Editorial: Clear the sky above the Taiwan Straits by freeing Lee now

Lee Ming-che's wife at the airport on April 10. (By Associated Press)

On March 19, a Taiwanese citizen crossed from Macau into the Chinese province of Guangdong, carrying documents to help his mother-in-law look for suitable medical treatment.

However, after that day, nothing was heard from him again for ten days, until the man’s wife told the media she had been informed by Taiwanese government circles that her husband had been detained.

At a regular news conference, the Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office finally acknowledged and confirmed the rumors, saying Lee Ming-che (李明哲) had been detained during an investigation into his suspected involvement in “activities endangering national security.”

Now, more than 25 days later, it is still not clear what that means and where Lee is being held. There is no evidence whatsoever of any involvement by Lee in human rights activities inside China, since that was not the aim of his visit anyway. Yes, Lee is a former employee of the Democratic Progressive Party, yes, Lee has shown concern for the fate of human rights activists in China.

Yet, he is just one among the thousands of Taiwanese who travel to China each year, and there must be many of those who, even if not DPP employees, might be members or at least have voted for that party because they oppose China’s communist regime and its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.

Until his disappearance and detainment, nobody had heard of Lee, so it is not as if China is detaining a major critic. The country’s behavior is only turning a minor critic into a symbol of everything that’s wrong with today’s China: the lack of freedom, freedom of opinion, freedom of the media, the absence of a true rule of law.

Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu (李淨瑜), announced a plan to seek out her husband by herself to offer him support and provide him with medicine and moral support, while she also intended to find out where he was being held and what the charges against him were.

However, when she arrived at the airport for her flight to Beijing on April 10, she was told China had canceled her travel document in a clear but all too predictable case of sabotage.

There have been various theories as to why the communist regime would want to detain Lee. There have been rumors about disagreements between factions inside China, with the national security establishment at loggerheads with the Taiwan Affairs Office, the hardliners facing down the moderates.

The recent introduction of a law regulating non-governmental organizations is also thought to have played a role, with Lee serving as a warning to show those groups what could happen to them.

Whatever the reason, Lee’s disappearance and detention is the latest element in a long line of incidents creating a widening gap of distrust between Taiwan and China.

If a man like Lee, who only showed concern for human rights in China from a distance, has been arrested, then nobody is safe, not any one of the million-plus Taiwanese working and living on the other side of the Taiwan Straits.

Lee’s fate and the treatment of his wife by the Chinese authorities make one wonder what the value is of agreements between both sides, since there is a “Cross-Strait Joint Crime-Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement” supposed to handle such situations.

Over the past year, China already showed it had no respect for Taiwan’s sovereignty as it forced several of its diplomatic allies to hand over Taiwanese suspects in electronic fraud cases. Even though their fate met with limited sympathy from the public, according to the law, they should have been tried in Taiwan, even if, as China argued, most of the victims had been Chinese citizens.

Lee’s case goes one step further because he is obviously not a criminal, but a man concerned with matters of basic human rights. Few people believe that he was traveling to China to wage an active campaign on behalf of dissidents or political prisoners. The community college staff member was doing something totally unrelated, helping members of his family.

It now remains to be seen how the Taiwanese government can deal with the situation. Its initial response was seen as lukewarm, with legislators and local human rights activists calling for more exposure, with the mobilization of the international media and of overseas rights groups and politicians friendly to Taiwan.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Thursday it had discussed the case with the American Institute in Taiwan, though neither side was prepared to offer any comment on the content of those discussions, so there is no way of knowing whether AIT gave any advice on how to resolve the matter or whether the Trump Administration itself would be prepared to intervene on Taiwan’s and on Lee’s behalf.

The general impression is that the new United States president is less interested in human rights and more in trade, which could translate itself in indifference for Lee’s fate.

By treating an ordinary Taiwanese citizen like a danger to national security, China is burning its bridges. Public opinion on the island will not accept that this man is a threat to anyone, least of all to the government of President Xi Jinping.

It is up to China to end this travesty of justice and to release Lee immediately, with an explanation and an apology to him and his family. His immediate release would clear the skies and show the world that there is still room for humanity and justice in relations between China and Taiwan.