Taiwan activist Lee Ming-cheh sentenced to five years in jail by Chinese court

Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-cheh (right) appearing in court in Yueyang, China's Hunan province, on Sept 11.
Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-cheh (right) appearing in court in Yueyang, China's Hunan province, on Sept 11. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (NYTIMES, AFP) - A Chinese court sentenced a human rights activist from Taiwan to five years in prison on Tuesday (Nov 28) for state subversion, the first time China has convicted a Taiwanese citizen of that crime.

A video released by the Yueyang People’s Intermediate Court in southern China’s Hunan province showed the activist, Lee Ming- cheh, sitting silently as a judicial officer read a statement accusing him of conspiring with a Chinese partner to foment a “Western color revolution” in China by disseminating articles, books and videos attacking China’s political system.

The court also deprived Lee – an NGO worker who was arrested during a trip to China in March – of his political rights for two years.

A Chinese co-defendant named Peng Yuhua was sentenced to seven years in prison and he also lost his political rights for two years.

The court said both men stated that they would not appeal their sentences.

For many in Taiwan, the verdict is viewed as the latest shot fired in China’s psychological war on Taiwan, one that has been heating up for more than a year since Beijing cut off official communication channels with Taipei. Beijing has turned a cold shoulder to the administration of Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, blaming her refusal to accede to demands that she accept Taiwan as part of “one China.” China seeks to annex Taiwan, by force if necessary, though polls in Taiwan show scant desire to unify.

The saga of Lee – who disappeared upon crossing into China in March, then reappeared in a courtroom in September to proclaim his guilt while reading from a script – has raised concerns among workers for non-government organisations and others in Taiwan that their social media postings could lead to problems during future visits to China. Despite the political chill, China and Taiwan are highly intertwined economically.

Of special concern is Facebook. The Yueyang court alleged in September that Lee and Peng had used it to plan protests in China. Taiwan has one of the world’s highest Facebook penetration rates, while China’s government has blocked the social media site.

Lee’s friends and family assert that his September confession was forced, a dominant view in the Taiwanese media and online forums. They also say they had never heard of Peng, who they believe is a prop used to create the appearance of Lee’s conspiring with a Chinese citizen to sow discord in the authoritarian state.

An academic manager at a Taipei community college, Lee had previously made trips to China without incident. He also regularly chatted online with Chinese acquaintances interested in Taiwan’s transition from a one-party state under martial law 30 years ago to a democracy today, according to Cheng Shiow-jiuan, director of the Taipei Wenshan Community College, where he last worked.

Lee also donated money and books to the relatives of rights lawyers imprisoned in the crackdown on civil society by President Xi Jinping of China, the activist’s wife, Lee Ching-Yu, said in a March interview.

Outspoken and defiant, Lee Ching-Yu has also become a major figure in the Chinese human rights arena during the eight-month drama. After going public with her rejection of a secret offer by the Taiwan government to work with China via a go-between, she announced in April that she would fly to Beijing to rescue Lee Ming- cheh herself. China cancelled the document required by Taiwan citizens to enter the country, effectively banning her entry.

China did, however, allow Lee Ching-Yu to attend her husband’s trial in Yueyang. Before leaving for China, she asked the Taiwanese people to forgive him should he say anything negative about Taiwan.

During his trial, Lee Ming- cheh said he had been misled by the Taiwanese news media, and had learned the true situation in China by watching state television during his months in detention.

Taiwan’s presidential office and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) called the verdict “unacceptable”. 

“We urged the Beijing authorities to release Lee and allow him to return to Taiwan soon. We regret that Lee’s case seriously damaged cross-strait relations,” the presidential office said in a statement.