China -Taiwan

Chinese sentence for Taiwanese activist strains cross-Straits relations

Lee Ming-cheh at the Yueyang City People's Intermediate Court in Hunan Province
Lee Ming-cheh at the Yueyang City People's Intermediate Court in Hunan Province YUEYANG INTERMEDIATE PEOPLE'S CO / AFP

A Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced Taiwanese democracy activist Lee Ming-cheh to five years in prison on charges of attempting to subvert state power. Taiwan immediately denounced the sentence as "unacceptable" and "politically motivated", as did human rights groups, and it is likely to put further strain on ties between Beijing and Taipei.


“Attempts to subvert state power” is a serious crime in China but, as it is not well defined in law, it is open to varied interpretations by the courts.

In a rare display of openness, the charge and the proceedings were published on the website of the Yueyang City Intermediate Court in Hunan Province and broadcast on the internet.

Lee Ming-cheh, together with codefendant Peng Yuhua, a mainland Chinese, created a QQ group, a popular online platform owned by Shenzhen-based company Tencent, where they “issued remarks that denigrated and attacked the government”, according to the chargesheet, "wantonly distorting facts and using public opinion to slander and attack the Chinese government”.

China has not been good in protecting the civil rights of their people.

Strained ties between China and Taiwan

According to Amnesty International, QQ is merely an online chat platform “which comments on China’s political system and promoting Western democratic values, where Lee Ming-cheh also shared his views about promoting a multiparty system in China”.

Deprived of political rights

But, according to Article 105 of the Chinese Criminal Law, both Lee Ming-cheh and Peng Yuhua were guilty of “subverting state power”. Peng, who was seen as the “ringleader” was sentenced to seven years, and Lee got five years, with two years deprivation of political rights.

“This is ironic,” said a spokesperson with Covenant Watch, a Taiwanese NGO where Lee worked as a volunteer. “Because we know that China has not been good in protecting the civil rights of their people and in this sentence they deprive him of his political rights.”

Observers point out that Lee’s sentence is “relatively light”, as the maximum sentence for subverting state power is 10 years for "active participants" in this crime and life for "ringleaders".

”There’s maybe a Taiwanese dimension,” thinks Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Head of the Department of Government and International Studies with Baptist University in Hong Kong.

“Maybe the Chinese wanted to send a message to Taiwan, that the sentence is not as harsh as for a Chinese national because he is from Taiwan, that he is a bit idealistic and naive and so we have to be more lenient with him," he says. "Now of course in Taiwan this is not the perception at all, in Taiwan the perception is that it’s been very harsh."

Moves to change cross-Straits relations law

Nevertheless, the Lee case may put more strain on the cross-Strait relations.

On 27 November MPs of Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] proposed amendments to the regulations concerning cross-Stratis relations, which boil down to scrapping references to "national unification", a clause that is enshrined in both mainland and Taiwanese law since the split in 1949.

“It is part of a stream, a new set of ideas in Taiwan,” says Cabestan, “which is to distance Taiwan even more from the Mainland.”

“Quite a number of Green and DPP politicians are working to move in that direction.”

But he doubts if President Tsai Ing-wen will accept the changes, even though she is a DPP member because she has "adopted a kind of middle-of-the-road position towards Mainland China. And she doesn’t want to rock the boat too much.”

In Beijing, Taiwan’s latest moves are being scrutinised.

Tsai Ing-wen "has been a separatist,” says Professor Shi Yinhong, a political scientist with the People’s University in Beijing. “Especially before she became president. But after she took over the administration, she became responsible for Taiwan's security.

Since then, her “persistent ambiguous policy is to avoid serious alienation from the United States. And also avoid a mainland punitive action, especially military action,” he says.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning