single mother. And then there are digressions as to how Mao Tse-tung and other Chinese leaders had very loose morals, as if this had anything to do with this case. This is a distraction because this woman does not have any known connection to the espionage case itself. Maybe she lured him to enter China, but that was not the cause for arresting him. The whole mess is compounded when the woman has come out to deny being Ching's mistress (see The Standard).
- When the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that Ching was spying for pay, some supporters believed that this 'ascetic monk' would never betray China for money. More recently, the official figure is HK$5 million over 5 years. Some supporters still insisted that Ching has no interest in money, to any amount. Other supporters say that these were legitimate payments for freelance writing, and this is a jaw-dropping assertion to some since writers do not make that kind of money (as in HK$100,000 for a 3,000 word report). Still other supporters say that Ching makes about HK$1 million a year with The Strait Times already with a pension plan, so another HK$5 million would not be tempting enough (and this line of talk is going to upset the majority of the Hong Kong people because they do not see that kind of money).
- Should there be an open trial for Ching Cheong? While some people have called for one, others are resigned to a closed trial. When national secrets are involved, the Chinese laws permits a closed trial. By definition, the people will not be allowed to see the national secrets and decide for themselves whether these are legitimate secrets. In the United States, for example, a citizen without security clearance will never find out what information the spy Jonathan Pollard sold to Israel beyond that he had caused 'serious damage'; the government is also currently fighting to prevent the other Abu Ghraib torture photos used in the trials of American soldiers from being publicly released; and so on.
In the American justice system, a defendant goes on trial under the 'reasonable doubt' principle. It is common for the defense lawyer to propose multiple theories (as in the joke: "I did not murder the man because I was not there; even if I was there, I did not stab him; even if I stabbed him, he did not die from the stab wound but because his heart stopped; and even if I killed him, I was temporarily insane"), because as long as one theory sticks, the defendant is exonerated. But this approach disturbs many people who prefer a plain truth. Anyone who has been reading the multiple reports and responses in the Ching Cheong case must be quite lost about what the truth is in the cacophony of theories and counter-theories.
Why does China seem to hold the upper hand here? Because this is an asymmetrical game in which they hold all the information on their side. That is why this post is titled "One-sided asymmetrical information warfare." They can decide what to release, they can decide when to release and they can decide how to release, either officially or unofficially. This case is made worse when Mary Lau disclosed many facts (such as the connection with Lu Jianhua and the internal speeches of the CCP leaders on Ching's computer) and she is not to be doubted by Ching's supporters.
Apart from thinking about the entire package so far, there is also the temporal aspect. During the current round, it was whispered that the anonymous sources have warned everybody across the political spectrum that the case on Ching Cheong is solid and that anyone who takes an extremely critical position will look like a fool. On top of this is the friendly advice that Ching Cheong is helped more by keeping quiet or low-keyed. For example, if you howl too loudly about the story of the other woman, you may see many more details coming out -- you would look like a fool and Ching would be damaged even further. And you have no idea what else is on Ching's computer -- a financial ledger? original copies of the written reports under the pen-name Chen Yuanchun? How can you assess something that you have not seen or don't even know exists?
What distresses me is that this is a conditioning exercise. This is not just about Ching Cheong, but it has happened before in the case of Alex Ho. That sequence of events can be categorized as a series of action-reactions with the following lesson -- if you act negatively, you will be punished; if you act positively, you won't be punished (forget about being rewarded). Here were the stages in the case of Alex Ho:
If this kind of training goes on, someday we'll all be conditioned to think that keeping quiet or low-keyed is the correct way to go, all of the time. What is the counter-strategy? I don't know. After all, I am calling this kind of warfare "one-sided" and "asymmetrical."