The six-month detention of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che and subsequent “show trial” by Chinese authorities has dominated the news cycle in Taiwan, raising important questions and giving added weight to doubts and fears regarding not only China’s ongoing threat to Taiwanese sovereignty, but Taiwan’s ability to negotiate or pursue peaceful relations with China in any capacity. Lee’s recent “confession”, clearly obtained through coercion by Chinese authorities, has had little traction in Taiwan, serving only to highlight how incompatible China’s brutal authoritarianism is with this fiercely democratic nation.
Lee’s ordeal is undoubtedly an international issue. Although the media has not been entirely clear about the nature of Lee’s actions, and the charges themselves are based on intentionally ill-defined parameters, it seems clear that his activism was mostly conducted from Taiwan over social media platforms; he was not physically in China for most, if not all, of his pro-democracy work.
Lee’s activism is legal in Taiwan, the country of his citizenship and residence. Essentially, this means that the Chinese government detained, almost certainly tortured, and is now giving a sham trial to a foreigner for breaking Chinese law while not necessarily on Chinese soil, simply because he entered China. The Chinese government doesn’t see it this way, as his actions were by and large online, and in any case the Chinese government regards Taiwan as Chinese territory. While China understands Taiwan at least has separate legal jurisdiction in signing a mutual legal assistance agreement with Taiwan in 2009, Lee’s case has shown their willingness to flout its terms.
The implications of this are clear to Taiwanese citizens and supporters. China is attempting to send a message that nobody, even those whose activism and support of Taiwanese de jure independence or democracy in China – or both – is safe. It also has terrifying global implications: if China is willing to do this to a Taiwanese citizen, they could potentially do it to any foreign activists who support similar causes and enter China, even if their so-called “crimes” were not committed there, and were perfectly legal actions in the countries in which they were committed.
The international community has had a surprisingly muted response to this, however. While international media has reported on the Lee case, the information is often buried, unfindable to anyone who isn’t looking for it. Major media outlets such as the Washington Post have run AP or Reuters pieces, but they do not appear on the World News or Asia Pacific pages of their websites. Although the tensions the case has raised between China and Taiwan are noted, the international implications – that anyone who enters China that is deemed to have violated Chinese law anywhere in the world risks detainment by Chinese authorities – are ignored. Despite the inclusion of details clarifying that the case involves a Taiwanese, not Chinese, activist – that is, a foreigner in China – it is given as much attention as any other “domestic” news item in the Asia-Pacific region.
The lack of visible media coverage has ensured that there has been a stunning lack of recrimination from the rest of the world over China’s actions. Western liberals, in particular, sas self-proclaimed supporters of democracy and human rights globally, and supporters of dissidents in repressive regimes such as China’s, should be very concerned – yet they are not. Although there is no data available to measure the international exposure of this case, it would not be remiss to assume that most Westerners, including Western liberals, have not heard of Lee Ming-che’s detainment and trial or, if they have, are unaware of the details.
This lack of exposure and criticism has allowed China to both have its cake and eat it: while the West is lulled into complacency with the idea that the only necessary ingredient for a peaceful resolution is closer ties brought about by more “dialogue,” or believing that Taiwan is the “troublemaker” as it is the Tsai government that has somehow unjustifiably provoked China rather than the other way around, China is free to turn around and bare its teeth at Taiwan.
China knows it can get away with this, because it knows the West is not watching and that Western liberals, despite their talk of support for democratization, will not hold them accountable for their aggression and are fundamentally not a threat to their authoritarian rule and wrongful treatment of Taiwan. They are confident that Chinese authoritarianism will win out over Taiwanese democracy, no matter how much the latter might be ideologically supported by the liberal West, because abstract liberal criticism of China, when it exists at all, will never amount to pointed, specific pressure or consequences.
This failure to see not only the threat to a sympathetic liberal democracy such as Taiwan, but also to the world, is not limited to a lack of media coverage. The international media did not decide arbitrarily that Lee Ming-che’s case was not worthy of greater attention, and Western liberals did not get to the point of ignoring Taiwan by accident. China has been pressuring international media for some time through banning foreign publications, denying press credentials to journalists who criticize the regime, threatening journalists’ sources, denying journalist access and, in some cases, even detaining journalists within its borders. Although this has not ensured an international media that is entirely obedient to Beijing’s demands, it has had a noticeable chilling effect on what is reported about both China and Taiwan.
This complacency is fed by a general lack of knowledge about Taiwan on the part of both journalists and the global community. When one does not understand that Taiwan and China have been separate entities for most of Taiwanese history, or does not realize that the current government of China has never ruled Taiwan, and the reporters writing about it either write their pieces from Beijing or fly into Taiwan briefly, inserting misleading editor-approved swill such as “Taiwan and China split in 1949”, it is easy to then consider Lee Ming-che’s case a domestic affair, representing no threat to anyone outside of China. This lack of interest then makes it easier for editors to bury the story.
It is not surprising, then, that Lee Ming-che’s case, which has terrifying implications for international pro-democracy activism and freedom of expression, is summarily ignored by the Western liberals who would otherwise work to pressure China to adhere to human rights standards. Their lack of interest in Lee’s pro-democracy cause as well as the fundamentally liberal cause of supporting Taiwan hurts not only Taiwan, but threatens their own freedom as well.
(Feature photo of Lee Ming-che and Lee Ching-yu, from Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court)
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