What you need to know
It may be a long road to freedom for the Taiwanese NGO worker detained in China but local political activists say Chinese actions will only strengthen their resolve.
As the wife of a Taiwanese human rights activist detained in China is blocked in her attempt to travel Beijing to seek his freedom, a leading China-U.S. scholar is concerned the man is being held under special laws that may mean he is incommunicado for months and subject to torture.
Lee Ming-cheh (李明哲), 42, is being detained in China by a branch of the state security police for “involvement in a threat to national security.” He was reported missing after flying from Taipei to Macau on March 19.
His wife, Lee Ching-yu (李凈瑜) attempted to travel to China today in a bid to uncover where her husband is being held and what charges he faces. She was scheduled to depart Taipei at 1 p.m. but was informed at the airline counter this morning that China's Ministry of Public Security had cancelled her travel permit.
New York University academic Jerome A. Cohen says Lee’s case is a violation of human rights and international standards. Cohen says the “threat to national security” allegation suggests it is possible Lee is being held under China’s special criminal process, known as “residential surveillance,” rather than normal criminal laws.
“This means that police may be holding him for up to six months incommunicado, with no opportunity to see his family, to see a lawyer, to see a representative of the Taiwan government, or anyone who could assist him,” Cohen, speaking via a video link, told journalists in Taipei on Friday.
Cohen added that Lee could be subject to torture and police may give him psychological drugs during interrogations.
“This is a tragic situation and I hope something can be done about it,” he said.
Amnesty International’s Taiwan executive director James Fang (方勇升) told The News Lens there is so far no concrete evidence that Lee is being held under the residential surveillance laws.
Still, that law can be used by the Chinese government as an excuse to “do whatever they feel they want to do,” Fang said.
“Our fear is that it is going to get abused by authorities,” he said.
While hopeful that building international awareness of Lee’s detainment would pressure the Chinese government to at least provide “clarity” on his case, Fang said it may be many months before Lee is released.
“Usually they will come up with another excuse to transition [Lee] to another status,” Fang says. “If they feel like they want to keep him, they will find a way to keep him.”
Calls for stronger stance from Taiwan’s president
Lee’s detainment comes amid a period of weak relations across the Taiwan Strait – since Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took office in May 2016, Beijing has cut off official communication with Taipei.
On March 21, Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation told The News Lens that officials were using all available channels to try and locate Lee, including Taiwanese businesspeople working in China, the Mainland Affairs Council and local Chinese authorities.
Still, a leading Chinese dissident and one of Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement leaders are among those saying Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) should be taking a much stronger stance on Lee’s disappearance.
Wu'er Kaixi (吾爾開希) is an exiled Chinese dissident living in Taiwan and is a member of the Reporters Without Borders Emeritus Board. He told The News Lens that Tsai and her government need to understand Lee Ming-cheh is not an isolated case, and that she has the responsibility to protect Taiwan from China’s “creeping impact.”
“To save Lee and to prevent any future Lee like cases, Tsai has to rise up to make a clear and loud statement that arresting Lee is unacceptable, it is unacceptable that China treat Taiwan like what they do to Hong Kong – undermining its authority and value step by step – and it is a deal breaker to reestablishing cross-Strait relations, and the Chinese government is to take the full blame,” Wu’er says.
He adds that the Taiwanese people will “understand and support” Tsai if she took this step, despite their wish for cross-Strait stability and trade.
Similarly, Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆), a former student leader who remains an influential political activist in Taiwan, wants to see President Tsai take a tougher line with Beijing.
Based on his understanding of the interactions over Lee’s case between civil society groups and Taiwan officials, Lin says the government has been “passive” in its response to his disappearance. It is understandable that the government may not want to “provoke” China, but “that is not a reason for doing nothing.”
“You have to show you are not willing to negotiate with someone who kidnaps your citizens,” Lin says. “They have to stand strong. But right now we haven’t seen any positive action on this.”
Resilience in the face of the Chinese threat
New York University’s Cohen noted speculation that Lee may be charged under China’s Overseas NGOs Domestic Activities Management Law, which came into effect on Jan. 1 and handed over supervision and regulation of foreign NGOs in China to the police.
“This will really shed fear among not only Taiwan NGOs but other NGOs that have been doing wonderful work cooperating with China with respect to human rights as well as other matters,” he said.
That fear does not appear to be taking hold among the activist community in Taiwan.
Lin Fei-fan is among the many Taiwanese political figures to be barred from stepping foot in Hong Kong. And, like young pro-democracy advocates from Hong Kong, he is unable to travel freely across Asia because of China’s creeping influence.
Lin had not heard of Lee prior to reports of his detainment but says that his case is “is “very significant” for Taiwan because he is an “ordinary” participant in political activism.
Lin says while many people in Taiwan are now “worried” about what may happen if they travel to China, Hong Kong, or several countries in Southeast Asia where China’s reach may extend – he notes Thailand’s detainment of Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) in October 2016 – he believes Lee’s case will not have a chilling effect on Taiwanese opposition to China’s “suppression.”
In fact, it will strengthen resolve and build a “stronger opposition,” he says.
“While I believe some activists will be worried about traveling to Hong Kong and Macau and those places, it will not have a chilling effect on action,” he says. “Their suppression will only strengthen civil society [in Taiwan].”
International support building
Lee is a former secretary for Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) executive in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan. He is an NGO worker who frequently works with human rights lawyers in China and worked at the Taipei Wenshan District Community College. Part of his role was researching and writing about transitional justice and Taiwan’s White Terror era.
According to a colleague, Lee previously held weekly conversations on the Chinese messaging and social media platform WeChat. His hour-long talks focused on human rights and democracy and Taiwan’s experience in developing democracy and transitional justice. His audience was mainly Chinese.
It is understood Lee's WeChat account was blocked from using the group chat function in 2016. He has since been using a new account. He also sent books to friends in China who were particularly interested in democracy and transitional justice.
Commentators in Taiwan have noted that Lee’s case is unusual because of his relatively low status in political or human rights circles.
The News Lens asked Amnesty International’s Fang whether Lee may need the level of United States-led advocacy that pressured the Chinese authorities to release dissident Yang Jianli (楊建利) in 2007 – Yang told The News Lens he may still be languishing in a Chinese prison had it not been for the several years of lobbying from the U.S., which included bipartisan support from U.S. lawmakers and the United Nations, in addition to human rights organizations.
“We feel that [Lee] does not have that identity, therefore we don’t think it is the same situation,” Fang responded. “We have hope that [Lee’s detainment] is not going to be as long.”
Hundreds of local and international non-government organizations are mobilizing in petitioning the Chinese government to release Lee, and both Fang and Cohen stressed that the Chinese government should be aware the “world is watching.”
Timeline of Lee’s detainment
- March 19: Lee boarded a flight from Taipei to Macau. He was reportedly traveling to a hospital in Guangdong, southern China, for a medical consultation for his sick mother-in-law.
- March 20: Reports emerge that friends and family had been unable to contact Lee since he left Taipei. Officials at the Gongbei Customs in Zhuhai, China, refused to answer questions from Radio Free Asia on whether Lee had been blacklisted by Chinese authorities.
- March 21: Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation told The News Lens officials were using all available channels to try and locate Lee, including Taiwanese businesspeople working in China, the Mainland Affairs Council and local Chinese authorities. No further information was immediately available.
- March 27: Lee's wife, Lee Ching-yu, is informed by the Taiwan government that Lee is being detained in China by a branch of China’s security police.
- March 29: China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光) confirms Lee is being held for “involvement in a threat to national security.” Lee’s supporters, including his wife, several Taiwan legislators and human rights advocates hold a press conference in Taipei to call for Lee’s release.
- April 9: Lee’s wife issues a statement reiterated her position that she would not acknowledge any confessions or statements issued by her husband – for fear they would not be authentic – before she is able to visit him in person. The statement followed reports that an unnamed organization had told her to keep a low profile in order to ensure her husband’s release.
- April 10: Lee’s wife attempts to travel to China in a bid to uncover where her husband is being held and what charges he faces. She was scheduled to depart Taipei at 1 p.m. but was informed at the airline counter that China's Ministry of Public Security had canceled her travel permit.
Editor: Olivia Yang