During U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, she visited the National Human Rights Museum in Taipei and met with prominent human rights advocates once imprisoned in China, as a way to highlight Taiwan’s democratic reform and contrast its human rights practice with that of Beijing.
One of the three activists she met was Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese activist released in April this year after five years in a Chinese prison. VOA Mandarin sat down with Lee this past week to learn about his prison experience and his plans now that he’s back in Taiwan.
Lee was a college administrator at the Wenshan Community College in Taipei and was working for Taiwanese NGOs to free political prisoners in China. His nightmare began on March 19, 2017, when he entered the mainland via Macao and was subsequently detained by Chinese police on charges of “subverting state power,” making him the first Taiwanese citizen detained on such charges. The charges have become a catchall term for anyone critical of the Chinese government.
“I was detained on March 19, and until my formal arrest on May 26, the two months were more painful than being in prison itself,” Lee told VOA Mandarin in an interview. “Why — because I had no way of contacting my family. I had no idea of what they would do to me.” For two months, Lee was detained in one of China’s secretive detention centers for those without a formal charge.
“During those two months, there were two people watching me 24 hours a day, even when I was taking a shower or using the toilet. Also, all the windows were covered by black curtains, so I had no idea if it’s day or night,” Lee recalled.
Taiwanese media reported on Lee’s court case and said he criticized the Communist Party and promoted democratic ideas in private chat groups and on Chinese social media. He also sent books on similar topics to some of his contacts and reportedly helped the families of jailed Chinese dissidents.
The Los Angeles Times reported that according to Taiwanese officials, Lee’s colleagues said he “used social media to tell at least 100 people in China about Taiwan’s growth as a democracy.”
China sees Taiwan as a renegade province that will eventually return to Beijing’s control, but as a self-ruled island, Taiwan sees itself as independent from the mainland.
The five years in Chishan Prison were tough on Lee mentally and physically.
“You have almost no basic rights in prison, living conditions are extremely poor. Cooking oil is soiled, so your food always has a stinky smell. The water is from a nearby muddy lake, no prison officer would drink that,” Lee recalled.
The prison’s philosophy, according to Lee, is that it can change one’s thinking through high intensity forced labor. Everyone there works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.
“You have to do it even if you don’t want to, because if you didn’t meet your quota, you would be punished,” Lee said.
Lee Ching-yu, Lee Ming-che’s wife and a researcher on Taiwan’s democratic movement, immediately became his biggest advocate after his arrest.
She held a news conference two days after his disappearance in mainland China and launched multiple campaigns calling for Lee Ming-che’s release.
Her advocacy had attracted international attention for Lee’s fate, leading to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen saying she’s personally monitoring the case. Lee Ching-yu brought her husband’s case to multiple high-level entities, including the U.S. Congress, the U.N. and the EU parliament to pressure Beijing.
Lee said he remains immensely grateful for his wife’s advocacy and not bending to Chinese Communist Party’s pressure. Otherwise, he said, it’s telling the party that intimidation and suppression are effective tactics.
“In the beginning, a lot of people (in Taiwan) criticized Ching-yu. They told her that she should keep a low profile, she should not provoke China. Some say that she just wants to get into politics,” Lee Ming-che recalled. “What I want to say to these people is: Do you realize that you enjoy freedom? Or are you a slave to your own fear in a free country?”
Lee Ming-che said it is precisely his wife’s tough posture that had caused the Chinese government to treat him “within the boundary of law.” He told VOA Mandarin that according to his knowledge, since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power, all those charged with “subversion of state power” were tried in secret on grounds of national security, and family members were kept in the dark. But he received a public trial. Lee Ching-yu and Lee Ming-che’s mother were able to attend.
Lee Ching-yu was able to visit Lee Ming-che regularly when he was in prison. He said through these visits, he was able to convey his experience in a Chinese prison through his wife to the outside world. And that made him feel like he was not only a prisoner, but “a human rights worker doing field research in a Chinese prison.”
He said the ability to keep in contact with the outside world gave him hope, and he secretly promoted the concept of human rights to his inmates, explaining the different legal systems between Taiwan and the mainland.
“What is a truly successful rescue operation? Bringing me back is not the point,” he said. “But bringing me back, where I could continue to do human rights work, where I could bring my observations over the past few years in prison and share it with news media to expose the systematic problem in China, that’s the real meaning of my rescue.”
“I want to say to the Chinese Communist Party: You have failed. You did not achieve anything you wanted via my case. I am back. I will continue my pro-democracy and human rights work,” Lee added.
“I think this is the real meaning of my return.”