YUEYANG, China (AP) — A Taiwanese pro-democracy activist pleaded guilty Monday in a Chinese court to subverting the power of the state, but his wife dismissed the trial as "a political show" and his supporters said he had been forced to confess to crimes he didn't commit.
Lee Ming-che's trial marked China's first criminal prosecution of a nonprofit worker since Beijing passed a law tightening controls over foreign non-governmental organizations.
Lee told the court in the central Chinese city of Yueyang that he had "spread articles that maliciously attacked the Communist Party of China, China's existing system and China's government." He said he had also organized people and wrote articles "intended to subvert the state's power."
Subversion of state power is a vaguely defined charge often used by authorities to muzzle dissent and imprison critics. The court has not yet announced a punishment for Lee.
Lee's wife, Lee Ching-yu, who was in Yueyang for the trial, had warned that he might be pressured into pleading guilty. China's wide-ranging crackdown on civil society has featured a string of televised "confessions" — believed to have been coerced — from human rights activists accused of plots to overthrow the political system.
"Today the whole world witnessed a political show with me," Lee Ching-yu said after the trial, showing an arm tattoo proclaiming "I'm proud of you, Lee Ming-che."
"We also witnessed how different the core values are of Taiwan and China," she added.
Lee's supporters blasted the legal process.
"This trial is illegal," said Hsiao I-Min, who traveled to Yueyang with Lee's wife and is with the Taiwanese non-governmental organization Judicial Reform Foundation. Lee "was forced to confess a false truth."
"Pursuing democracy and freedom is not a crime," Hsiao continued.
Dozens of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong marched to the China Liaison Office on Monday to protest Lee's prosecution.
Security was tight at the Yueyang City Intermediate People's Court, with barricades on the streets, dozens of security personnel patrolling the perimeter and reporters ordered to leave the area.
Lee, 42, has conducted online lectures on Taiwan's democratization and managed a fund for families of political prisoners in China. He cleared immigration in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory of Macau on March 19 but never showed for a planned meeting with a friend later that day.
Amnesty International and other rights organizations have called for his immediate release.
The new law says foreign NGOs must not endanger China's national security and ethnic unity, and subjects nonprofit groups to close police supervision. It is seen as an attempt to clamp down on perceived threats to the ruling Communist Party's control.
Relations between Taiwan and China have been near an all-time low since the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party has advocated Taiwan's formal independence. China cut off contacts with Taiwan's government in June, five months after Tsai was elected.
Lee's co-defendant, Peng Yuhua, who is from mainland China, also pleaded guilty. Peng said he had founded an organization called Palm Flower Co. to pressure China to accept a multiparty political system. Lee was his deputy in charge of education, Peng said.