China’s government confirmed Wednesday it is holding a Taiwanese pro-democracy activist and is investigating him on suspicion of “pursuing activities harmful to national security,” the latest detention in an ongoing crackdown on civil society.
Lee Ming-che, 42, cleared immigration in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory of Macau on March 19 and never showed up for a planned meeting later that day with a friend in the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Lee was in good health but gave no information about where he was being held or other terms of his detention. “Regarding Lee Ming-che’s case, because he is suspected of pursing activities harmful to national security, the investigation into him is being handled in line with legal procedures,” spokesman Ma Xiaoguang told reporters at a news briefing.
Amnesty International said Lee’s detention raises fears China is broadening its crackdown on legitimate activism, and urged the authorities to provide further details on his detention.
Lee’s “detention on vague national security grounds will alarm all those that work with NGOs in China. If his detention is solely connected to his legitimate activism he must be immediately and unconditionally released,” Nicholas Bequelin, the group’s east Asia director, said by email.
Responding to Ma’s comments, Taiwan’s Cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council said repeated requests have been made to China through both official and private channels for information about Lee, but none has been forthcoming.
It said he suffered from high blood pressure and other health problems, and asked that China “please provide the appropriate medical care and ensure his physical health.”
A colleague of Lee’s said he may have attracted the attention of China’s security services after he used the social media platform WeChat to discuss China-Taiwan relations.
Cheng Hsiu-chuan, president of Taipei’s Wenshan Community College where Lee has worked for the past year as a program director, said Lee used WeChat to “teach” an unknown number of people about China-Taiwan relations under the government of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
“For China, the material he was teaching would be seen as sensitive,” Cheng said. WeChat has hundreds of millions of active users and is hugely popular in China, where other social media tools such as Twitter are blocked by the authorities.
Lee had traveled annually to China for the past decade to see friends, Cheng said. He would discuss human rights in private but had never held any public events there, Cheng said.
However, in mid-2016 Chinese authorities shut down Lee’s WeChat account and confiscated a box of books published in Taiwan on political and cultural issues, Cheng said.
On his most recent trip, Lee planned to see friends and obtain Chinese medicine for his mother-in-law in Taiwan, his wife, Lee Ching-yu, said. He was expected to stay in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou through March 26, she said.
“I want the government of China to act like a civilized country and tell me what they’re doing with my husband on what legal grounds and, like a civilized country, what they plan to do with him,” Lee Ching-yu said.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, a free-wheeling democracy with personal and political freedoms largely unknown on the authoritarian, Communist-ruled mainland. China insists that the two sides must eventually unify and has raised pressure on Taiwan since the election last year of President Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party advocates for Taiwan’s formal independence. China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949.
While China has rarely been forthcoming with information about alleged national security crimes, Lee’s case could be further complicated by the fact that China cut off its already limited contacts with Tsai’s government last June.
National security crimes in China are broadly defined and have a range of penalties. Authorities usually release little or no information on the specific allegations, citing the need to protect state secrets.
Powers of the security services in dealing with foreign groups and their Chinese partners were strongly enhanced under a law that took effect in January, leading to concerns about further prosecutions and restrictions on civil society.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has widely suppressed independent organizations and dissenters, as well as lawyers defending people caught up in its crackdown. Rights groups say activists are increasingly being accused of subversion or other crimes against state security.
Dozens of lawyers have been questioned or detained in an ongoing campaign against dissident lawyers launched in July 2015.