A Taiwan community college manager and lifelong member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is incommunicado after arriving in mainland China to seek medical treatment for a sick relative.
Friends and relatives of Lee Ming-cheh, who works as a manager at a community college in Taipei, say they haven't heard from him since his flight landed in Macau on Sunday.
Cheng Shiowjiuan, who heads the Taipei Wenshan District Community College where Lee works, told RFA on Monday that he had been en route to a hospital in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
"His mother-in-law is in a Taiwan hospital, and is too sick to move, so he had taken her medical notes over there for an assessment," Cheng said.
Lee had boarded an Evergreen Airlines flight from Taipei to Macau at around 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, which was scheduled to land at 10.40 a.m.
"He is incommunicado," Cheng said. "We haven't been able to contact him since he got on the plane [and] a friend who went to meet him at the airport waited for four hours, but he never showed up."
"That's why his wife has started a campaign to save him," she said.
Cheng said Lee's wife has contacted the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), a government-backed nonprofit that functions in the absence of formal diplomatic ties with mainland China, for assistance.
She said Lee is a former secretary of the DDP party executive in Taoyuan county, and has had a lifelong involvement in human rights, democratic activism and nongovernment organizations (NGOs).
"I think we can rule out the possibly of ordinary criminal proceedings," she said. "We think a more political explanation is possible."
She said many lecturers at Taiwan's community colleges collaborate with NGOs in mainland China.
Draconian NGO law
Cheng said she fears his disappearance may be linked to China's draconian NGO law, putting control of NGOs in police hands and clamping down on funding from overseas.
"The Chinese government recently brought out a law that brings in more stringent controls on NGOs and their staff and representatives," she said. "We are worried that he may face trumped-up charges because of this."
A spokesman for the Taiwan government's Mainland Affairs Council said Lee's wife had been advised by the SEC to file a missing persons report with police in mainland China.
"The SEF has been shown immigration records which show that Mr. Lee entered mainland China at 11.51 a.m. on March 19," spokesman Chiu Chui-Cheng said.
"However, there are no records of him having been formally detained by police, nor of his having checked into a hotel," Chiu said.
Chiu said current bilateral arrangements between Taiwan and mainland China allow for the mutual reporting of criminal cases involving the others' citizens.
"But if the case involves considerations of national security, then they probably wouldn't report it, so we should think about that," he said.
A border official who answered the phone at the Beihai immigration checkpoint, the crossing point from Macau to neighboring Guangdong, declined to comment.
"You may think [he was detained], but we can't tell you anything about this," the official said. "If law enforcement really did take him away, then we wouldn't be allowed to tell you anyway."
"His direct relatives or next of kin can always get in touch with the police themselves," he said.
Another attack on civil society
The Overseas NGOs Domestic Activities Management Law, which enables police to engage in daily supervision and monitoring of foreign civil society and rights groups operating in China, went into effect on Jan.1.
Passed by the National People's Congress last April, the law was immediately criticized by rights groups as yet another attack on the country's embattled civil society.
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.
Chinese police are now able to enter the premises of foreign NGOs and seize documents and other information, as well as examine groups' bank accounts and limit incoming funds.
They will also have the power to cancel any activities, revoke an organization's registration, 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.
Police can also blacklist NGOs deemed guilty of national security-related crimes like subversion or separatism, although definitions of such crimes remain vague.
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 the Chinese Communist Party signed by her predecessors in the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), angering Beijing.
Taiwan began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, 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 Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hsia Hsiao-hwa for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.