A Taiwanese democracy activist jailed in China for five years returned home on Friday after serving his full sentence in a case that had strained relations between the two neighbours.

Local media live-streamed footage of Lee Ming-che’s arrival in Taiwan via a Xiamen Air flight before he was escorted by two airport workers in pandemic protection suits into a car.  

Lee Ming-che
Taiwanese Lee Ming-che (C) is escorted by epidemic prevention personnel after arriving at Taoyuan Airport in Taoyuan on April 15, 2022. Photo: Sunny Fan/AFP.

Lee was jailed by a court in central China in November 2017 on charges of subverting state power.

He was arrested in March that year during a trip to the mainland and held incommunicado for months before his fate was eventually revealed. 

Taiwan’s government called Lee’s imprisonment “unacceptable” and a serious blow to relations with Beijing, while his wife Lee Ching-yu described his trial as a “political show”. 

A coalition of Taiwanese NGOs that had campaigned for his release published a statement in response to Lee’s return.

Tiananmen Massacre vigil Victoria Park 2018 Lee Ming-cheh
Headband reading ‘Lee Ming-cheh’. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

“We have maintained all this time that Lee is innocent as he only made comments on the internet about human rights and civil society in China,” the statement read.

Lee Ching-yu said she only learned about her husband’s release from the media in a Facebook post on Thursday.

She said they were planning to hold a press conference after Lee finishes a period of mandatory Covid quarantine required by all people entering Taiwan.

Lee Ching-yu was temporarily banned from visiting her husband after criticising prison conditions, citing a notice from authorities that accused her of a “serious distortion of the facts”. 

She said her husband had lost weight because food was often rotten and that he was denied warm clothing and had to work over ten hours daily. 

During his trial, Lee pleaded guilty, stating that he had written and distributed articles online that criticised China’s ruling Communist Party and promoted democracy. 

He had shared “Taiwan’s democratic experiences” with his Chinese friends online for many years and often mailed books to them, according to the Taiwan Association for Human Rights. 

Under President Xi Jinping, China has become even less tolerant of dissent and activism.

lee ming cheh
Lee Ming-cheh speaks with Lee Ching-yu after the trial. Photo: Screenshot/Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court.

Lee’s arrest also came at a time when relations between Beijing and Taipei were plunging.

China ramped up economic, military and diplomatic pressure after the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen who views the island as an already sovereign state.

China’s Communist Party claims Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to one day seize it.  

The majority of Taiwanese do not want Chinese rule and Tsai won re-election in a landslide in 2020. 

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