A former activist with Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has become the first overseas NGO worker known to be detained in China since a draconian law gave police control over foreign non-government groups at the beginning of this year.
Community college manager and lifelong NGO activist Lee Ming-cheh, 42, was detained by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's state security police on suspicion of "endangering national security" on his arrival in the southern border city of Zhuhai on March 19.
"The Chinese authorities’ detention of a Taiwanese NGO worker on vague national security grounds raises fears the authorities are broadening their attack against those carrying out legitimate activism," London-based Amnesty International said in a statement on its website.
The group called on Beijing to provide further details. Lee's location is currently unknown.
Chinese law allows police to detain those suspected of "national security" crimes and hold them under residential surveillance at a secret location for up to six months, with no access to lawyers or family visits.
"Lee Ming-cheh’s detention ... will alarm all those that work with NGOs in China," Amnesty International's East Asia director Nicholas Becquelin said. "If his detention is solely connected to his legitimate activism he must be immediately and unconditionally released."
"The unchecked powers the authorities now have to target NGOs and their partners are frightening," Becquelin said.
China's Overseas NGOs Domestic Activities Management Law, which came into effect at the start of this year, enables police to engage in daily supervision and monitoring of foreign civil society and rights groups operating in China.
The legislation hands full authority for the registration and supervision of foreign NGOs in China to the country's ministry of public security, and police across the country.
They have the power to cancel any activities, revoke an organization's registration, and impose administrative detention on its workers, as well as take part in the annual assessment of foreign NGOs required for the renewal their operating permit.
'Two birds with one stone'
Police can also blacklist NGOs deemed guilty of national security-related crimes like subversion or separatism, although definitions of such crimes remain vague.
Wu Fan, editor in chief of the overseas Chinese-language magazine Chinese Affairs, said he believes Lee's detention is linked to the new law, but that other factors are also at work behind the scenes.
"He's from Taiwan and he's a DPP member, which is like killing two birds with one stone [for the Chinese authorities]," Wu told RFA. "The Chinese Communist Party, in detaining him, is cracking down on NGOs, and also retaliating against the DPP for failing to recognize the 1992 consensus."
Lee, a manager at the Taipei Wenshan Community College in the Taiwanese capital, has been a long-term supporter of civil society organizations and activists in China for many years, as well as a lifelong DPP member and former member of a local party executive group.
The DPP once campaigned on a pro-independence platform, and while the party's rhetoric has softened in recent years, President Tsai Ing-wen has stopped short of endorsing a 1992 agreement with Beijing signed by her predecessors in the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), angering Beijing.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia agreed that the crackdown on NGOs and civil society groups appears to be widening with Lee's detention.
"Lee Ming-cheh was definitely not the only person in Taiwan who was doing things such as sending books to [activists] in mainland China," Hu said. "I think that anyone who did similar things is now going to be feeling very scared."
"I think in future we will see ... a cutting off of contacts on WeChat, Weibo and Whatsapp," he said, adding that current training and mentoring programs offered by activists like Lee to Chinese NGOs are unlikely to survive.
Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, confirmed Lee's detention and the charges on Wednesday, saying he is in "good health," but gave no further details.
"Regarding Lee Ming-cheh's case, because he is suspected of pursuing activities harmful to national security, the investigation into him is being handled in line with legal procedures," Ma said.
Guarantee against torture sought
According to Amnesty, "endangering national security" can encompass a broad spectrum of charges with punishments ranging from three years to life imprisonment.
Cheng Shiowjiuan, who heads the Taipei Wenshan District Community College where Lee works, rejected the claim, however.
"We do not believe that Lee Ming-cheh did anything to break the law, so we hope that he will be released immediately," she said. "Until that time, they should guarantee that Lee Ming-cheh will not be tortured, and that he is allowed access to a lawyer, to family visits, and to adequate medical care."
Yang Sen-hong, who heads the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, said there is no rule of law in mainland China.
"What is justice in Taiwan becomes a crime in mainland China," Yang said. "Taiwan and China are two very different places, and if the Chinese Communist Party keeps detaining people like this, that difference is going to become even more obvious."
"By directing such mafia-like methods at Taiwan people, they will only succeed in pushing Taiwan further and further away."
Taiwan began a transition to democracy following the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of the island's president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for de facto self-rule in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
But while the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the island, Beijing regards it as part of Chinese territory and has threatened to invade if Taiwan seeks formal independence.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Lin Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.