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Power play

China’s provocative conviction of a Taiwanese citizen has Taiwan—and NGOs—on edge

Power play

A banner relating to Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-cheh is displayed on a fence during a protest in Taipei on Nov. 28.(Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

For the first time, the Chinese government on Nov. 28 convicted a Taiwanese citizen of “subverting state power,” sentencing activist Lee Ming-cheh to five years in prison. His crime? Sharing articles, books, and videos critical of the Chinese Communist Party with Chinese acquaintances. This, China claims, was evidence that he and a Chinese partner were trying to bring about a “Western color revolution” in China.

Taiwan’s presidential office decried the verdict as “unacceptable,” as Lee had not broken any laws. “Lee Ming-cheh was a democracy activist who wanted to share the values of democracy and freedom in China,” the presidential office said in a statement. “We call on the Beijing authorities to release Mr. Lee as soon as possible. We regret that Lee’s case has seriously damaged cross-strait relations.”

This development is worrisome to Taiwan, whose relationship with Beijing has deteriorated since the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progress Party last year. Tsai refuses to acknowledge Taiwan is in any way a part of China, a point that Beijing doggedly clings to even though Taiwan has walked a starkly different path from the People’s Republic of China: embracing democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of press, and freedom of speech. 

In a recent poll, 80 percent of residents in Taiwan considered themselves Taiwanese instead of Chinese, yet Beijing still plans on reunifying with the island, by force if necessary: China has medium-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. 

Lee, a college lecturer and a volunteer for the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, disappeared after crossing into China from Macau in March, as he traveled to visit friends and arrange his mother-in-law’s medical treatment. After two months of detainment he was formally arrested on subversion charges, and in September, Lee appeared in a televised trial, confessing to charges of “subverting state power” by writing and posting pro-democracy articles online.

“The television news I watched in prison has made me understand China’s development a little better. I know that my past thinking and the information I received was mistaken,” he said, most likely under duress. Next to him stood Chinese national Peng Yuhua, who Lee claimed had instructed him to write the articles.

The Hunan court accused Lee and Peng of using Facebook to plan protests in China. Friends and family of Lee say that they had never heard of Peng, and likely the Chinese government was using him as a prop for claims of a conspiracy. Lee’s detainment has caused other Taiwanese NGOs and human rights organizations to practice self-censorship in what they post on Facebook, human rights worker Yibee Huang told The New York Times

In the past, Lee had chatted with Chinese acquaintances online about Taiwan’s journey to democracy, and donated books and money to the relatives of imprisoned human rights lawyers in China. Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, has been an outspoken champion for her husband since his disappearance, even testifying before the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China. After the verdict, Lee Ching-yu said in a statement that her husband knew the cost of doing human rights work. “As Lee Ming-cheh’s wife, I’ll say it one more time: I’m extremely proud of everything he’s done,” she said.

Yang Sen Hong, chairman of Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, believes China’s decision to give Lee such a heavy sentence ensures the Taiwanese people will never want to reunify with the mainland. The case also displays the wide gap between Taiwan and China: For 23 million Taiwanese, posting political thoughts online is an everyday activity. In China, it’s considered inciting subversion. 

Lee’s sentencing also draws fear for what may be coming for other foreign non-governmental organizations working in China on issues considered sensitive to the government. A strict new NGO law went into effect in the beginning of 2017, restricting which groups can legally work in the country.

“Today, this is not just about Lee Ming-che, it’s not just about the Taiwanese people,” Yang said. “It’s about the whole free world that believes an NGO can advocate for democracy, constitutional government, and liberty.”

June Cheng

June Cheng