With the whereabouts of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che still unknown almost one month after his televised court sentencing by Chinese authorities, the Alliance to Save Lee Ming-che in Taiwan held a press conference in the parliament on December 25, calling on the public to take part in the “Send a Card to Ming-che” event.

According to Eeling Chiu, Secretary General of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, Lee’s family hasn’t received any information about where he is being held from China. She condemns China’s attempts to deprive his family their rights to visit and communicate with Lee.

“Lee Ming-che is just a middle-aged man paying for his ideals,” said Lee’s wife Lee Ching-yu during the press conference. “What a prisoner needs the most is a simple blessing, so I hope you can all send him a card filled with blessings, letting him know that many people are thinking about him out here.”

Social Activism in Taiwan

Ever since Lee Ming-che’s arrest on March 19 in China this year, the Alliance to Save Lee Ming-che, which comprises several civic and human rights groups in Taiwan, has been organizing public protests across Taiwan in an attempt to raise awareness about the incident while calling for the release of Lee on behalf of the Taiwanese society.

Yibee Huang, CEO of Covenants Watch, has been one of the main organizers of this wave of grassroots movement. As an active participant of social movements since the Wild Lily student movement in 1990, Huang thinks that Taiwan’s strong civil society creates a natural environment for groups to demand social change through public events that require active participation among citizens. These events are often organized to enhance citizens’ awareness and understanding about Taiwan’s political as well as international situation.

“We hope that people will exercise their civil rights beyond election days,” said Huang. “Many of our events are designed for the general public, because we want to become more active citizens that care for the public good.”

Despite the growing level of participation in public events among citizens in general, Huang believes that the intensified aggression from China is forcing some people in Taiwan to censor their behavior and speech. Lee’s case is a living example that can send shockwaves through Taiwan, as people are likely to start evaluating whether their behavior or speech made outside of China could threaten their personal safety once they step on Chinese soil.

“It could definitely impact civil society groups,” said Huang. “However, it definitely would have a much larger impact on individuals, since many young people from Taiwan look for work in China due to low wages in Taiwan.”

China’s Growing Insecurity

While the result of Lee’s conviction reverberates through Taiwan, some experts think that the case is a sign of China’s growing insecurity. Kharis Templeman, the Taiwan Democracy Project Manager at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, points out that the ruling was not surprising because it’s consistent with what has been happening to civil society groups and dissidents in China. With Xi Jinping’s crackdown on civil society intensifies, Templeman believes it shows the Chinese government moving in the wrong direction.

“The Chinese government has repeatedly constricted the space for any kind of autonomous organization or any kind of direct criticism of policy,” said Templeman. “However, the regime’s long term survival depends on actually not doing that.” Templeman also emphasized that while there used to be space for Taiwanese civil society groups to interact with counterparts in China, Lee Ming-che’s case illustrates that it is no longer safe to do so.

Templeman thinks that to resist China, however, Taiwan’s civil society plays a key role in ensuring Taiwan’s democracy continues to be consolidated. Additionally, Yibee Huang indicates that it is important for the Taiwanese government to show its commitment to protecting the safety of Taiwanese citizens who are advocating for human rights.

“We need to let the Chinese government know that there is a group of people who strongly believes in democracy and human rights,” said Huang. “These are things that they can never eradicate with economic incentives or threats. I think this is Taiwan’s biggest asset in defending itself against China.”

A New Focus for Taiwan’s Grassroots Movement

As Taiwan’s grassroots movements continue to evolve, both Huang and Templeman think it is important for activists to focus on international opportunities outside of traditional contexts. Huang argues that it is important for activists in Taiwan to look beyond the United States for international partners, and more emphasis should be put on cultivating regional connections.

“I think the connection between Taiwan’s grassroots movement and similar movements in the region is stronger than before,” said Huang. “During the Wild Lily student movement, we were still pursuing Taiwan’s national identity, but Taiwan’s activists have been building robust regional connection with neighboring places like Hong Kong since the Sunflower Movement. This is what we didn’t have before.”

If Taiwanese activists want to keep establishing robust partnerships abroad, Templeman believes that Southeast Asia should be their focus. It is not only compatible with the government’s the New Southbound Policy, but also offers an opportunity for Taiwan to foster the growth of NGOs there.

“I think Taiwanese thinkers and leaders are too fixated on the United States and China,” said Templeman. “They don’t think enough about opportunities right next door, and there are a lot of low-hanging fruits in the region. The government really should find ways to leverage Taiwan’s unique advantages.”

As Taiwan’s commitment to fostering a robust civil society continues to be recognized internationally, Huang thinks that it is important for Taiwanese citizens to keep engaging in international public affairs, to be connected to common trends affecting all global citizens.

“Other countries’ respect for Taiwan will never come from how well our government runs the country,” said Huang, “but from the effort that a small group of people are willing to put into maintaining a functioning and robust civil society.”

 

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.