On Spetmber 11th, after nearly 180 days in detention, Taiwanese pro-democracy activist and NGO worker, Lee Ming-che（李明哲）stood trial alongside Chinese activist Peng Yu-hua at the Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court in China’s Hunan Province. This case marks the first public trial of an NGO worker since Beijing implemented a new law heavily regulating foreign NGOs operating in China.During the trial, which was broadcast on Weibo, Mr. Lee offered “no objection” to the various charges, which included subverting state power, toppling the pillars of socialism (“推翻社会主义支柱”), causing great harm to national security, and others.
Mr. Lee’s “confession” is the latest in a string of public confessions by detained activists and lawyers, as the Chinese Communist Party exerts targeted legal pressure to intimidate organizations and activities it deems potentially harmful to its control over national security and social stability.
For much of Mr. Lee’s detainment, his whereabouts and well-being were unknown. Despite multiple attempts by the Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council and Straits Exchange Foundation to obtain official responses from Beijing regarding Mr. Lee’s status, the CCP’s Taiwan Affairs Office made only brief statements acknowledging Mr. Lee’s detention by the Ministry of Public Security. Mr. Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, who was in Yueyang for her husband’s trial, was prevented from traveling to China in an attempt to secure her husband’s release in April 2017.
Beyond the personal misfortune for Mr. Lee, his family and supporters lies a more dangerous trend in China’s relations with Taiwan. A Chinese political work doctrine outlined in 2003 known as the “Three Warfares” (consisting of public opinion, psychological and legal warfare) offers a disheartening lens through which to view these and similar events.
Chinese authorities secretly detained Mr. Lee, charged him with ambiguously defined but serious crimes, and allowed him to languish in detention for months despite repeated official requests for information from Taiwan’s official government ministries. While Mr. Lee’s confession may offer a chance for leniency or even a return to Taiwan, the public spectacle of his trial and subsequent reporting in Chinese media appear as neatly nested propaganda. Both defendants offered praise for the Chinese legal system, and the protection of their rights in accordance with Chinese law.
This is ironic, especially given Beijing ignored official requests and existing cross-Strait agreements that could have provided an alternate path for resolution. The message was clear – if the long arm of Chinese law finds you, you have no legal recourse.
The psychological impact of cases like Mr. Lee’s extend well beyond NGOs and activists operating in China or the semi-autonomous territories of Hong Kong and Macau. The growing power of Chinese authorities – specifically the Ministry of Public Security – to target foreign organizations and individuals, combined with strict control of both events and narratives, leaves few options for the accused and their supporters. In a time of suspended diplomatic contact across the Taiwan Strait, the Taiwanese government is acutely disadvantaged.
This coordinated use of legal cases and the shaping of public opinion is not merely a deterrent against activities the CCP finds undesirable – it also creates a psychological deterrent against objections to China’s legal authority. Any effort to challenge Chinese law, especially from Taiwan, may be undermined completely. Such actions risks normalizing legal practices that are inconsistent with international norms and detrimental to the established views of the rule of law. Lee Ming-che is an unfortunate casualty in the most recent battle.
(Feature photo of Lee Ching-yu, Lee Ming-che’s wife, from VOA)
Views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense or U.S. government.