The Chinese government’s prosecution of a Taiwan NGO worker for allegedly trying to subvert state power via social media channels opens a new front in the unrelenting crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression.
“By charging Lee Ming-cheh with subversion, the Chinese government is giving a warning to NGO workers promoting human rights and democracy that their work will land them in jail,” said James Fang, Director of Amnesty International Taiwan.
Lee Ming-cheh was tried on Monday 11 September at Yueyang City Intermediate People’s Court on the charge of “subverting state power” and for encouraging multi-party rule. He was detained in late March and held incommunicado for nearly six months before news about his trial was announced by a spokesperson for China’s State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
Lee is being tried with co-defendant Peng Yuhua, who is facing the same charges. Lee is accused of taking part in social media groups in which articles slandering and attacking the government were shared widely. While such activities are routinely prosecuted under the lesser charge of “inciting subversion of state power”, the authorities chose to prosecute Lee for “subverting state power”, a much more serious crime for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
Lee said in court that some of the material spread by Peng included information related to the Tiananmen crackdown, Western “colour revolutions” and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“Lee Ming-cheh’s detention, similar to detained Chinese activists, is riddled with irregularities including no access to lawyers of own choice for months, no communication with his family and generally not following any of the required criminal law procedures.” said James Fang.
It is not clear if Lee was able to hire lawyers of his own choice. His wife Lee Ching-yu stated previously that she will not recognize the lawyers as legitimate until she is able to meet with her husband.
While Lee Ching-yu attended the trial it is unclear if she was able to speak with her husband or the lawyers. In a subtle act of defiance, at an improvised press conference at her hotel after the trial, Lee Ching-yu displayed tattoos on her arms that read, “Lee Ming-cheh, you are my pride”. She also released a statement later, condemning the trial as a “foolish drama” and urging the Chinese government to release Lee Ming-cheh.
Lee is a manager of an NGO in Taipei, Wenshan Community College. While he has supported civil-society organizations and activists for many years in China, Lee was visiting China for personal reasons when he was detained by state security authorities on the Macao border on 19 March 2017.