Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che returned to Taiwan on Friday after serving a five-year prison term in China for criticizing the Chinese government.
After landing in Taipei on Friday morning, Lee entered straight into 10 days of mandatory quarantine and will speak to the media after his release.
Lee’s return to Taiwan ends a long saga that began in 2017, when he disappeared during a visit to Chinese-ruled Macau, as well as Hong Kong, as a special administrative region.
Lee later ended up in custody in China and was charged with ‘subversion of state power’, a catch-all term used in China to prosecute activists, human rights lawyers and even citizens. ordinary people convicted of criticizing the government.
Prior to his arrest, Lee was a member of Taiwan’s non-governmental organization community with ties to the ruling Democratic People’s Party.
He may have caught Beijing’s attention when he criticized the Communist Party and promoted democratic ideas in private chat groups and on Chinese social media, according to Taiwanese media. He also sent books on similar subjects to some of his contacts and reportedly helped the families of imprisoned Chinese dissidents.
Lee’s arrest in 2017 had a chilling effect on Taiwanese human rights activists because at the time he was a relatively low-key activist with moderate views, said Yu-jie Chen, assistant research professor. at the law institute of the famous Academia Sinica in Taiwan.
“It was really shocking for Taiwan. He was not a pro-independence element of Taiwan who went to China and was arrested because of his inflammatory activities for Taiwan independence,” Chen said by phone. VOA, describing his NGO work as “very normal activities, nothing provocative”.
Lee was formally sentenced to five years in prison in November 2017 in a trial closely watched by international rights groups and media.
His case was also notable as he was the first foreign NGO worker to be convicted under a new law regulating the work of foreign nonprofits and similar organizations in China, according to Taiwanese state media.
While in detention, Lee became a cause celebrated in Taiwan as local NGOs and his wife worked continuously to raise awareness of his case, said Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
Nachman told VOA that Lee has become a “symbol of what could happen to Taiwanese activists if they ever go to China.”
Since coming to power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has waged a crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers. They can be charged with crimes ranging from “subversion of state power” to “fomenting quarrels” or even colluding with foreign forces.
Taiwanese state media said on Friday that after Lee’s release, four imprisoned Taiwanese businessmen and academics could not return to Taiwan because they were accused of espionage.
Cases like Lee’s are also complex because China considers Taiwan its sovereign territory. Xi has vowed to unify Taiwan by peaceful means or by force.