by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 尋找李明哲/Facebook

AS TAIWANESE NGO worker Lee Ming-che approaches his 700th day in jail, Chinese actions to retaliate against his family for efforts to continue to advocate for his release have escalated. Namely, Lee has been transferred jails several times without any adequate explanation as to why from Chinese authorities in the past half year. And while Lee Ming-che’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, was previously allowed to visit him, China recently refused all further visits from Lee Ching-yu until April.

It remains largely unknown as to why Lee Ming-che was arrested and tried by China. Lee, a former DPP staffer and human rights NGO worker, disappeared after entering China from Macau in March 2017. Lee was charged with attempting to “subvert state power” on the basis of that Lee had been in communication with Chinese nationals regarding Taiwan’s experience of democratization. As such, Lee was sentenced to five years in jail.

Lee Ming-che (right) while on trial. Photo credit: Weibo

Lee’s case was notable as an incident of a Taiwanese citizen being treated as a Chinese citizen. Lee’s case was also thought to be the first case of a foreign NGO worker detained on the basis of then-recently passed Chinese law aimed at cracking down on foreign NGOs working in China. It is generally thought that China decided to imprison Lee as a means of intimidating Taiwan.

As Lee Ching-yu should have spousal rights to visit Lee Ming-che, Lee Ching-yu previously was allowed to visit him, and she and family members of his visited him five times. As his spouse, Lee Ching-yu was also allowed to attend his trial. However, Lee Ching-yu was denied visitation rights for Lee Ming-che from September and December of last year. Although Lee Ching-yu was allowed to visit Lee Ming-che in December, Lee Ching-yu has again been denied the rights to visit Lee until April, and it is possible that China more or less intends to indefinitely prevent Lee Ching-yu from visiting Lee Ming-che.

According to Lee Ching-yu, Lee Ming-che is currently forced to work ten hours a day, is regularly given spoiled food, and the prison has thrown out his warm clothing. Lee Ching-yu has also stated that, unlike other prisoners, Lee Ming-che receives letters six months after they are sent, has had his bank account frozen. Despite having the right to do so by Chinese law, Lee Ching-yu has not been allowed to bring Lee his medication. Lee Ching-yu stated that her husband asked her to ensure that the media was informed of his condition.

The justification that the Chishan Prison, where Lee Ming-che is currently imprisoned, has given for preventing Lee Ching-yu for visiting is that it alleges that she has misrepresented the conditions of Lee’s imprisonment. It is very likely that China is attempting to punish Lee Ching-yu for continuing to speak out about her husband’s imprisonment.

Lee Ching-yu (right) speaking to the media. Photo credit: 尋找李明哲/Facebook

Indeed, past actions by China seemed aimed at punishing Lee Ching-yu and those calling for Lee Ming-che’s release. Last year, China moved Lee from Chishan Prison in Hunan to Yancheng Prison in Hebei without explanation. China then later moved him back to Chishan Prison, also without explanation. Yancheng Prison is one of two prisons directly administered by the Chinese government. At times, there have also been rumors that Lee has been moved to a facility in Beijing.

It could be that the Chinese government simply intends to show that it has power over Lee’s fate. But the Chinese government likely also does not take kindly to Lee Ching-yu continuing to advocate for her husband’s release.

Namely, some have suspected that China originally intended to release Lee quietly after backroom negotiations with the KMT. This observed in a past incident in which Lee Ching-yu was contacted by a man purporting to be able to negotiate with the Chinese government about Lee’s release, stating that if Lee Ching-yu gave up on efforts to go to China, China would quietly secure Lee’s release. The man in question was found to be a former aide of Alex Tsai of the KMT and Tsai later stated that he had reached out to acquaintances in China about the case. It could be that China originally intended to use the incident as a way to bolster the KMT’s reputation in Taiwan domestically as the only party in Taiwan able to conduct relations with China.

However, Lee Ching-yu’s advocacy may only make China look worse in Taiwan, as whenever Lee Ching-yu goes to China, this proves a public spectacle that does not reflect well on China in Taiwan and internationally. This may be why China would prefer to silence her by threatening to cut off access to her husband.

Photo credit: 尋找李明哲/Facebook

Either way, close to 700 days after Lee’s detention, those that call for Lee’s release have also been critical of the Tsai administration and DPP for not taking more action on the issue. While NPP legislators and some DPP legislators aligned closely with progressive civil society, such as Yu Mei-nu, have taken stands calling for Lee’s release, the Tsai administration more broadly has been largely quiet on the issue. Lee Ching-yu herself recently took it upon herself to travel to the US to continue to advocate for Lee Ming-che’s release. As such, it remains to be seen as to how and when Lee will secure his freedom, then, if at all.

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