Two months after his last public appearance in a Chinese court, Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che was officially sentenced to five years in prison by the Yueyang People’s Intermediate Court today in a televised court ruling, making him the first Taiwanese citizen to be convicted of subversion of state by the People’s Republic of China. Throughout the 15 minute proceeding, a judicial officer read from a statement that outlined the details of the sentence, and Lee listened calmly and later said in court that he would not appeal.

His wife, Lee Ching-yu, was among a handful of spectators in the court, and she said in a statement after the court ruling that “there is a price to pay for pursuing ideals.”

“Helping minorities to earn their rights is the necessary sacrifice for advancing civilization,” said Ms. Lee. “Lee Ming-che is already prepared to endure the torment of forced imprisonment. We can only accept the result, and we don’t have the right to complain. As his wife, I am extremely proud of his sacrifices.”

In Taipei, the Alliance to Save Lee Ming-che, a team comprised of activists from several civil rights groups, held a press conference to condemn the court ruling, accusing the Chinese government of violating international human rights standard for its handling of Lee Ming-che’s case. The alliance argued that since all the criminal evidence listed in the indictment was his comments on social media made while he was in Taiwan, China has overstepped its judicial rights to arrest and convict non-Chinese citizens for their online comments outside of China.

“We ask the Chinese authority to guarantee Mr. Lee’s rights as well as physical and mental safety in the prison before he is released,” said representatives from the alliance. “It is especially crucial for the Chinese government not to deprive family members’ the rights to visit him in prison, and their physical safety as well as freedom should also be guaranteed.”

The alliance also called on the Taiwanese government to immediately establish necessary mechanisms to handle the incident.

Apart from the outrage from civil rights groups, Taiwan’s presidential office also issued a statement to sternly denounce the court ruling on Tuesday, emphasizing that sharing democratic values should not be considered a crime.

“Mr. Lee Ming-che was a democracy activist who wanted to share the values of democracy and freedom in China,” said the office in the statement. “We call on the Beijing authorities to release Mr. Lee as soon as possible. We regret that the case of Lee Ming-che has deeply undermined the cross-strait relationship, by posing a serious challenge to the democratic aspirations among the people of Taiwan.”

Taiwanese Netizens Reacted to the Case on Social Media

Soon after the sentence was announced in court, Taiwanese netizens rushed onto Facebook to express their feelings over the ruling. Despite supporters and members from China-friendly KMT and New Party using the occasion to accuse DPP and the Tsai administration’s inability to ensure Taiwanese people’s safety, the majority of posts shared on Facebook saw Taiwanese people reflect on the ruling to either show their disapprovals of China’s attempt to threaten Taiwan’s democratic value through this case or their fears towards the ever-growing aggression from China. Several prominent social movement leaders from both sides of the strait, including Wang Dan, also showed solidarity with Lee.

“We can see from today’s ruling that while the Chinese government claimed to respect Taiwanese people’s wills, but in fact, they didn’t really care about Taiwanese people’s feelings,” said Wang in a post on Facebook. “Lee Ming-che’s case is obviously the Chinese government’s attempt to intimidate Taiwanese people. This is not a criminal ruling, but a political ruling. This is not only ruling against Lee, but also a ruling against Taiwanese people.”

A Warning Sign to Cross-Strait Relations and Taiwan’s Democratic Future?

One thing that many were wondering after the ruling was how the case would impact Taiwan’s democracy and cross-strait relations. Since Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP came into power last year, Beijing has cut off official communication channels with Taipei. However, how much does Lee’s case threaten the status quo of cross-strait relations and Taiwan’s democracy remain unclear.

According to David An, Senior Research Fellow at Global Taiwan Institute in Washington D.C., China is sending a clear message to Taiwan and the rest of world that there is a price to pay for promoting democracy in China.

“China is not only punishing Lee, but is also sending a message to discourage others from following in Lee’s steps,” said An. “It is too early to tell if this case will mark a new era in cross-strait relations, but it is unlikely an inflection point since it appears to be in line with how China can harshly treat its own people and its neighbors.”

Instead of letting the chilling effect of the case threaten Taiwan’s democracy, An thinks that Taiwan would continue to maintain its commitment to democratic values in the face of growing assertiveness from China. Despite the suspension of official diplomatic contact between the two sides, Taiwan should rely on diplomacy between senior officials or former senior officials to maintain cross-strait relations.

“There has been a freeze in official diplomatic channels of communication across the Strait, so informal diplomacy would be more promising,” said An. “However, I don’t think major shifts in diplomacy, macroeconomics, or military strategy are appropriate at this point.”

An believes that whether the case would trigger strong response from the international community depends on how Taiwan’s diplomats and unofficial advocacy groups formulate their messages to make the international community aware of Lee’s imprisonment. However, despite the case sending shock waves across Taiwan, An thinks Taiwan’s democracy would survive.

“Taiwan will continue to be a beacon of democracy in East Asia,” said An. “Lee’s situation, and other challenges against Taiwan will strengthen Taiwan’s resolve and hopefully bolster its democracy.”

 

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William Yang

William is a freelance writer and photographer based in Taiwan, with a passion for human rights and storytelling. He holds a Master of Journalism degree from Temple University, and has extensive experiences interning at global NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Mercy Corps.