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Human rights in China

How China’s trial of Lee Ming-che is a warning to Taiwanese activists inspired by freedoms and democracy

Jerome A. Cohen and Yu-Jie Chen say no matter what the eventual fate of Lee, his well-rehearsed trial and confession are meant as a reminder of the danger of attempts to ‘subvert’ the government of mainland China

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 5:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 7:27pm

Over three weeks have passed since the highly publicised, carefully rehearsed trial of Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese NGO activist long ­detained in mainland China for his peaceful criticism of the Chinese regime.

We are still awaiting the verdict that will not only determine Lee’s fate but also have broader implications for China-Taiwan relations.

Obviously, in China, guilt is ­assumed in such political cases, and Lee’s punishment is not being ­decided by the court that tried him and his co-defendant for “subversion of state power”. This controversial case, which has significantly increased already rising cross-strait tensions, will be decided by Communist Party leaders, preoccupied with the need to maintain “stability” ahead of this month’s critical 19th Party Congress.

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Lee’s September 11 trial provided the first public glimpse of him since his March 19 disappearance in Guangdong province. We now know what happened. For almost six months, secret police subjected him to innocuous-sounding, but notoriously harsh, incommunicado “residential surveillance” – in their “residence”, not his.

After eight days of interrogation, they also detained Lee’s co-defendant, Peng Yuhua, a citizen of China. The pair were indicted for criticising China’s political system through the internet and informal gatherings, thereby “inciting others to subvert state power and overthrow the socialist system”.

The trial lasted only four hours. The defendants were not allowed to ­retain their own lawyers or meet ­before trial with Lee’s wife and her advisers. Their court-appointed lawyers did not conduct any investigation to obtain evidence or present any defence witnesses.

Don’t use Taiwan activist’s trial to attack Chinese law, mainland authorities warn

Yet the trial was webcast, so that Lee – the first Taiwanese to be ­convicted of human rights activity in China – could be seen confessing to participating in a “criminal ­organisation” that incited web users to spread articles that “vilified and defamed China’s socialist system”.

Lee expressed regret, claiming that he had been misled by Western ­media reports biased against China, and that his detention had brought him a new understanding of China’s true development and progress. He also expressed appreciation for the “civilised manner” of China’s law enforcement in protecting his personal safety. To atone for his wrongdoings, he pledged that, upon returning home, he would contribute to China’s long-sought unification with Taiwan.

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Lee’s understandably pathetic televised statement came as no surprise. Indeed, his Taiwanese wife, Lee Ching-yu, had publicly anticipated it, based on the experiences of many mainland activists and lawyers detained incommunicado for their human rights activities.

Taiwanese rights activist pleads guilty to subversion in mainland China

They are increasingly forced to publicise “confessions” and openly voice remorse and gratitude to the Chinese regime. This has become a commonplace ritual in Chinese court and even on TV, long before trial.

A Chinese courtroom is not a place that objectively examines a case on its merits; it is a showroom

Despite the Supreme People’s Court’s recent endorsement of “trial-centred justice” rather than traditional pre-trial decision-making for politically sensitive trials, a Chinese courtroom is not a place that objectively examines a case on its merits; it is a showroom, displaying the defendant’s guilt as a deterrent to audiences at home and abroad. Although China’s leaders seldom refer to the continuing ­influence on their system of the now discredited Soviet model, their current show trials recall the infamous ­Stalin purge trials of the 1930s.

Lee’s trial was the only time his wife’s persistent efforts to see her husband succeeded, and then only briefly. She had tried to fly to China in April to find her disappeared husband, but at the last moment Beijing revoked her entry permit.

Frustrated but resourceful, Lee Ching-yu then travelled to Washington to testify before a Congressional committee along with the wives of several detained Chinese rights lawyers and, with the assistance of Taiwanese NGOs, began organising an international campaign to raise her husband’s case.

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In fact, she scheduled a trip to Geneva to speak to experts of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, on September 12. It was hardly serendipity that China arranged her husband’s trial to overlap with her Geneva trip. A court-appointed lawyer contacted her for the first time just a few days before the trial and told her she could attend the court proceedings. She chose to do so while other Taiwanese NGO representatives went to Geneva to speak on her behalf. Beijing’s timing of the trial was plainly an attempt to minimise Taiwan’s protest on the international stage.

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Lee Ming-che’s case has ­become a huge cross-strait issue, as Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has confirmed.

Beijing has not only arbitrarily violated Lee’s personal freedoms but also shown no regard for the 2009 cross-strait agreement that ­requires one party to promptly notify the other upon detention of the latter’s nationals, and to facilitate family visits to the detainee.

Yet, Tsai’s remarks have been ­restrained, probably because of awareness that her words, if too strong, might worsen Lee’s treatment and sentence.

After the trial, Tsai’s spokesman emphasised the president’s concern for Lee and said the government would exhaust all means to rescue him. Not coincidentally, right before Lee’s trial, Taiwan’s cabinet recommended for ratification an international convention to prevent enforced disappearances, reminding the world that Taiwan’s human rights policy is very different from China’s.

President Tsai Ing-wen says Taiwan’s ‘goodwill is unchanged’ in cross-strait relations

What will be Lee Ming-che’s fate? A relatively lenient sentence ­allowing his early return to Taiwan would be a welcome gesture that would prevent cross-strait relations from further festering over this case.

But no matter what, the case has sent a loud and clear warning that Taiwanese will be in danger if they cooperate in “subverting” the ­Chinese government by promoting freedoms and democracy, a lifestyle that they take for granted.

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And not only Taiwanese. ­Beijing’s new law regulating foreign NGO activities can also be applied to prosecute people from other countries.

Jerome A. Cohen, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is professor of law at NYU and faculty director of its US-Asia Law Institute. Yu-Jie Chen is a Taiwan lawyer, a post-doctoral researcher at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica and an affiliated scholar of NYU’s US-Asia Law Institute