Lee Ching-yu (李凈瑜), wife of the Taiwanese human rights activist detained in China, knows all about the human suffering that comes at the hand of despotic regimes. As a researcher, she has spent years reading secret documents from Taiwan’s murderous Martial Law period.
Now, as her husband Lee Ming-che (李明哲) sits in a jail cell, somewhere in China, the horrors of the past have come tearing into her life.
But she refuses to let the brutal realities of her husband’s situation beat her into submission. History, she says, gives her strength.
“China and Taiwan, the countries are not the same, but the tactics used by despotic countries are often very similar,” Lee told The News Lens in Taipei.
“When facing a kidnapper we can take different positions, including submitting. History proves that when facing an evil ruler, there is only one position we can take: the insubordinate one.”
She believes the path that she has chosen – rejecting communication from her husband while he remains “kidnapped,” refusing to accept help from a Chinese government fixer, nor capitulating to Beijing’s calls for her silence – is the only course of action a true human rights activist could take.
What is more, she knows her husband, who has now not been heard from for a month and many fear may be subject to torture, would support her decision, even if it threatens the expedition of his own release.
“We share everything with each other. He’s my lover, my family, my comrade and my best friend. Our relationship is built on the fact that we share the same beliefs,” she says.
“I believe that if it were me that was missing in China, that my husband would have done the exact same thing.”
Lee Ming-che, who is a former secretary for Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is being detained in China by a branch of the state security police for “involvement in a threat to national security.” He has not been heard from after flying from Taipei to Macau and into Guangdong on March 19. On April 4, Lee Ching-yu, also 42, tried to travel to China in a bid to uncover where her husband is being held and what charges he faces, but her travel pass was revoked by the Chinese authorities.
The pair met at university and have been together for 20 years. Despite the devotion displayed in her attempt to go directly to Beijing to fight for her husband’s release, Lee is reluctant to talk about their relationship.
“Please don’t ask me how painful it is to lose him; it is not something I would dare to imagine.”
After several high-profile press conferences in Taipei over the past 30 days, she has stopped for appearing on local television; she wants to keep the focus on her husband and the human rights cause they have both devoted their lives to.
“I don’t really want to talk about him in front of media, because I might break down, and then you wouldn’t understand why a person like him would choose to walk this path,” she says.
She wants people, especially outside of Taiwan, to understand that her husband’s disappearance is symptomatic of the continued erosion of human rights in China.
“I don’t want people to forget that this evil act was conducted by a government. This incident, I don’t think it will be the last, and it won’t just be impacting Taiwan. NGOs from other nations will face the same situation.”
“It is clear that what is horrific about this kind of government is its unpredictability. So we cannot predict what kind of people will be arrested and under what circumstances they will be released.”
Behind the façade
For much of a two-hour interview, she tries to stay “on-message.” Her sharp, fiery eyes stare boldly across the table, her somewhat stern expression is accentuated by a starch-white collared shirt and her black hair pulled back tightly.
But she struggles not to be drawn back to him.
Almost every time she says his name – “Mr. Lee” – the façade recedes, her voice starts to tremble, her eyes begin to well up, and she draws breath deliberately between careful, short sentences to move through the waves of emotion crashing over her.
As she resurfaces, composed again, she returns to her message.
“The main purpose of this movement is not about calling for the release of my husband. Even though it is what I wish for now, most fervently. But I still think the meaning of this movement, of people supporting him, is to support everyone who is fighting for human rights.”
While it must be tempting, she will not waver and join the chorus of high-profile Taiwan activists criticizing the government in Taipei and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), for refusing to sharply criticize Beijing over her husband’s case. Instead, she knows the complexity of any issue that “touches” the sphere of cross-Strait relations, and says she understands the difficult situation her government is in.
“I cannot say what the government should do and how it should rescue its people. All I can say is that I need to persist and to fight for what I believe.”
In a reflection of the hysteria and divisiveness that can sweep through Taiwan media, Lee has been criticized for her refusal of help from the Chinese fixer. The harshest comments have come from people associated with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which ruled Taiwan under Martial Law for decades and is now the largest opposition party.
Lee says though it can upset her, she does not mind the criticism. Justifying her approach to her husband’s parents, who are in their eighties, is harder.
“All parents want their children to be safe and to be happy and that is all they wish for them. No parent would want their child to suffer.”
While resolute in her stance, she is not beyond questioning whether she has taken the right path.
“It is human that we hesitate and we doubt ourselves,” she says. “It might be that when I go home [after a press conference] I see his picture, and then I might breakdown. Afterwards, when I recover, I know that I have to stay calm and tell people about him.”
New York University academic Jerome A. Cohen said earlier this month that Lee’s case is a violation of human rights and international standards. Cohen said 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 April 7.
Cohen added that Lee could be subject to torture and forced by police to take psychological drugs during interrogations.
Looking for a likely resolution for Lee, commentators have pointed to the abduction and detention of five Hong Kong booksellers by China in 2015. The men all worked at a Causeway Bay bookshop, known for selling material critical of China. They all later reappeared in China and told state media they were collaborating in an investigation voluntarily. One, however, has still not returned to Hong Kong.
So what if there was a similar option, for her husband to issue a public apology to ensure his own freedom?
“I know there might videos, I need to prepare myself, but it doesn’t change the tactics,” she says. “But I can’t make any promises because I don’t know what China is going to do,” she adds.
She reiterates, “It is good that I have studied [history] so I know how to react.”
In Taiwanese history, she notes, many innocent prisoners facing torture or execution were forced into false confessions.
“In a lot of cases the confessions were not used as a trade for freedom, so I made this declaration that I would not acknowledge anything that my husband says or writes [while he is detained in China].”
Aware of the risks
Before he was detained in China, Lee Ming-che was working at a community college in Taipei. As a Taiwanese “waishengren”– loosely meaning he and his family are from China – Lee had for many years traveled annually to China and kept regular contact with a network of friends and his family there.
A colleague at the community college has told The News Lens Lee had weekly conversations on Chinese messaging and social media platforms, his talks focusing on human rights and democracy issues. He also sent books that were unavailable in China to his contacts there.
His wife is now cautious about talking in depth about his interactions in China, as she doesn’t want any details to be “used” by authorities in China. But she insists that his talks rarely covered contemporary Chinese “politics” and certainly not Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
He “really likes history,” she says, and he would often share information about the Qing Dynasty and Japan and Taiwan post-World War II.
While the couple never talked “in detail” about what they would do if Lee Ming-che’s safety was threatened – “we didn’t think that what we did was illegal” – they were cautious. At the airport in Taipei on March 19, Lee Ming-che did the same thing he always did before a flight to China: he handed his Taiwanese identification cards to his wife. He always tried to keep a low-profile on his visits.
“All he had with him was his visa, some renminbi [Chinese currency] and his passport,” she says. “My husband knew what he was doing. He knew that it was dangerous. But he didn’t know what was going to happen.”
While Lee’s WeChat and Weibo activities could be construed as putting him on the radar of Chinese authorities, particularly as his group chats had been blocked in 2016, his wife says it is normal to have social media accounts shut down by Chinese censors. What is more, her “stubborn” husband was not an avid technology user and refused to get a smartphone until 2015, further suggesting that his social media activity was unlikely to be of a scale where he would be seen as a threat by Chinese authorities.
Although the couple had not specifically discussed how they would approach the situation they are now in, Lee Ching-yu points to the example her set by her husband.
“What my husband did online was to bring warmth to China. Since he made this decision to take this approach, I could only choose the same approach.”
The question for President Tsai
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.
A DPP spokesperson on April 12 said that President Tsai has told senior officials the government was doing everything in its power to ensure Lee’s return.
For some, the tacit confirmation of diplomatic back-channeling is not enough.
A leading Chinese dissident and one of Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement leaders are among those saying Taiwan President Tsai should be taking a much stronger stance on Lee’s disappearance. However, others have argued that such a move would not assist in Lee’s safe return.
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 told The News Lens earlier this month. “They have to stand strong. But right now we haven’t seen any positive action on this.”
Taiwan-based political commentator and Editor of Taiwan Sentinel J. Michael Cole, noting “stinging” criticism from civil society, has said “delicate diplomacy” is needed. He suggests Lee’s detention could be an “attempt to escalate tensions in the Taiwan Strait by factions in China that are either dissatisfied with Xi’s ‘leniency' towards President Tsai […] or, for purely domestic reasons, enemies who want to weaken his position prior to the [Chinese Communist] Party congress.”
“President Tsai’s decision not to do so, to allow agencies to quietly resolve the issue behind the scenes and to let civil society generate most of the noise, was the correct course of action, even if this exposes her to criticism from her own people for being ‘weak’ on China,” Cole writes.
Wu'er Kaixi (吾爾開希) is a former student leader who escaped to Taiwan after China's Tiananmen Square democracy movement on June 4, 1989. He acknowledges Cole’s analysis is focusing on Lee Ming-che’s personal well being and looking for the best option for his release and quick return to Taiwan.
“However, we should also respect Lee Ming-che’s will,” Wu’er says, adding that it is also important to respect his wife who is “representing Lee Ming-che’s will at this point.”
“I think that is what Lee Ming-che would want; to have Tsai Ing-wen speak out against Beijing, loud and firm. And reaffirm Taiwan’s position, dignity, authority and stance on human rights, disregarding his safety.”
While it is a “safer card” to negotiate with Beijing behind closed doors, it is not the best option in the long-term, he says.
“I’m further not sure it is a politically justified move. Sometimes, there are people who are willing to make a sacrifice. Those sacrifices need to be respected and honored. And sometimes it also calls for you to agree with the will of those people; I think this is one of those of moments.”
The path to freedom
Lee Ming-che was not well-known among Taiwan human rights circles and his work is seen as relatively low profile, compared, for instance to people like Lin Fei-fan who has not only been blacklisted from Hong Kong but also many Southeast Asian countries with close ties to China.
Commentators in Taiwan have drawn the conclusion that it is unlikely Lee’s detainment was orchestrated by central government in China, let alone something that the Communist Party leadership would have directed.
Indeed, the Chinese “broker” told Lee’s wife he was wrongly arrested because the Guangdong security bureau needed to show performance results under China’s new NGO laws – China’s Overseas NGOs Domestic Activities Management Law, which came into effect on Jan. 1, handed over supervision and regulation of foreign NGOs in China to the police.
No one knows for sure, but the emerging consensus in Taiwan is that Lee will likely be held for six months, probably all of it incommunicado. After that, it is hoped that he will be released.
“From knowing the thugs in Beijing – and I happen to have some experience dealing with them – and that is one highly-probable outcome,” says Wu’er, once one of China’s most-wanted student leaders.
Wu’er believes China, too, is trying to make a point.
“That they are running the show; they can do this to a Taiwan citizen; the standard is theirs to apply and the game is named by them.”
That is the message China is sending to Taiwan, he says.
“The answer should be: that is absolutely not acceptable.”
In the meantime, Lee Ching-yu plans to take her husband’s case and their shared human rights values to the world.
First, she will approach the United States representative office in Taipei, the American Institute in Taiwan – an AIT spokesperson told The News Lens, “We’re aware of the case. As a matter of practice, we do not publicly comment on the content of our diplomatic discussions.”
After that, Lee and her supporters are hoping to travel to Geneva, New York and Washington D.C., to try to garner support among European and U.S. political leaders.
Her supporters are under no illusions of the difficulty of the task ahead.
As Human Rights Watch’s China Director Sophie Richardson wrote in September 2016, many governments privately lament “a lack of leverage” when it comes to Beijing’s human rights abuses.
“But we have to try,” says Chiu E-ling (邱伊翎), Taiwan Association for Human Rights secretary-general.
Looking again to Taiwan’s own history of decades of political persecution, Lee knows a lot may ride on her efforts. She believes that support from foreign actors – be it from governments, international organizations or individual parliamentarians – can be the difference between life and death.
Shih Ming-teh (施明德), a Taiwan democracy advocate who was jailed by the government for more than 25 years, more than half of which was spent in solitary confinement, has told her that he believes that if it wasn’t for international pressure on the Kuomintang during his incarceration he may have been executed.
Ultimately, Mrs. Lee believes her husband’s sudden disappearance 30 days ago should be a reminder that fighting for human rights is a lifelong duty of any free person.
“We have forgotten that the liberty and freedom that we now enjoy in Taiwan was gained by people who willingly paid the price for it,” she says.
It wasn’t until this incident, she says, that she understood what Socrates meant when he said that only ignorant people fear death.
“Ignorant people don’t know what they are living for. But as human rights activists, Mr Lee and I know why we live, and what we are living for.”
Hsian-huan Huang and Cheng-Yu Yang contributed reporting to this story. Special thanks to Chia Jasmine Shih for translation assistance.
Editor: Olivia Yang