Whether they are the result of new regulations in China governing foreign NGOs, the application of vague national security measures, or factional politics in the lead-up to an important CCP congress later this year, two incidents in late March suggest that it may be getting increasingly dangerous for NGO workers and activists to visit China. J. Michael Cole investigates.
The disappearance and detention of Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese rights activist and staff member at Wenshan Community College in Taipei, by Chinese authorities last month could have a chilling effect on the willingness of Taiwan-based human rights workers and NGOs to put their personal safety at risk by operating in China.
Lee, who formerly worked for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was seized upon entering Zhuhai, in Guangdong Province, via Macau, on March 19. Lee reportedly travelled to China four or five times a year and often discussed human rights and democracy on social media with contacts in China. According to initial reports, on this particular trip he was heading for Guangzhou to secure medical treatment for this mother in law. It wasn’t until 10 days later that the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office confirmed that Lee had been detained for “activities that endangered national security.” The TAO, however, did not give specifics as to the nature of Lee’s “illegal” activities, nor did it provide clarification on where he was being detained. So far it also has not permitted “humanitarian visits,” as stipulated in Article 12 of the Cross-strait Joint Crime Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement.
Lee’s predicament could be the first clear instance of China’s latest regulations on foreign-funded NGOs (which include those based in Taiwan) and new National Security Act, implemented in 2015, targeting a Taiwanese national. The vague definitions of threats to national security stipulated in the Act, along with Beijing’s position that the provisions also apply to Taiwan, ostensibly account for Lee’s detention. Whether the Act or the new regulations on foreign-funded NGOs was used to detain him remains to be determined, as does the nature of his purported infraction(s), which could range from the promotion of democracy through contacts in China to Taiwan “separatism.”
His detention also coincides with a chilling of relations between Taipei and Beijing following the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP in January 2016. However, Beijing’s refusal to allow Feng Chongyi, a China-born associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney and Australian permanent resident, for almost a week in late March suggests that the enforcement of new National Security Act and/or foreign NGO regulations — not tensions in cross-Strait relations — may have been the principal cause of the decision by China’s security apparatus to detain Lee.
Lee’s detention may also have been in retaliation for Taiwan’s arrest in early March of Zhou Hongxu, a Chinese university student in Taipei, for espionage. Another possibility, advanced by individuals who are in regular contact with civil society in China, is that factionalism within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may have led security forces to capture Lee (and, possibly, to detain Feng, who was also submitted to long interrogations at his hotel in Guangzhou) in order to “embarrass” President Xi Jinping ahead of the important CCP congress later this year. The timing of Feng’s brief detention, coming during a state visit to Australia by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, reinforces the view that internal politics — the jockeying between the Xi and Jiang Zemin factions — may have been a factor. Lastly, it has also been suggested that Lee’s detention may be part of efforts by a segment of the Chinese security apparatus, dissatisfied with Xi’s failure to take a harder line on Taiwan, to cause a controversy in cross-Strait relations. By presenting him with a fait accompli (Lee’s arrest for “endangering” national security), President Xi’s enemies have made it difficult for the Chinese leader to order Lee’s release lest he be accused of being soft on national security.
After sustained global media coverage and an open letter signed by several dozen academics, Feng was eventually allowed to depart for Australia on April 1; as a condition for his release, he was made to sign a statement agreeing that he would not give details of his questioning or where it took place.
Unlike Feng, Lee’s case has received much less international attention, notwithstanding press conferences at the weekend by various NGOs, including one by former Sunflower Movement leaders Lin Fei-fan, Chen Wei-ting and Huang Kuo-chang, in which Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong also participated. The lack of international pressure could conceivably make Lee’s release less likely.
Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, announced at a press conference late last week that she will go to China to secure her husband’s release but will not retain legal counsel there as doing so would give the appearance of “legitimizing” the regime and China’s unfair legal system. Various Taiwanese agencies said they were working behind the scenes to find out more about Lee’s whereabouts, the reasons for his detention, and to secure his release.
Lee’s case will undoubtedly exacerbate fears among Taiwan’s NGO community that their activities in China may also subject them to arbitrary arrest and detention. Despite China’s assurances that Taiwanese are protected by the law, the incident will likely have a chilling effect on interactions between Taiwanese and Chinese civil societies. The possible cooperation of Macau and Hong Kong authorities in the rendition of suspects to China proper also indicates that the special administrative enclaves may no longer be safe for individuals who are deemed “dangerous” by the Chinese government.