Taiwanese Activist Stands Trial in “Stage Drama”

Taiwanese activist and NGO worker Lee Ming-che was tried for subversion on Monday, five and a half months after he disappeared while entering China via Macau. Following a pattern seen in some other recent sensitive trials, Lee confessed to the charges, expressed contrition, blamed his errors on hostile foreign forces, and praised the fairness of the proceedings against him. From Xinhua:

During the open trial, Peng Yuhua, a suspect from the Chinese mainland, faced the same charge.

Prosecutors accused Peng of roping in dozens of people, including Lee, to establish an organization aimed at subverting state power and overturning the country’s fundamental political system, which is enshrined in the Constitution, through instant messaging services.

The two suspects asked members of the organization to exaggerate a number of sensitive issues and make defamatory statements about the Chinese government and its political system, according to the indictment.

They attempted to overturn state power and the socialist system through unscrupulous distortion of the facts and by fanning public hostility against the government and its system, it said.

Prosecutors said that their activities had seriously harmed national security and social stability.

Lee and Peng said their rights had been fully protected during the investigation, and they both pleaded guilty and expressed remorse.

"I regarded biased and malicious reports about the Chinese mainland by media in the West and Taiwan as reality, and had no clear knowledge of the mainland’s development," Lee said in the final statement. [Source]

Other accounts noted Lee’s claim to have seen the error of his former ways after learning the truth from local TV programs while in detention, and his expression of gratitude for the "civilized" conduct of his prosecution. The Wall Street Journal highlighted his statement that "people on both sides [of the Taiwan Strait] are descendants of the yellow emperor and part of the Chinese civilization. We should give up biased Western views in order to learn about mainland China."

In a statement on Facebook, Lee’s wife Lee Ching-yu urged people not to take his statements at face value. She referred to the trial, which she had traveled to China to attend, as a "political conference" and a "stage drama"—the latter echoing comments by Jin Bianling, the wife of activist and former rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, that his recent trial was "choreographed." As Richard Bernstein described at The New York Review of Books last month, Lee Ching-yu is a historical researcher focused on the "White Terror" in pre-democratic Taiwan. Lee alludes to this at the beginning of her statement.

Impressions on participating in the "political conference of the Great People’s Republic of China"

There is a very large difference between conducting historical research and gaining first-hand experience of the stage drama of actual political persecution.

I was still shaking from this lesson for several hours afterwards.

After the political conference, I was allowed to see Ming-che in full view of the media, police, and public. He "ordered" me: "After you return to Taiwan, don’t speak out anymore." But his hand tightened on mine as he said this, and he winked.

As much as it hurt, I could not let myself be deceived.

After more than twenty years of shared love, I knew the meaning behind his words. He also told me that from now on, I no longer need to pay rent for his mother.

Those who’ve lost their freedom have the prerogative of speaking insincerely, but I’m free, and have no such privilege. I must continue to safeguard ’s honor.

Today, the world and I witnessed this political conference. We also beheld the difference between the core beliefs and principles of Taiwan and China, about which I need hardly say any more.

It just pains me deeply that this political performance has so nakedly demonstrated one thing: what’s normal speech in Taiwan amounts to armed rebellion in China.

Neither the Taiwanese people nor the rest of the civilized world can accept this.

Let me reiterate the prediction I made before I left for China:

"Compatriots, please, if Lee Ming-che says or does anything unbearable in court, not of his own free will, it’s nothing more than the Chinese government’s customary game of forced confession."

Thank you all. I’m exhausted. Thank you all.

PS: The tattoos on my arms were inspired by a noble Chinese man who lived a thousand years ago, the Song general Yue Fei. He served his country with unreserved loyalty: I will do the same for Lee Ming-che’s honor. [Chinese]

Lee Ching-yu has now safely returned to Taiwan. She announced her intention to travel to China in search of information on her husband’s disappearance soon after it occurred, but that trip was blocked by Chinese authorities. She later became part of a loose alliance of political detainees’ relatives that has been hailed as opening an unprecedented "new front" in defending their interests. CDT cartoonist Badiucao noted her advocacy this week:

Taiwan’s presidential office has promised an "all-out effort to assist Mr. Lee Ming-che’s family," adding that "his relief is our top priority. […] Mr. Lee is one of our citizens. We’ll do everything in our power to ensure his safe return." Taiwan’s state-owned Central News Agency reported other official responses:

Premier William Lai (賴清德) yesterday called on the Chinese authorities to quickly release human rights advocate Lee Ming-che (李明哲) and said he has ordered agencies to prioritize work to facilitate his return to Taiwan.

“Lee works at a non-profit organization as a human rights advocate. There is no way he could subvert the Chinese government,” Lai said. “I felt sorry for Lee being forced to confess at a trial in a manner nobody could accept.”

[…] Judicial Reform Foundation executive director Kao Jung-chih (高榮志) late on Monday said the court proceedings were scripted, and everybody, from the judge and prosecutors to the lawyers and defendant, were “staring at scripts, reading,” indicating that “everything was prearranged.”

Kao said that the timing of the proceedings was deliberately set for Monday to stop Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu (李凈瑜), from traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, on Sept. 10 and reporting on her husband’s case at a meeting of the UN working group on arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances. [Source]

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch detailed Chinese interference in U.N. rights activities in a report published last week. The group’s Sophie Richardson condemned Lee’s trial on Monday:

[… The] prosecution presented no evidence suggesting the pair’s activities were anything but acts of peaceful expression and association. Lee’s government-assigned lawyer asserted in court that his supposed client’s online speech critical of the Chinese government constituted “inciting subversion” and had “the intention of overthrowing the state power.”

The trial was also the first time in six months that Lee’s wife has seen him – he had been denied family visits. In April, Chinese authorities cancelled Lee Ching-yu’s travel permit to prevent her from looking for her husband. After the trial, under the watchful eyes of the police, Lee Ming-che told his wife not to speak out in Taiwan. Lee Ching-yu later criticized the trial for being “political theater.”

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, Chinese authorities have detained a number of citizens of other countries – in or outside of China – for their work helping Chinese human rights activists or for speaking critically of the Chinese leaders or policies. Beijing’s arbitrary arrests of and denials of due process to non-citizens pose a threat to human rights globally. Foreign governments should speak out forcefully against this practice and call for the immediate and unconditional release of Lee and Peng. [Source]

HRW’s Maya Wang also commented on Twitter:

Reuters’ Christian Shepherd reported a Chinese retort:

An Fengshan, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs office, told a regular briefing that “any attempts to use this case for political means, to influence or slander the mainland’s handling of the case in accordance with the law, or to attack the mainland’s political or legal systems will all be futile”.

The legal rights of Lee and his family had been upheld and guaranteed, he said. A meeting between Lee and his wife and mother had been arranged after the hearing at the request of his family, An said.

The hearing process was broadcast by the court in videos and on social media website Weibo in what An said was an “open” trial.

Activists who had traveled to Yueyang to support Lee said after the trial they had been barred from attending, saying that was proof the case was not truly open or fair. [Source]

Lee’s case has placed added strain on already tense cross-strait relations, which Alan D. Romberg examines in the new edition of China Leadership Monitor. Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je warned that in going "beyond shock and awe," Lee’s earlier treatment risked further alienating the Taiwanese public, saying that "it is very simple. The Chou Tzu-yu incident probably scared off half of Taiwanese, while the Lee Ming-che incident scared off the other half." At Taiwan Sentinel, J. Michael Cole similarly argued that "none of this will […] persuade a single Taiwanese that the Chinese one-party system — and unification — are desirable outcomes for Taiwan":

From the beginning, it was evident that whatever “confession” Lee made at trial would be coerced. As his long-winded “responses” to the prosecutor’s succinct questions made clear, this was political circus, a scripted affair that ticked off all the boxes in the CCP propaganda playbook.

The aims of this “open” trial — footage and a transcript of Lee’s “confession” were released to the public — were twofold, but both contained a warning. It was for domestic consumption in China, replete with the usual CCP nationalistic jingoism and the threat of dire repercussions for whomever opposes, or even criticizes, the authoritarian regime. And it was a fire across the bow aimed at Taiwan, a signal that China’s new national security and foreign NGO laws have, as had long been feared, concrete extraterritorial applicability: the inclusion of Taiwan in Chinese laws is no longer simple rhetoric; under President Xi Jinping, the state-party apparatus now has the wherewithal to arrest, capture, disappear and to prosecute Taiwanese nationals for purported — and intentionally loosely defined — national security crimes.

[…] As I have argued before, the Lee case was also a trap for the Tsai Ing-wen government in Taiwan, which, had it lashed out with the fury that some of Mr. Lee’s supporters demanded of it, would only have succeeded in giving ammunition to hardliners within the CCP who want President Xi to be even harsher on Taiwan, and possibly to impose a longer sentence on Lee for his “crimes.” This was a lose-lose situation for the Tsai government, as avoiding that trap made it appear weak in the eyes of the Taiwanese population and unable (or unwilling) to stand up for one of its own. In reality, there was little the Tsai government could do except provide assistance behind the scenes (which it did) and hope that Beijing would abide by the agreements signed years ago on cross-Strait judicial cooperation (which it did not). […][Source]