TAIPEI, Taiwan — Li Ching-yu was desperate to send her husband a message.
It was September 2017. Her husband, Li Ming-che, who like her is from Taiwan, was about to stand trial in China, accused of subverting state power because of his work as a democracy advocate. A guilty verdict was all but guaranteed. The chance that the couple would have an unsupervised moment together was not.
Ms. Li came up with a plan. She knew that the Chinese authorities could prevent her from speaking to her husband, but they could not stop her from using her body as a canvas. The couple was allowed to meet briefly in another room after his trial in Hunan Province. Watched by court officers and state media reporters, Ms. Li raised her arms to reveal the message boldly tattooed in Chinese characters on her forearms: “Li Ming-che, I am proud of you.”
“My strength immediately increased a hundredfold,” Mr. Li, 47, said in a recent interview, recalling the moment he saw the tattoo. “That has been the greatest comfort for me in the past five years — knowing that I would not be abandoned by family.”
In the months since Mr. Li’s release in April, the couple has sought to use their experience to strengthen the efforts of people in Taiwan — a self-governed democracy that Beijing claims as its territory — and elsewhere seeking to resist China’s authoritarian overreach. Beijing’s threats toward Taiwan have taken on a new urgency in recent days after the Chinese military sent warships and fighter jets in response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island.
Mr. Li was among activists and civil society leaders who met with Ms. Pelosi as part of her visit last week. During the meeting, Mr. Li said, Ms. Pelosi spoke about her long-held views on China’s human rights — how frustrated she felt that young Chinese did not recognize the famous “Tank Man” photo from the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, and her disappointment in those who overlooked China’s abuses in the interest of financial gain.
“I was moved by her sharing,” Mr. Li said. “She shared what she really went through in her own life.”
Mr. Li has said his arrest, as well as Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, were signs of China’s increasing willingness to throw around its power. In the face of such intimidation, the couple has told activists that pushing back, publicly and loudly, can help those oppressed by the system.
To some, such a message might sound overly optimistic. China’s ruling Communist Party wields largely unchecked power over the courts, the security apparatus and the media. The family members of political detainees, faced with the threat that speaking out would result in retaliation against their loved ones, often heed the warnings of the authorities to stay quiet.
Li Ching-yu, 47, chose a different approach.
After her husband was arrested, she held news conferences urging China to release him. She traveled twice to Washington where she met with Trump administration officials and testified before Congress, pleading for help in pressuring Beijing.
As a Taiwanese person, Mr. Li was afforded a degree of protection that mainland Chinese citizens do not have, the couple acknowledged. But Ms. Li’s efforts to raise awareness globally, they said, helped improve his circumstances.
Mr. Li was forced to work 12 hours a day making gloves and shoes with other inmates, but was not tortured. Before the pandemic, he was allowed certain privileges not usually given to political prisoners, such as timely medical care and prison-approved reading materials.
Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions
What does China mean to Taiwan? China claims Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy of 23 million people, as its territory and has long vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. The island, to which Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces retreated after the Communist Revolution of 1949, has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.
What does Xi Jinping want? China’s leader has made it clearer than any of his predecessors that he sees unifying Taiwan with China to be a primary goal of his rule — and a key to what he calls China’s “national rejuvenation.” Mr. Xi is also keen to project an image of strength ahead of his expected confirmation to an unprecedented third term this fall.
How is the U.S. involved? In an intentionally ambiguous diplomatic arrangement adopted in 1979, the United States maintains a “one China” policy that acknowledges, but does not endorse, Beijing’s claim over Taiwan. U.S. leaders have remained vague about how they would help Taiwan if China attacked, but President Biden has pledged to defend the island.
Why are tensions rising now? Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to Taiwan has ignited regional tensions. She is the highest-level American official to visit the island since 1997. A chorus of official Chinese bodies portrayed her trip as part of an American effort to sabotage China’s efforts at unification with Taiwan.
How is China responding? A day after Ms. Pelosi’s trip, China began live-fire military drills near Taiwan, with missiles striking seas off the island, including five that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone waters. Amid growing international criticism, Beijing then sent warships and aircraft into waters and airspace near the island.
“The decision she made to be so public about his case was very unusual,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But it worked — generally, international attention makes the authorities aware that the prisoners are being watched.”
The couple’s story has resonated with many in their tight-knit community of human rights advocates and nongovernmental groups.
“The biggest trouble for Chinese people now is that they all know that the Communist Party is not good, but they do not know how to change it,” Mr. Li said. “At least our example can give more people the confidence to believe that they can change their situation through their own efforts.”
Born and raised in Taiwan to parents who had fled mainland China, Mr. Li was a longtime sympathizer of China’s beleaguered democracy movement. He frequently discussed Taiwan’s experiences with democratization with people in China. He donated money and books to the relatives of imprisoned Chinese, including rights lawyers and political prisoners. For several years, he had traveled to the mainland without incident.
Then, on March 19, 2017, after Mr. Li entered the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, he was whisked away to a secret prison and interrogated about his work and his connections with civil society groups and government bodies in Taiwan.
“I knew I was doomed,” Mr. Li said.
When a Chinese court sentenced Mr. Li to five years in prison in late 2017, his wife, back in Taiwan, was devastated. She had already lost 30 pounds. Her health deteriorated.
But she was adamant about one thing: She needed to project strength. She had spent years researching Taiwan’s White Terror, a period of political repression that began in 1949 and ended in the late 1980s, under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, when tens of thousands of Taiwanese were imprisoned and at least 1,000 were executed, often on suspicion of being Communist spies.
Her mentor, Shih Ming-teh, who had been held as a political prisoner in Taiwan for more than 25 years, said authoritarian governments were the same: They responded only to strength, not weakness.
“Don’t just focus on how powerful a dictatorship is,” Mr. Shih recalled telling Ms. Li.
Feeling emboldened, Ms. Li kept up her campaign at home and abroad, and was followed closely by the Taiwanese public, who saw in her an eloquent and courageous critic of the authoritarian government in China.
She also knew from hours spent reading the dusty files of former Taiwanese political prisoners how important it was to let her husband know that his family supported him.
“Most of the people gave up because their families had fallen apart,” Ms. Li said.
Nearly every month for more than two years, she flew to China to meet her husband for brief, closely monitored visits. Mr. Li told her about the grim conditions inside the prison: the long working hours, the freezing water temperatures. Each time, she would raise these problems publicly. When some conditions improved, Mr. Li, inside the prison, would beam with pride, knowing that his wife’s advocacy was working.
“The Chinese government arrested the wrong person politically,” Mr. Li told reporters in Taipei in May. “It did not know that my wife, Li Ching-yu, was a fierce woman.”
Despite Ms. Li’s persistence, there were many limits to her advocacy. Prison authorities sometimes denied her applications to visit, saying that she inaccurately depicted its conditions, and barred her from bringing medication for Mr. Li. When the pandemic began in 2020 and China closed its borders, Ms. Li held news conferences and sent letters to the prison to pressure Beijing to let her visit or at least speak to him by phone, to no avail. For nearly two years, Ms. Li received little word about her husband’s condition.
In April, Mr. Li was released, and he returned to Taipei. Since then, he tended to the affairs of his father, who died while he was in prison. He devoured newspapers and magazines that Ms. Li had saved for him, reading for the first time about the pro-democracy protests that shook Hong Kong in 2019. He finally tasted his favorite pineapple buns again.
On a recent rainy weekday night in Taipei, the Lis gathered with about 10 other rights activists and discussed Mr. Li’s ordeal.
They wrote postcards to send to political prisoners and government officials in mainland China and Hong Kong. They knew that the notes would never actually reach the prisoners, but believed they could help keep prison officials on their toes.
“Now that I’m out of prison, I must write to express my support,” Mr. Li wrote on a card addressed to Chow Hang Tung, an activist who is in prison in Hong Kong for participating in a pro-democracy protest.
“I hope the Hong Kong government treats you well,” Mr. Li wrote. “If it doesn’t, the whole world is watching.”