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.