TDB Vol. 1 No. 21: Lee Ming-che Sentencing a Warning to Others (Analysis)

TDB Vol. 1 No. 21: Lee Ming-che Sentencing a Warning to Others (Analysis)

More than the unfair treatment of a man who did nothing wrong, today’s sentencing is another reminder that China has no intention of playing by international rules. It is also a warning that Beijing has cast a much wider net to silence critics and those, Chinese and not, who propose an alternative system of governance in China. J. Michael Cole looks at the significance of today’s ruling.

 

The Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court in Hunan Province today sentenced Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che to five years’ imprisonment for “subversion of state power” and suspended his political rights for two years, a ruling that Taiwan’s Presidential Office and rights organizations worldwide decried as “unacceptable.”

Lee was arrested in March upon entering China via Macau. After disappearing for several months, he resurfaced in court in Hunan Province in September, where he was accused of collaborating with others in China and on social media to “attack the Chinese government” and promote “Western-style democracy.”

Peng Yuhua, a Chinese citizen who was accused of working with Lee in “organizing, planning and taking action to subvert national authority and overthrow the socialist system,” was sentenced to seven years in prison.

After today’s ruling, Lee said he would not appeal.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have described the sentencing as “absolutely outrageous” and a “warning signal” to other activists. In a statement, Taiwan’s Presidential Office wrote that “it is regrettable that the Lee Ming-che case has seriously damaged cross-strait relations and especially challenged Taiwanese people’s persistence and ideals for democracy and freedom.”

Lee is the first Taiwanese national to be sentenced for such a “crime” in China under the new National Security Law which passed on July 1, 2015 and which stipulates that preserving the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China “is a shared obligation of all the Chinese people, including compatriots from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.”

The court’s suspension of Lee’s political rights is no doubt meant to underscore Beijing’s contention that the new National Security Law applies to Taiwanese nationals (whom it regards as PRC citizens) regardless of where the alleged crimes are committed. We should note here that the said crimes Lee is accused of having committed occurred primarily online.

The heavy sentence is also meant to send a loud signal to other activists in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere that they, too, can now be apprehended and convicted for “crimes endangering national security” and the “people’s democratic dictatorship regime” as (loosely) defined in the Law, irrespective of where the said crimes have been committed, both physically and online.

The heavy sentence is also meant to send a loud signal to other activists in Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere that they, too, can now be apprehended and convicted for “crimes endangering national security” and the “people’s democratic dictatorship regime” as (loosely) defined in the Law, irrespective of where the said crimes have been committed, both physically and online. This development will no doubt have a chilling effect on activists, academics, journalists, officials and artists who may fear that they have, at some point, promoted through their work or personal discussions online notions of democracy or sovereignty that can be construed as criminal in China.

Moreover, the existence of the Law, and now the precedent set by Lee’s arrest and sentencing, provides the means and empowerment for local officials to act independently and to disappear a suspect into the Chinese legal system, out of which it has become increasingly difficult to emerge — even for foreign passport holders. In other words, and as likely was the case with Lee, the arrest and sentencing of non-PRC nationals can now occur without a directive from, or even the knowledge of, the central government.

By targeting Taiwanese nationals and others who are engaged in the promotion of human rights and democracy, Beijing hopes to deter their engagement with likeminded elements in China and limit their ability to cooperate with them in defying CCP authoritarian rule. Thus, besides scaring off outside forces, the move also seeks to further isolate human rights activists in China, who under new rules governing foreign NGOs have already been having a tougher time connecting with the outside world.

More than the unfair treatment of a man who did nothing wrong, today’s sentencing is yet another reminder that China has no intention of playing by international rules. It is also a warning that it has now cast a much wider — and extraterritorial — net in its attempt to silence critics and those, Chinese and not, who propose an alternative, more liberal and democratic system of governance in China.

Photo: Chuyện Việt Nam

TDB Vol. 1 No. 19: Kou Yanding — A Chinese Dissident’s Journey Through Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 19: Kou Yanding — A Chinese Dissident’s Journey Through Taiwan

After spending a year touring Taiwan and meeting people from all walks of life, Chinese ‘enemy of the state’ Kou Yanding shares her views on change, the power of civil society, and the challenges facing Taiwan as China flexes its muscles. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

Chinese activist Kou Yanding (寇延丁) identified herself as a “public interest advocate” and did not know she was a dissident until she was arrested by Chinese authorities on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” the same “crime” that has led to the forced disappearance of Taiwanese citizen Lee Ming-che and the arrest of the late Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo.

After arriving in Taiwan last October as a 2017 Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, Kou embarked on a nation-wide tour with assistance from a civil society organization and local groups to exchange thoughts with local Taiwanese and to urge them to know and face up to China.

“Through my interactions with Taiwanese people over the past year, I have discovered that they hold two alternating images of China: either it’s ‘big,’ or it’s ‘bad,’” Kou said during a seminar concluding her tour on Nov. 11. “People either talk about China as a political superpower and a global economic powerhouse, or as a regime that is autocratic and cruel.”

“Lack of understanding of China puts Taiwanese people’s interests at risk,” she said.

‘Enemy of the State’

Kou’s trip to Taiwan began less than two years after she was freed on Feb. 14, 2015, following a 128-day stint in a Chinese jail.

Her detention came as a result of a sweep of arrests targeting Transition Institute, a non-governmental think-tank in Beijing founded in 2007, and the Liren Rural Libraries, also founded in 2007 to promote education in rural areas and shape the rural young into “modern citizens.” In September 2014, the Libraries were shut down and Transition Institute founder Guo Yushan was detained, followed by a wave of detentions of NGO workers, including Kou.

The year 2014 was a sensitive year for Beijing, with Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution erupting only months apart against, respectively, creeping Chinese influence in Taiwan and Beijing’s refusal to grant universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Kou’s detention resulted from her involvement in the two movements and a wave of arrests in response to the printing of material about the Umbrella Movement by a woman in Beijing.

Kou, left, Wu Jieh-min, associate research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, and NGO workers from Hong Kong (second from the right) and Taiwan (right), share their views on why Taiwanese should interact with Chinese civil society and cultivate a “Taiwanese viewpoint” of China during a seminar in Taipei on Nov. 11. (Photo courtesy of the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation)

In her book, How is an Enemy Made? — Chinese Who Have No Right to Remain Silent, Kou details her 128-day ordeal “through which enemies of the state are manufactured.” During her interrogation she was enlightened by her interrogators (one of whom she nicknamed “pig”), who informed her that she was part of a “subversion scheme” centered on a training camp involving activists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. One of the trainers, a convenient fact highlighted by “pig,” was Chien Hsi-chieh, a non-violent resistance advocate, but more importantly, one of the founding members of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan.

Before her involvement in the alleged plot, Kou’s work had always focused more on public welfare. She founded organizations to support people with disabilities in China which today continue to play an active role in areas that were most affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. She focused on grassroots empowerment that even received approval by the Chinese authorities: her Operational Democracy — Bringing Robert’s Rules of Order to the Countryside, was published with permissions in China.

It was not unnatural for a civil society worker in China to eventually look to Hong Kong and Taiwan for precedents and opportunities to share experience. But in 2014, it was more risky than ever to associate with activists from the two places.

Petitions with Chinese characteristics

At every seminar that she held, Kou and the local team that supported her tour in Taiwan screened “Petition” (上訪), a documentary by Chinese director Zhao Liang. The film covers more than a decade and ends in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. In the lead-up to the Games, a petition village — spontaneously built as petitioners stayed in Beijing for years hoping in vain that their cases involving local injustice and gross corruption could be heard by the state’s highest institutions — was torn down.

Almost 10 years have elapsed since the Beijing Olympics, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to be cracking down on corruption, one of the main grievances animating the petitioners. Have petitions, a form of appeal to higher ups in government seeking redress that harkens back to feudal China’s “imperial appeal” (gao yu zhuang, 告御狀), had any success in mitigating the longstanding problems with the Chinese system?

“No,” Kou says, emphatically.

“Xi’s anti-graft campaign is selective in that it targets only his opponents,” she said. “The petitions [to Beijing] continue and the most prominent one recently was that by veterans of the People’s Liberation Army.”

Asked if she apprehends returning to China after spending a year in Taiwan revealed the problems plaguing Chinese society, Kou was evasive, but stressed that the Chinese government has “done a successful job drumming up and spreading fear, even in Taiwan.”

“I’ve been very open about what I’ve been doing in Taiwan via my column [on Taiwanese online media Storm Media],” she added, suggesting that there is no need for Chinese law-enforcement authorities to be alarmed by possible “secret activities.”

Taiwanese apathy

Kou says she was stunned by how few people in Taiwan know who Lee Ming-che is, and worried that even fewer wish to know more about China aside from its apparent economic prowess.

“I was really depressed after a seminar [held earlier this year] with a group of young students at a college in central Taiwan, during which only two or three hands were raised after I asked them whether they’d heard of Lee,” Kou told her audience on Nov. 11.

In her column, Kou said she was perplexed by commentaries by Taiwanese describing Lee’s arrest as “his own doing” because he had engaged in activities that are forbidden by the Chinese government.

“It’s unbearable to see that [Taiwanese who enjoy freedom] would use [Beijing’s] logic to explain [the consequences of] your actions,” she wrote. “There are also those who choose not to look at China just because they ‘don’t like China,’ which I consider an extremely childish answer not fitting for an adult.”

“All the progress and reform in China started from the people, from peasants, petitioners and public interest advocates, whose demands got debated by scholars, spread by media and eventually recognized by the institutions.”

The last thing she needs is for Taiwanese to refer to history and politics and explain to her, as some friends and scholars have tried to do, why some Taiwanese behave that way, Kou says. “The point is not about convincing me in oral arguments. The question in the end comes down to how Taiwanese are to face up to their gigantic neighbor.”

But, indeed, how? Kou said she is here to ask the question, not to provide an answer. But an answer was nevertheless implied in her talk on how Chinese civil society is actually more vibrant and active than those who obsess about the omnipresence of the communist regime would think.

If one focuses only on the Chinese Communist Party’s size and might, it is natural that he or she would feel powerless, she says. “But from what I’ve seen from ‘among the people,’ people power is strong, as manifested in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where thousands of civic groups mobilized.”

“All the progress and reform in China started from the people, from peasants, petitioners and public interest advocates, whose demands got debated by scholars, spread by media and eventually recognized by the institutions,” Kou said, firm in her belief that change comes from the bottom and through more substantial civil society-to-civil society exchanges with places with robust civil activities, such as Taiwan.

Top photo:  Kou Yanding speaks about China and why Taiwan should care (Photo courtesy of the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation).

TDB Vol. 1 No. 18: China’s Expanding Influence in Democracies Around the World

TDB Vol. 1 No. 18: China’s Expanding Influence in Democracies Around the World

China is using its power to undermine democratic institutions and free expression in democracies worldwide. From the harassment of journalists to the removal of thousands of articles in prestigious academic journals, the CCP is rapidly eroding freedoms that we have long taken for granted. Olivia Yang reports.

 

During his three-and-a-half-hour address to the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress on Oct. 18, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to make his party more responsive to calls for democracy and justice. But tight security around the congress — human rights lawyers, rights defenders, petitioners and dissidents were arrested nationwide — suggested otherwise. And increasingly, China watchers are warning of Beijing’s accelerating efforts to reinforce and export its anti-democracy beliefs abroad.

One day before the closely watched Party Congress, a press conference was held in Taipei to draw attention to China’s spreading influence in democracies around the world.

Titled “Made in China: Democracy Oscillated and Human Rights Wrecked,” the media event was convened by 17 Taiwanese non-government organizations, including the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, Covenants Watch, Taiwan Support China Human Rights Lawyers Network, Human Rights Network for Tibet and Taiwan, International Tibet Network, and Tibetan Youth Congress.

Beijing has been increasing pressure on international events and organizers to either not extend an invitation to Taiwan or force the island-nation to attend under the name “Chinese Taipei.” Taiwan delegations, research teams, journalists and NGOs have also been barred from entering international meetings and assemblies despite having gained access in the past. These events have included the World Health Assembly (WHA), the Interpol general assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Labor Organization conference, and others.

Other than interfering with Taiwan’s international affairs, China has been tampering with local events through more direct means. This includes the kidnapping of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che in March, influence in Taiwanese media, threats against journalists, and longstanding reliance on pro-unification groups to intimidate civilians, such as the violent assault on student protesters who rallied against the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” which was scheduled to be held at National Taiwan University last month.

Growing international threat

China’s interference is not limited to Taiwan. In August, Chinese authorities demanded Cambridge University Press (CUP) remove 315 articles in China Quarterly, CUP’s China-focused journal, when accessed in China. Around 1,000 e-books were also asked to be taken off from CUP’s Chinese websites. The writings covered issues ranging from the Tiananmen Square protests and the Cultural Revolution to Taiwan and Tibet.

The U.S.-based Association for Asian Studies (AAS) also confirmed the same month that China had requested the censorship of around 100 articles in its Journal of Asian Studies — also published by CUP. It was also learned in early November that Germany-based Springer Nature, the world’s largest academic book publisher, had removed at least 1,000 articles in the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. The articles in question also contained the keywords “Taiwan,” “Tibet,” and “Cultural Revolution.”

U.K-based CUP reversed its decision to comply with Beijing’s request after receiving widespread criticism, while AAS refused to adhere to Chinese authorities.

Visa denial is an alternative approach China is taking to curb discussion of democracy and human rights.

Canadian Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen in August was denied a visa upon planning to raise questions on human rights on a Canada-China Legislative Association trip. Prominent British human rights activist Benedict Rogers this month was also barred from entering Hong Kong, despite Rogers saying he was making a private trip.

In a more extreme case, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, was not even allowed to apply for a China visa when she sought to attend the funeral of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo in July.

China has long used visa denials to also rid itself of foreign journalists and academics who are too critical of its repressive policies. In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China. In August this year, Nathan Vanderklippe, the Beijing bureau chief for Canada’s Globe & Mail, was briefly detained by police and his computer was seized while reporting in Xinjiang. For updates on how China meddles and censors media worldwide, see Freedom House’s “China Media Bulletin.”

In recent years, several foreign journalists have also been denied access to certain sites or regions, and a number of them worldwide have been threatened with legal action for writing about sensitive issues in China.

While Beijing authorities had a direct hand in the above occurrences, the Chinese Communist Party is also infiltrating democratic countries through “soft power.”

In May, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has chapters in universities across the U.S., condemned one university for inviting the Dalai Lama to deliver a speech. A few days later, it accused a Chinese student of “not loving China” because she praised U.S. freedom and liberty in her graduation speech.

The following month, Chinese students at Australian universities were reported to be monitoring fellow nationals and keeping the Chinese embassy informed of activities such as human rights protests. Political parties in Australia have also been accused of taking donations from Chinese property developers in recent years, while Chinese state-controlled media giants have sought to influence mainstream Australian media by pushing cooperation deals.

Interference by Chinese officials has also been reported in Canada, such as during a state visit by then-president Hu Jintao, when, according for a former Canadian intelligence officer, a Chinese diplomatic mission mobilized Chinese counter-protesters. Keen on securing a free-trade deal with China, the Liberal Trudeau government has been reluctant to openly criticize Beijing for its human rights violations or activities that undermine Canada’s democracy.

Dr. Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, also a prominent expert on Chinese affairs, in September published a research paper examining how China’s soft power is becoming a growing concern for New Zealand and how its effects could be mitigated.

In the executive summary of her study, Brady writes, “The focus of media attention has been on Australia, but the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) attempts to guide, buy, or coerce political influence abroad are widespread. China’s foreign influence activities are part of a global strategy with almost identical, longstanding approaches, adapted to fit current government policies. They are a core task of China’s united front work; one of the CCP’s famed ‘magic weapons’ that helped bring it to power.”

China’s influence, and by default its nefarious influence on democratic institutions, is also growing through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and in places like Africa, where it has been cooperating with local media organizations.

Safeguarding democracies

The Australian government is preparing to introduce next month a series of laws covering espionage and foreign political interference. The U.K.’s Foreign Office also summoned China’s ambassador to the U.K. after Rogers was denied entry in Hong Kong. The activist said on Oct. 17 that he will start an NGO to monitor the city’s democracy and human rights.

However, in Canadian MP Bergen’s case, she said Liberal MPs that were also traveling to China for the Canada-China Legislative Association trip did not reply when she asked what measures they would take in response to her visa denial. The group proceeded with the trip without her. Senator Joseph Day, co-chair of the Canada-China Legislative Association, said the group was told by Canadian and Chinese officials it had no choice if it still wanted to go.

When Montreal-based ICAO last year refused to invite Taiwan and blocked Taiwanese reporters from a triennial air safety assembly, Paraguay’s ambassador to Canada, Julio Cesar Arriola Ramirez, told reporters that the ICAO Secretary General, Fang Liu of China, had warned them their microphones would be muted if they tried to speak on behalf of Taiwan.

“The government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life.”

In addition to his vow to respond to calls for democracy, Xi also mentioned cross-Strait relations during his report at the 19th CCP Congress, saying China has “a firm will, sufficient faith, and adequate capacity to defeat any intention of ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form.”

“[We will] never allow any person, organization or political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China,” he said.

In response to Xi’s remarks, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement that the unilateral construction of a “one China” on Taiwan was unlikely to gain support from the Taiwanese. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in her National Day address on Oct. 10 also dedicated a passage reminding that the island-nation’s democracy and freedom “only came following the joint efforts of all Taiwanese people.”

“As a result, the government must make the utmost effort to safeguard Taiwan’s values of democracy and freedom, as well as our way of life,” Tsai said.

The president also reiterated that she and Taiwan would not “bow to pressure” from China regarding cross-Strait relations.

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