We shouldn’t expect the Tsai government to burst out guns blazing on the Lee case, as to do so would only spring the traps set by elements in China who are uncomfortable with the current equilibrium in the Taiwan Strait.
The case of Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese human rights and democracy advocate who has been missing in China since March 19, took another turn yesterday after Chinese authorities revoked the travel permit of Lee’s spouse, Lee Ching-yu, before she could board a plane to China to see her husband.
Lee Ming-che was nabbed on March 19 after attempting to enter Zhuhai, in Guangdong Province, via Macau. The State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) has since said that Lee was detained for “endangering national security.” Chinese authorities have yet to provide any details as to which laws he may have broken, though it is suspected that his arrest may have occurred under the recently passed Foreign NGO Management Law, which severely constrains the ability of foreign NGOs to operate in China.
Taiwanese agencies have reached out to their Chinese counterparts since March 19 but have yet to obtain a response, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) has said. Chinese authorities have denied any visits to Lee on humanitarian grounds or under cross-Strait mechanisms established in recent years.
Initial reports claimed that Lee, a former employee of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who visits China regularly, was on his way to Guangzhou to find medical treatment for this mother in law back in Taiwan. A passionate activist, Lee was known to have frequently discussed democracy and human rights with his Chinese counterparts on social media.
Earlier this week, the Chinese government warned Lee Ching-yu to stop talking to the media or else she would end up “hurting her husband.” Since news of Lee’s disappearance first broke in March, various Taiwanese NGOs have come together to draw attention to the case, and Lee Ching-yu has given a number of press conferences.
Despite the MAC’s “strong protest” yesterday, the Tsai Ing-wen administration has received some criticism for its “weak” response to the matter. While opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party engaged in hyperbole, what with references to the government’s “ineffectiveness” in dealing with Beijing and calls for the dissolution of the MAC and semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), the most stinging criticism has come from civil society, with some arguing that President Tsai herself should lash out at Beijing or Macau.
Whatever satisfaction such an outburst would certainly provide, doing so would be counterproductive — in fact, if Tsai did so, she would be falling into the trap that has been set for her. There is very good reason to believe that the decision to detain Lee wasn’t made in the uppermost echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but rather by factions within the Party (presumably the Jiang faction, according to Chinese sources) or national security apparatus keen on manufacturing a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. In other words, not only is President Xi Jinping unlikely to have ordered the detention, he probably wasn’t even aware that this was happening until he was presented with a fait accompli. Given the stakes in the lead-up to the Party leadership reshuffle later this year and his self-positioning as the ablest defender to China, President Xi’s hands are thus tied, as letting Lee go after he was accused of “endangering national security” would be a sign of weakness. And in the current environment in China, which President Xi himself has helped to create, weakness can be fatal.
There is very good reason to believe that the decision to detain Lee wasn’t made in the uppermost echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, but rather by factions within the Party or national security apparatus keen on manufacturing a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
The crucial element is that the Lee incident is conceivably an attempt to escalate tensions in the Taiwan Strait by factions in China that are either dissatisfied with Xi’s “leniency” towards President Tsai — despite the usual TAO and official media rhetoric, President Xi is not altogether displeased with the current status in cross-Strait relations and has much greater problems to deal with (e.g., North Korea, Trump summit at Mar-a-Lago, the economy, etc) — or, for purely domestic reasons, enemies who want to weaken his position prior to the Party congress. Whoever is responsible for Lee’s disappearance, therefore, was banking on a heated response from the Taiwan side. President Tsai’s decision not to do so, to allow agencies to quietly resolve the issue behind the scenes and to let civil society generate most of the noise, was the correct course of action, even if this exposes her to criticism from her own people for being “weak” on China. To give into the instinct to lash out would have been escalatory, cornering President Xi in the process and making resolution of the Lee controversy even less likely (it now appears that Lee could receive a relatively light, given the alleged “crime,” sentence of “community service”). Xi needs not to lose face in this; otherwise, his survival instincts will kick in, and that would not be conducive to problem-solving.
Thus, while more international pressure, such as that seen in the Feng Chongyi case, would certainly be welcome, we shouldn’t expect the Tsai government to burst out guns blazing, as to do so would only spring the traps that were set by elements who are uncomfortable with the current equilibrium in the Taiwan Strait. What the moment calls for is delicate diplomacy with all the facts at hand. And that means an awareness of the domestic angle (China) to this story.
Top photo: Courtesy of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.