More than anything, Beijing is using the Lee case to send a warning to Taiwan and the rest of the world that proposing political alternatives for China, or even criticizing the CCP, can be costly. Whoever or wherever you are.
The “trial” of Taiwanese democracy activist Lee Ming-che, who went missing in China on March 19, opened yesterday at the Yueyang City Intermediate People’s Court, with Lee admitting to various purported crimes against China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Lee, 42, pleaded guilty to “subverting the state” by “spreading articles that maliciously attacked the Communist Party of China, China’s existing system and China’s government” by calling for a multiparty political system. After admitting his “wrongs,” the rights activist said he had been mislead by vicious Taiwanese (and Western) media about China and that his eyes had been opened. Now seeing the real virtues of China, Lee said that after he is released from prison (at this writing no sentence has been given) and allowed to return to Taiwan he would work towards promoting unification.
From the beginning, it was evident that whatever “confession” Lee made at trial would be coerced. As his long-winded “responses” to the prosecutor’s succinct questions made clear, this was political circus, a scripted affair that ticked off all the boxes in the CCP propaganda playbook.
The aims of this “open” trial — footage and a transcript of Lee’s “confession” were released to the public — were twofold, but both contained a warning. It was for domestic consumption in China, replete with the usual CCP nationalistic jingoism and the threat of dire repercussions for whomever opposes, or even criticizes, the authoritarian regime. And it was a fire across the bow aimed at Taiwan, a signal that China’s new national security and foreign NGO laws have, as had long been feared, concrete extraterritorial applicability: the inclusion of Taiwan in Chinese laws is no longer simple rhetoric; under President Xi Jinping, the state-party apparatus now has the wherewithal to arrest, capture, disappear and to prosecute Taiwanese nationals for purported — and intentionally loosely defined — national security crimes.
It is escalation, and something that is much, much bigger than Lee himself, who unwisely fell into the trap and was made an example of.
It is escalation, and something that is much, much bigger than Lee himself, who unwisely fell into the trap and was made an example of. President Xi himself didn’t have to give the order to nab Lee; it was enough that he had implemented a system of laws that now make it possible for overzealous local party members and agents of the security apparatus to take such action.
This political show is meant as a deterrent, as the promotion of alternatives for China, from democracy to a multiparty system, is now a prosecutable crime, even if you are not a Chinese national bound by domestic laws. It also tells us that support for an independent Taiwan can now also land one in a legal nightmare in China, a threat that is made all the more salient due to the willingness of many of China’s partners worldwide to detain, and “repatriate” to China, critics of the CCP. It tells us that we have now entered an age where the application of the party-state’s mechanisms of repression is no longer constrained by boundaries: the immediate peripheries — Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang — are most at risk, followed by countries within the region that have fallen under Beijing’s sway, and then states worldwide that try to curry favor with the Chinese.
As recent incidents have shown us, the Chinese party-state has already applied that extraterritoriality to the media and academia in an effort to silence those of us who are not physically in China.
Lee’s show trial is also a clear demonstration of the failure of Western powers to modernize the legal system in China. For years, various governments and organizations have invested large amounts of money and human capital training Chinese lawyers and judges in a bid to make the system more accountable, transparent, and aligned with international standards. What we have gotten in return is a facade of legitimacy and legality, but underneath all this lies the CCP, which has only become more repressive in recent years. Dozens of Chinese rights lawyers trained by the West (those who espoused the values being communicated) have been detained, and the courts remain puppets of the regime. Like the belief that engagement and trade would transform China, foreign assistance to its legal system has only provided the bricks the CCP needed to erect and even more formidable prison for its people and those on the outside who remain committed to a freer, more liberal, and perhaps more democratic China.
As I have argued before, the Lee case was also a trap for the Tsai Ing-wen government in Taiwan, which, had it lashed out with the fury that some of Mr. Lee’s supporters demanded of it, would only have succeeded in giving ammunition to hardliners within the CCP who want President Xi to be even harsher on Taiwan, and possibly to impose a longer sentence on Lee for his “crimes.” This was a lose-lose situation for the Tsai government, as avoiding that trap made it appear weak in the eyes of the Taiwanese population and unable (or unwilling) to stand up for one of its own. In reality, there was little the Tsai government could do except provide assistance behind the scenes (which it did) and hope that Beijing would abide by the agreements signed years ago on cross-Strait judicial cooperation (which it did not). In the current atmosphere, highly vocal criticism of the CCP on human rights hasn’t worked either, as the sad Liu Xiaobo affair made painfully clear. Unless the international community stiffens its spine and is willing, in concert, to impose costs on China for its misbehavior, all else will fail. Mere words and condemnations, though necessary to educate publics outside China, are insufficient. The notion that this will deter China, or in the present case that it can bring succor to Mr. Lee, is based on a misunderstanding of the kind of CCP we are dealing with today (especially in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress, where any sign of weakness on President Xi’s part can threaten his ability to consolidate his power within the system).
Did Mr. Lee do anything wrong by promoting democracy? Absolutely not. But he played a very dangerous game by continuing to do so after China had implemented laws that make such behavior a crime. Ignore what he said, and what he likely will continue to say as long as he remains in China. All of that is scripted and obtained under duress. None of this will convince a single one of us that Mr. Lee has somehow “seen the light.” Nor will it persuade a single Taiwanese that the Chinese one-party system — and unification — are desirable outcomes for Taiwan, where it is possible to criticize the government, to call for a better system (even argue for unification!) without being dragged into a legal nightmare.
But the warning is very real, and so is the growing threat to all of us, wherever we are.
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