Taiwanese Man Convicted of Spying in China Shares Story of ‘Painful 4 Years’

5 Min
Taiwanese Man Convicted of Spying in China Shares Story of ‘Painful 4 Years’

TAIPEI: For 51-year-old Taiwanese businessman Lee Meng-chu, the last four years have been a life-altering journey.

His two-day business trip to southern China turned into an experience that involved lengthy detention, a forced televised confession, a two-year exit ban, and being sentenced for “espionage” by the Chinese government.

“It’s been a painful four years for me,” he told VOA in a telephone interview. “I didn’t do anything wrong, and the Chinese government arrested me as a scapegoat amid rising political tension” between Beijing and Taipei.

Lee was arrested in August 2019 after joining an anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong and for taking photos of hundreds of armed police who had gathered in a stadium near his hotel in the southern Chinese industrial hub of Shenzhen.

Lee transited through Hong Kong while he was on his way to meet a colleague in Shenzhen. As he prepared to leave, the video cameras he was carrying attracted the attention of police officers.

When officers searched his luggage, they found flyers that said “Hong Kong and Taiwan stand together” and photos he took in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

Following hours of questioning at the airport, police took him to a hotel in Shenzhen, where he says he was under 72 days of “residential surveillance at a designated location.”

While there, “the police interrogated me more than 100 times, and I was monitored by three police officers and two surveillance cameras at all times,” he told VOA. “I felt completely disconnected from the outside world because I was essentially ‘disappeared’ by the Chinese authorities.”

Human rights organizations have long criticized the Chinese government’s use of residential surveillance against activists and dissidents. According to the human rights organization Safeguard Defenders, Beijing has used the detention procedure against tens of thousands of people since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

Even though it’s hard to independently verify Lee’s experience, Jing-Jie Chen, a campaigner at Safeguard Defenders, told VOA that his description fits the features of residential surveillance at a designated location, where individuals are detained at an unknown location for an extended period.

Hong Kong protests

Apart from the hours of interrogation, Lee told VOA police also combed through the content of his mobile phone and laptop as they tried to find evidence against him.

“They printed out some of my conversations with friends related to the Hong Kong protests in 2019, asked about all the organizations I joined during my student years in the U.S., and zeroed in on my connection to the Taiwan United Nations Alliance,” he said.

One of the stated aims of the organization is “to campaign for Taiwan’s membership in the UN and to make Taiwan a Normal State both in name and in fact in the world community.”

All the pamphlets and other materials collected by Chinese police were eventually used as evidence in the espionage charges against him. They were also referenced extensively in state media reports about Lee’s case.

In a television segment about Lee that was broadcast by China’s state-run CCTV in October 2020, an unnamed uniformed Chinese police officer said the video and photos taken by Lee could provide information about Chinese tactics to an intelligence agency, which is a threat to national security. Lee apologized and said he committed many wrongdoings that “did some harm to the motherland.”

The “televised forced confession” that Lee experienced is a common tactic used by the Chinese government to crack down on activists or dissidents in China, analysts say.

Several other Taiwanese who have been arrested and detained in China have also been featured in “video confessions.”

“Chinese authorities use televised forced confessions to show that they haven’t arrested the wrong person and that the process aligns with China’s procedures,” Safeguard Defenders’ Chen told VOA.

2-year exit ban

Three months after the televised confession, a court sentenced Lee to one year and 10 months for “foreign espionage and illegally sharing state secrets.”

Soon after that, Lee was transferred to a jail in Guangdong province, where he had to share a cell with more than a dozen people. During the day, he worked with other inmates wrapping internet cables on a production line.

Lee originally thought his ordeal in China would end when he completed the prison sentence in July 2021.

However, one month before his scheduled release, police told him that as part of the two-year “deprivation of political rights” that he received from the court, he would be banned from leaving China.

“I couldn’t accept this news in the beginning, but after realizing that the decision didn’t come from the police, I had to agree to the terms (of the exit ban) by signing a document,” he said.

Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che, who was sentenced to five years in prison on subversion charges in 2017 and returned to Taiwan last year, told VOA that by enforcing an exit ban as part of a two-year “deprivation of political rights” China was trying to treat Lee Meng-chu like a Chinese citizen.

“Taiwanese people don’t have civil rights in China, so theoretically, Chinese authorities should expel Taiwanese detainees once they have completed prison sentences,” he said.

“When Beijing treats Taiwanese people as Chinese citizens and executes the terms of deprivation of civil rights, it is an attempt to violate Taiwan’s sovereignty.”

Taiwan views itself as a sovereign state with its own military and constitution. China claims Taiwan is a part of its territory and demands that the self-ruled island be unified with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Following his release, Lee initially kept a low profile but after realizing police surveillance of him had become less stringent, he decided to travel to more than 100 cities across China, relying on his own savings and financial support from families. Along the way, he befriended some Chinese human rights lawyers and activists and began to change his views on China.

“Before my arrest, I was a normal Taiwanese businessman who thought China was a country that was open and abides by international rules, but my experiences [over the last four years] changed my understanding of China completely,” he said. “Ever since the 2019 protest in Hong Kong, everyone knows that Beijing doesn’t follow the rules.”

Heightened risks

Apart from Lee, at least six other people from Taiwan are known to have been arrested and imprisoned by Chinese authorities on national security-related charges since 2017.

While the exact number of arrests is unclear, analysts note that the number of people from Taiwan and other countries who have been forcibly disappeared or arbitrarily detained by the Chinese government is growing as they continue to expand the definition of national security.

“Amid the ongoing tensions across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese people may face greater risks,” Eeling Chiu, secretary general of Amnesty International Taiwan, told VOA.

The U.S. State Department’s current travel advisory for China is to “reconsider travel” due to the “arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans and the risk of wrongful detentions.”

Last week, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which handles relations with China, revealed that a Taiwanese academic was interrogated by Chinese airport authorities for four hours when he arrived.

While he was eventually let go, the council has warned some academics not to visit China in the near future.

After his four-year ordeal, Lee arrived on July 26 in Japan, where he says he plans to spend some time with friends and family. With his new perspective on China, Lee has opened a YouTube channel named “Free Air.”

He also plans to write down his experiences and establish what he calls an “international rescue platform” sometime in the near future.

“I hope to help people in trouble, and I will keep paying attention to human rights issues in China,” he said.

By William Yang in VOA, Aug 3, 2023