The Lee Ming-che incident, a big fight between Taiwan and China security institutions

Lawmakers call for Lee's release. (By Central News Agency)

After China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) acknowledged on March 29 that former Democratic Progressive Party worker and non-governmental organization employee Lee Ming-che (李明哲) had been detained for “suspected involvement in conducting activities harmful to national security,” the case turned into what one could consider an “incident” in cross-straits relations. The author is of the opinion that this action by China is an act of vengeance for the detention of a “Chinese student” as a spy. The TAO is acting as the representative for this act of vengeance for China, but in fact, this time the TAO is innocent.

When we are discussing actions by China against Taiwan, the author has the habit of treating Beijing as one piece of metal, with the lower levels conscientiously following the orders from above, and of looking at the whole of China as one “actor,” but it is not really like that, the members of the Communist Party’s central leadership’s Taiwan working group, in addition to the central leaders, also include representatives from diplomacy, Taiwan-related organizations, the military, and the national security and intelligence establishments. Among the Taiwan-related organizations, the TAO stands on an equal level with the representatives of other circles, but its ranking is weaker. The Lee Ming-che case originates from the national security system, which is unlikely to tell the TAO about its actions either beforehand nor afterward.

From the TAO’s replies to journalists on March 29 you can tell that its news department had first consulted national security departments in order to prepare for the news conference and find out where Lee Ming-che was. The national security people only provided one simple reply: “Lee Ming-che is being investigated by relevant units as a suspect in conducting activities harmful to national security, and at present his health is fine.” As a result, during its news conference, the TAO explained Lee’s situation with the phrase “according to our understanding.” To further questions from reporters, the TAO spokesman could only reply “what I understand for the time being is what I just said.”

It is not difficult to understand the TAO’s position in handling Taiwan-related problems. One only needs to look at the recent “Chinese student” spy case in Taiwan to understand. The Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau discovered the case of a former Chinese student involved in spying activities in Taiwan. From the information which broke in the news, one can conclude that his spying was real, even though he was an amateur and not a professional spy. Even though this incident had a large measure of influence on bilateral relations, the Mainland Affairs Council would also not have been informed beforehand by Taiwan’s intelligence services. There is not that much difference between the MAC’s predicament in handling cross-straits issues and the TAO’s.

The first conclusion one can draw in the Lee Ming-che case is that the struggle between the security establishments of China and Taiwan does not amount to a fight between the departments in charge of cross-straits relations, and even less a fight between the leaders of both sides. The main trends in current cross-straits relations are still mutual fumbling and mutual maintenance of a “strategic focus,” seeking a way to break through the impasse, and preventing an accident from creating a force which makes relations hit rock bottom.

However, the Lee Ming-che case does have the potential to drive mutual relations downward. After the case of the Chinese spy came the Lee incident, and after the Lee incident, 20 Chinese fishermen were caught by Taiwan’s Coast Guard for crossing into the waters surrounding the Dongsha or Pratas islands. If such problems are not well managed, and public protests take over, as official exchanges are broken off and second-track interaction has also been interrupted, the private contacts which are the only form still existing between both sides will also suffer a serious setback and even the efforts on both sides to seek a way to break the impasse will be affected.