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China's Detention of Taiwan Rights Activist Strains Relations

  • Ralph Jennings

FILE - In this photo taken March 24, 2017, Lee Ching-yu, third from right holds up a photo of her missing husband and Taiwanese pro-democracy activist Lee Ming-che during a press conference with other representatives of non-governmental organizations calling for help to find his whereabouts in Taipei, Taiwan.

China’s detention of a Taiwanese political activist on suspicion of endangering national security is causing a new rift in already strained relations between Taipei and Beijing.

China has held Lee Ming-che for 23 days, saying he is suspected of endangering state security. On Monday, his wife found out that China had revoked her travel permit,shortly before taking a flight to Beijing, where she planned to pursue information on Lee’s detention.

The case is straining government-to-government relations already hobbled by a 70-year-old sovereignty dispute and a freeze in formal dialogue over the past year, Taiwan officials and scholars say.

“We urge the mainland Chinese side to look at this issue correctly and respond immediately including with a speedy disclosure of the real reasons and location of detention as well as let family visit as soon as possible to avoid complicating matters and even causing impacts that neither side wants to see,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement Monday.

The extent of any impact on relations hinges on how long China holds Lee, a 42-year-old philosophy scholar and former worker with Taiwan’s ruling party, and what they eventually charge him with, scholars in Taiwan say.

“It’s already been a few days, so many days, and there’s still no clear word [on the Lee case], said Huang Kwei-bo, associate diplomacy professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Taiwanese society, from the point of view of Taiwan’s rule of law, everyone will find this to be very strange.”

The two sides have been separately ruled since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and fled to Taiwan. China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan, but government polls in Taiwan show most people prefer their autonomy.

Impact on Chinese relations

Whether Lee’s case dents broader China-Taiwan relations depends on whether Beijing offers more information and how long that takes, said Lee Li-chen, deputy secretary general of the Straits Exchange Foundation, an agency in Taipei that handles consular-style matters with China.

“The public hopes that safety can be guaranteed in China. If someone like Lee can be held for investigation, then they hope they can quickly know for what reason he has been locked up and where he’s locked up as well as hoping family can visit,” she said.

“So in terms of the development of cross-Strait [China-Taiwan] relations, we’re still observing how the mainland China side handles follow-up to the Lee Ming-che case," Lee Li-chen said.

Between one and three million Taiwanese live in China, with many of them there to run factories.

Under current Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, the two sides have not agreed on how to regard each other politically, stopping dialogue since she took office in May.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visits Panshi fast combat support ship during her trip at a navy base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, March 21, 2017.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visits Panshi fast combat support ship during her trip at a navy base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, March 21, 2017.

China has passed its aircraft carrier around the island 160 kilometers away, persuaded a diplomatic ally to cut ties with Taiwan and scaled back tourism to express its disapproval, analysts in Taipei believe.

Lee Ming-che disappeared March 19 after a flight from Taipei to the Chinese territory of Macau and before crossing a land border into mainland China where a friend was waiting, colleagues in Taipei say. They say he was on his way to Guangzhou to see friends and get Chinese medicine for his mother in-law.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said on March 29 that Lee was being questioned on suspicion he took part in activities that endangered state security.

Lee had visited China once a year over the past decade, sometimes to help Chinese lawyers in human rights cases, a fellow human rights worker in Taipei said. Police in China have “targeted” 248 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists in a crackdown since July 2015, London-based advocacy group Amnesty International says.

He had also used social media to reach about 100 people in China for discussions about democracy and human rights in Taiwan, said Cheng Hsiu-chuan, president of Lee’s Taipei employer, Wenshan Community College.

Some Taiwanese believe China is detaining the activist to answer Taiwan’s arrest in early March of a mainland Chinese business administration student who was suspected of spying. Others find “no cause” to get upset so far, said Nathan Liu, international affairs and diplomacy professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan.

“I don’t see too much sympathetic reaction for this case,” Liu said. “We don’t really know what happened and nothing like he got tortured or some unjust call.”

“Taiwanese people may feel confused by the case. They consider democracy to be “normal” and see China’s legal treatment of pro-democracy activism in the Communist country as a “grey area,” Huang said.

In Taiwan, Lee worked as a college program manager and volunteered for a league of Taiwan human rights groups gathering information on international laws to make sure Taiwan was complying.

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