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Taiwan Activist’s Subversion Case Pushes Relations with China to Another Low

FILE - In this photo taken March 24, 2017, Lee Ching-yu holds a photo of her missing husband and Taiwanese pro-democracy activist Lee Ming-che during a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan.
FILE - In this photo taken March 24, 2017, Lee Ching-yu holds a photo of her missing husband and Taiwanese pro-democracy activist Lee Ming-che during a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan.

A court hearing in China against a Taiwanese rights activist charged with subversion is shaping up as a memorable low point for already strained relations between Beijing and the defendant's homeland.

A hearing Monday for Taiwanese citizen Lee Ming-che, who faces a 10 year prison sentence, and a mainland Chinese defendant, both charged with subversion of state power over promotion of multi-party democracy in China, is a reminder to Taiwanese people of a deep divide in political systems.

Taiwan allows free expression of political views despite any government line, while Communist China does not. That schism turns Taiwanese people off, frustrating China’s already tough ambition to unite with Taiwan politically. Each side is self-ruled today.

“Taiwan has been democratic quite some time,” said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. “People could just not imagine that an innocent person traveling in the country could be arrested.”

The case against Lee, a 42-year-old philosophy scholar and former worker with the ruling political party of Taiwan, also raises suspicion that China is looking for ways to vent at the government in Taipei. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen rejects the idea that both sides belong to a single country but has avoided specific actions that would anger China.

“Beijing has been in the mode of demonstrating that China is not happy with Taiwan and can cause Taiwan pain in a variety of ways,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center think tank in Honolulu. “In that sense, Beijing welcomes a deterioration of relations with Taiwan.”

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 claims sovereignty over Taiwan, but polls show most people on the island prefer autonomy. Taiwan democratized in the 1980s.

Since Tsai took office in May 2016, the two sides have not agreed on how to regard each other politically, stopping dialogue that China sees as a conduit for unification. Beijing has passed an aircraft carrier near the island 160 kilometers away, persuaded two diplomatic allies to cut ties with Taiwan and scaled back tourism. It took those measures to express disapproval, officials and analysts in Taipei believe.

Lee and the other defendantused social media since 2012 to “exaggerate key domestic events that occurred in recent years, spread libel and attack the government,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday.

Lee went missing in March after a flight from Taipei to the Chinese territory Macau. In May, the government in Beijing announced charges against him.

Taiwan and China lack diplomatic missions that might have worked to arrange deportation for a suspect such as Lee. In a similar case last year, China expelled Swedish legal rights activist Peter Dahlin despite charges of violating security laws. China also sees Taiwanese citizens as its own rather than as foreign nationals.

The Taiwan government’s Mainland Affairs Council asked Monday that Lee be sent home.

“This case has attracted the strong attention of the international and Taiwanese community,” council spokesman Chiu Chui-cheng said. “It also greatly pertains to mainland China’s image over its treatment of human rights and will at the same time affect the development of relations with Taiwan.”

Beijing could decide to expel Lee after convicting him, Roy said, although it normally takes subversion charges extra seriously.

Expelling him "would marginally reduce the damage to China’s image but would not buy significant sympathy toward China among Taiwan’s people,” he said. “The basic conflict is that the (Communist Party) system is a one-party dictatorship, exactly what so many Taiwanese activists fought against in Taiwan a generation ago, and they have no desire to unite with it.”

Lee’s case may help give other Taiwanese people a sense of the boundary in China between activism and breaking the law, said Joanna Lei, chief executive officer of the Chunghua 21st Century think tank in Taiwan.

An estimated one to three million Taiwanese live in China, mostly business people and their families. About one person a year gets detained in China for political reasons, an official with Taiwan’s semi-governmental Straits Exchange Foundation said earlier in the year. Charges against Lee are a first for a Taiwanese human rights activist.

“This case will be very important in drawing the line and make sure that certain cases are true human rights violations and other cases are simple violations of the law,” Lei said.