Detained Taiwan democracy activist and NGO worker Lee Ming-cheh “confessed” to charges of subversion at his trial in the central Chinese province of Hunan on Monday, as his wife said his guilty plea wasn't freely made.
Lee, the first foreign national to be tried under new laws governing NGO activity in China, stood trial at the Intermediate People's Court in Hunan's Yueyang city alongside Chinese national Peng Yuhua. Both were accused of "incitement to subvert state power."
In a broadcast made by the court, Lee "confessed" to making online posts to WeChat, Facebook, and other online communities with intent to "maliciously discredit" the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
But his stay in a Chinese police-run detention center had changed his mind, he said.
"While I was in the detention center, I saw a lot of TV programs with information about China's development, and I was able to receive a more rounded education," he said.
"This made me recognize the progress China has made in its development, which was completely different from the information I had received before in Taiwan," Lee told the court.
"This wrong-headed ideology led me to commit these criminal acts, and I plead guilty to this crime and express my remorse," he said.
But rights groups called for Lee's immediate release in the absence of conclusive evidence of an internationally recognizable crime.
Lee's wife and mother traveled from Taiwan on Sunday to attend the trial, which followed his detention on national security charges on arrival at the southern border city of Zhuhai on March 19.
Lee's wife Lee Ching-yu has repeatedly rejected out of hand and in advance the validity of any "confession" made by her husband.
Chinese rights activist Xu Qin, who went to the court to act as an independent human rights observer, said Lee Ching-yu had only made a brief statement in response to requests for comment from journalists as she arrived to attend the trial.
"Lee Ching-yu told the media that she hoped they understood that Lee Ming-cheh's confession and guilty plea wasn't made freely," Xu said.
"She had written a slogan on her forearms that read 'Lee Ming-cheh, I am proud of you'."
Security was tight outside the court building on Monday morning, Lee's supporters said.
"They aren't allowing anyone to walk past the court buildings; they have cordoned off the street," a supporter surnamed Liang told RFA. "There were even a couple of guns on the roof, pointing downwards."
"Local government officials detained five or six people at the scene."
Lawyer also tried
Lee's statement in court closely echoed those made by human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong at his Aug. 22 subversion trial, a procedure that was immediately denounced by Jiang's family as a show trial.
A spokesman for China’s State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Lee had "hired" two lawyers as his defense counsel.
But detainees in subversion cases brought by the ruling Chinese Communist Party are increasingly being put under pressure to make a televised "confession" and to fire attorneys appointed by their families, using government lawyers instead.
Chinese law allows police to detain those suspected of "national security" crimes and hold them under residential surveillance at a secret location for up to six months, with no access to lawyers or family visits.
While the Taiwan authorities said they would do what they could to assist Lee Ching-yu, she appeared reluctant to comment after receiving her travel documents from Beijing, suggesting that her silence may have been the price of her permission to attend the trial.
One mainland Chinese rights lawyer had earlier warned that Lee Ching-yu could be pulled into a dangerous game by attending the trial and following the Chinese government's instructions.
"All along, she has said she doesn't recognize [any confession], which means then that she doesn't recognize the trial as valid, either," the lawyer said. "And yet, she's being invited to attend."
"She runs the risk that the authorities would use her visit to pressure Lee Ming-cheh into making a confession," the lawyer said ahead of the trial.
Meanwhile, London-based rights group Amnesty International called on its members to write to the Chinese government calling for Lee Ming-cheh's immediate release.
It called on Beijing to "release Lee Ming-cheh immediately and unconditionally unless there is sufficient credible and admissible evidence that he has committed an internationally recognized offense and is granted a fair trial in line with international standards."
Chinese authorities should also "immediately disclose Lee Ming-cheh’s whereabouts and ensure that he is protected from torture and other ill-treatment [and] ensure that he is allowed to have access to his family, a lawyer of his choice, and adequate medical care," the group said.
A former activist with Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Lee is a community college manager and lifelong NGO activist. He was detained on his arrival in the southern border city of Zhuhai on a personal visit to seek medical advice.
Taiwan lawyer Fan Chih-cheng said he was hired by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council as a consultant to advise Lee Ching-yu, but that his status wasn't recognized in mainland China.
“I am just a friend advising her in a private capacity, from the Chinese government’s point of view,” Fan said. “I can offer her advice, in particular with regard to her personal safety.”
DPP lawmaker Wang Liping said that while the Taiwan authorities had tried to help Lee's wife find out more about her husband's whereabouts and state of health, they had failed to challenge Beijing’s narrative following his detention.
“This [trial] is inexplicable from our point of view,” Wang told RFA shortly before the trial. “We are a free people, and we think like people from a free nation.”
“We find it very hard to follow the logic of this country, and there was no intention of deliberately offending it.”
Lee’s trial followed a similar pattern to those of other lawyers and activists detained in a nationwide crackdown on the legal profession and nongovernment groups since July 2015.
Previous detainees accused of subversion-related offenses have later been released, albeit under continuing restrictions. Those who refuse to "confess" are typically handed heavy jail terms.
Lee Ching-yu had repeatedly asked the Chinese government to disclose Lee Ming-cheh’s whereabouts, but didn't receive a response until the trial date was set last week.
China's Overseas NGO Domestic Activities Management Law, which came into effect at the start of this year, enables police to engage in daily supervision and monitoring of foreign civil society and rights groups operating in China.
The legislation hands full authority for the registration and supervision of foreign NGOs in China to the country's ministry of public security, and police across the country.
They have the power to cancel any activities, revoke an organization's registration, and impose administrative detention on its workers, as well as take part in the annual assessment of foreign NGOs required for the renewal their operating permit.
Political commentator Lin Baohua said Lee's detention and trial come as President Xi Jinping seeks to silence any dissenting voices ahead of the 19th Party Congress next month.
"They want a bit less dissent coming out of Taiwan, so as to be sure that there is minimal interference from overseas around the 19th Party Congress," Lin said.
"Of course, if it also has the effect of forcing the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen to recognize the 1992 consensus [that Taiwan can never be an independent country], then that'll be a victory for China as well."
Tseng Chien-yuen of Taiwan's Chung Hua University agreed.
"They want everything, both in and outside of China, to create a favorable atmosphere for the reestablishment of the leadership at the 19th Party Congress," Tseng told RFA. "They are very keen to go after some of the overseas voices that they can deal with, to silence any opposition overseas."
Taiwan began a transition to democracy following the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of the island's president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for de facto self-rule in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
But while the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the island, Beijing regards it as part of Chinese territory and has threatened to invade if Taiwan seeks formal independence.
Reported by Hsia Hsiao-hwa, Miao Qiuju and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing and Tung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.