Editorial: Another Chinese nail in the coffin of Taiwanese goodwill

Lee Ching-yu (center) holding a picture of her husband, Lee Ming-che. (By Associated Press)

With the 28th anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident – just like Taiwan’s 228 Incident a euphemism for a large-scale massacre of government opponents – approaching, human rights in China are appearing on the international radar again.

While it’s hard to expect a communist country to set a model for human rights standards, there have been periods with ups and downs.

With Xi Jinping (習近平) in charge, a tough attitude dominates at home and overseas.

Repression took a new turn for the worse recently with a case that cuts close to home for Taiwan’s 23 million people. For the first time, a Taiwanese citizen, Lee Ming-che (李明哲), was arrested, with the procedure from his arrest on March 19 shows how little the communist government is interested in the rule of law.

At first, Lee, a human rights activist working for a community college in Taipei, was reported missing after having crossed into the province of Guangdong from Macau. After more than a week, rumors emerged that he might have been detained by the Chinese authorities, but no official statement was forthcoming until the Beijing government’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) acknowledged he had been detained in an investigation

Even then, the TAO refused to divulge Lee’s whereabouts and gave a stereotyped reply that he was “in good health” to concerns about heart problems or high blood pressure.

When his wife, Lee Ching-yu (李靜瑜) tried to board a flight to China to find out the most elementary facts about her husband, such as his whereabouts, and to supply him with the medicine necessary for his heart problems, Beijing canceled her “Taiwan compatriot document” necessary to travel to China.

It was again more than a month later that the TAO finally came up with relevant information, such as his being detained in Central China’s province of Hunan, as well as a more precise listing of the allegations he was facing.

Lee Ming-che was being suspected of activities “subverting state power,” including the formation of a ring of subversives plotting to undermine the communist government.

No details were provided about how and why he had been detained in Hunan, which was apparently not on his itinerary, nor about evidence behind the charges.

The TAO’s statement gave the impression of being filled with grandiose and overblown accusations, since most of Lee’s activities seem to have included providing information about Taiwan’s history through social media platforms and offering books that are unavailable in China.

The impression exists that Beijing wants to make an example of Lee, both as a warning to foreign non-governmental organizations under new laws restricting their activities, and to the Tsai Administration for its refusal to accept the One China formula under the so-called “1992 Consensus.”

While Lee might have been seen as a relatively innocuous rights activist, his past as a worker for President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party might also be playing a part in his predicament, with China wanting to show its disdain for Taiwan’s democratically elected government.

Some commentators have suggested that Lee’s arrest is a symptom of internal tension in China, with certain elements provoking the incident to lambast Xi’s supposedly “moderate” approach to Tsai.

Inside Taiwan, the president came under fire from some quarters for her low-key attitude, even though several government departments including the Mainland Affairs Council and the Ministry of Justice had called on China to free the activist and to honor bilateral agreements. One school of thinking has it that a “diplomatic” attitude without high-level confrontation could yield the best results and lead to Lee being freed after six months.

His wife has chosen another route, taking his cause all the way to the United States and Congress, with apparent plans for Europe. Despite the failure of her first attempt, she has also asked the Taiwanese government to help her arrange a visit to China.

In a statement Thursday, Lee Ching-yu said she would not be seeking the employment of a Chinese attorney, because China was not a country “governed by the rule of law,” but, just like Taiwan during the Chiang Kai-shek era, ruled by “the rule of man.”

She added that what she needed was support and assistance from legal advisors in Taiwan and in the rest of the civilized word.

Right from the start, China’s behavior in this case has flouted all common sense and official practice. Violating agreements about mutual cooperation in judicial cases with Taiwan, China never explained Lee’s disappearance, waiting to acknowledge he had been detained until most people on the island assumed that was the case.

Once it admitted to the detention, it failed to provide relevant information to the Taiwanese government about the reasons for his detention and about his whereabouts, while neither officials nor relatives from Taiwan were allowed to contact Lee.

Such treatment of a Taiwanese citizen is unacceptable, both from a human rights standpoint, and from the view of international treaties. No country can flout an international agreement just because it suddenly doesn’t like a new government in that other country.

In combination with the treatment of Taiwan at the recent World Health Assembly and with the incident over the Emirates airline forcing its Taiwanese staff to remove pins with the Taiwanese flag from their clothing, and initially replacing them with People’s Republic of China flag, the arrest of Lee Ming-che is another example revealing China as an aggressive bully with not the least bit of interest in public relations or in the goodwill shown by Taiwan.