We Are All Lee Ming-che

We Are All Lee Ming-che
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

The inditement of Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-che, currently detained in China, cited social media messages on Facebook and elsewhere as evidence of subversion. Unless we stand up and protest, anyone traveling to China could share Lee's unfortunate fate.

When I read through Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che’s (李明哲) confession made publicly in a Chinese court, all I could feel was frustration and fury. As a student, my hands are tied in terms of offering physical aid to my countryman. The least I can do is call attention to this outrageous show-trial. China is tightening control over its own people, foreign visitors, and even non-Chinese outside its territory. Soon, we could all be Lee Ming-che.

"Many stand beside Lee Ching-yu to demonstrate that Taiwanese people are not intimidated by China’s tyranny.”

Lee, 42, is the first foreign worker to be prosecuted under a law regarding non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which was introduced in January this year. He has been detained in China for nearly seven months having disappeared in March while traveling from Macau to Guangdong Province in southern China. Following his detention on the grounds of conducting activities harmful to national security, China had revealed nothing save that he was suspected of subverting state power. No specifics were offered to his relatives or Taiwan’s authorities. His wife, Lee Ching-yu (李凈瑜) has relentlessly pressed for information, despite the fact that many disagreed with her outspoken approach – most recently tattooing messages of support for her husband on her forearms and beaming the images worldwide. Her calls for public and international support defied an alternative narrative (link in Mandarin) pushed by some in Taiwan suggesting that her husband's welfare may have been best protected by treating with China in secret. Yet many stand beside her to demonstrate that Taiwanese people are not intimidated by China’s tyranny.

These divisions in the nature of support for Lee within Taiwan are underpinned by frustration at our government's inability to protect its citizens. For my own part, I also fear that the public and media reaction misses the wider implications of Lee's trial as regards the violation of human rights and the blurring of lines over international jurisdiction. A week ago, and as predicted by his wife – who apologized to Taiwanese people beforehand for what Lee might say under duress – Lee pleaded guilty to subverting state power in a court in Hunan Province. I was pained to see him recite his offenses against "the law," but it was the statement that followed that truly disgusted me. Lee asserted that he was treated fairly and that his legal rights had been safeguarded. He also said that he recognized the “civilized” manner in which China’s judiciary had treated him. Having had his connection to the outside world severed for more than 150 days, and with only a lawyer assigned to him by the Chinese court for company, it’s clear Lee was speaking under duress.

China’s has form for this kind of publicity stunt. The scene of the similarly “disappeared” booksellers of Hong Kong confessing on Chinese state media 18 months or so earlier will live long in my memory. In the case of Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen and owner of the Hong Kong publisher Mighty Current, the confession was for a murder committed more than a decade prior to his disappearance in Thailand. Four of his colleagues confessed to lesser crimes after vanishing from Hong Kong and China. But just as in Lee’s case, China’s authorities failed to explain how these men had come to end up in detention in the first place.

These instances stand alongside an ever-expanding list of cases that suggest Beijing is increasingly willing to repress political freedoms in other countries, leveraging tools ranging from economic influence to informal networks of student informers. In Australia, China’s embassy is thought to encourage its student citizens to report on their Chinese classmates’ protest plans in an attempt to stymie potentially embarrassing demonstrations. In the classroom itself, other reports suggest Chinese students are being encouraged to vociferously oppose opinions that run counter to China’s national interests. Just last week, a Chinese student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong ripped off a poster demanding Hong Kong’s independence, drawing support for her actions from Chinese state media. Such messages encapsulate the essence of the freedom of speech, which is supposedly still preserved under The Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitutional document. I could go on – China’s failed attempt to censor journal articles in the U.K.’s Cambridge University Press for instance – but these examples should amply serve to demonstrate China’s intent to obstruct the autonomy of individuals and institutions around the globe.

Why should we care about Lee’s case in particular?

Because any of us could be the next Lee Ming-che. In the indictment, Lee is accused of sharing and spreading articles or comments on social media, including instant messages on Facebook and WeChat, that slander China’s political system, even though Facebook is currently blocked in China. This statement caused uproar online in Taiwan because Facebook is a platform widely used to discuss politics. It is an integral part of our daily lives. It is absurd for China to make activities on social media hosted in another country part of the evidence it presented to condemn Lee. It suggests that no matter where you were when you posted such messages, your social media history on Facebook or Twitter, or whatever you happen to use wherever you may be from, could be used as evidence for prosecution if you travel to China in the future.

As such, Lee’s case not only sets a precedent for the sentencing of foreign NGO workers, it opens the door for China to take aim at a wider range of targets. There will be no turning back unless people rally together. Many of my friends who support Lee have changed their avatar profile photos to this simple sentence, “We are all Lee Ming-che.” It is important that we stand up against such oppression and show our unity and determination. I hope this commentary serves not only as a demonstration of protest, but also as a warning for all the would-be Lee Ming-che’s, who one day may suffer a similarly unfortunate fate.

Editor: David Green