Civil society shudders as China confirms detention of Taiwanese NGO worker

A policeman stands in front of a lighted sign in Tiananmen Square. (Credit: Johnathan Nightingale / Flickr)

Amid an ongoing crackdown on civil society, a Chinese official confirmed yesterday the country is detaining a Taiwanese human rights activist and nongovernmental organization (NGO) worker, who has been missing since March 19, under suspicion of “endangering state security.”

Lee Ming-cheh was last seen boarding a flight from Taipei to Macau last week on his way to mainland China, according to friends and family. He is the first foreign NGO worker to be held under the serious charge, since a highly controversial law came into effect in January that places foreign NGOs under police authority.

Lee, a manager at Wenshan Community College in Taipei frequently visited mainland China over the last decade to support civil society in China. He also formerly worked for Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which is currently in power and under which Taiwan-China relations have significantly worsened. But according to his employer, Lee has not been a member of the party for years, and besides having some political books confiscated last year, his visits were all without incident.

But this trip was personal, his wife told Taiwanese media, as he was going to arrange medical treatment for his mother-in-law in the southern province of Guangdong, close to Hong Kong and Macau. His whereabouts were lost shortly after crossing the Gongbei border from Macau into China, with no record of him checking into a hotel or being arrested.

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Despite heavy speculation from Lee’s family and Taiwanese media that Chinese police were responsible for his disappearance, Lee’s wife did not hear anything until late Monday.

“I received indirect evidence from a government department late last night that Lee Ming-cheh has been detained by a branch of the state security police,” Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, told reporters in Taipei on Tuesday. “I hope that the Chinese government will apply the standards of a civilized country and tell us on what charges Lee Ming-cheh is being detained or arrested, and also to allow his family members to visit him.”

Chinese officials stayed mum until yesterday, when a spokesman said at a news conference that Lee was “under investigation by the relevant authorities on suspicion of activities harmful to national security.”

Although the official did not detail what exactly brought Lee under suspicion, his wife and employer suspect it had to do with his visits and contacts in China, social media posts discussing Taiwan-China relations, and the books and money he donated to families of imprisoned human rights lawyers.

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“Lee Ming-cheh’s detention on vague national security grounds will alarm all those that work with NGOs in China,” Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia director at Amnesty International, said in a press release. “If his detention is solely connected to his legitimate activism he must be immediately and unconditionally release.”

Civil society workers fear China is playing out the police’s extended authority over foreign NGOs thanks to the Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Government Organizations Activities in China, which was passed in January. The law requires organizations to register with the Ministry of Public Security and reflects President Xi Jinping’s trademark push toward a more authoritarian Communist Party.

“The unchecked powers the authorities now have to target NGOs and their partners are frightening,” Bequelin said.

But for those who have watched Xi Jinping continue to tighten China’s grip not only on civil society and human rights, but also the justice system, media, contested territories and semiautonomous regions like Hong Kong and Macau, Lee’s detainment may not be surprising, but is nonetheless disconcerting.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.