China's detention of a human rights activist from Taiwan won't do relations any good

China has detained a Taiwanese human rights activist, the government in Taipei said, in a case that people on the island call unusual and likely to depress already troubled relations between the two sides.

Authorities in China detained Lee Ming-che on suspicion that he took part in activities that endangered state security, a spokeswoman for the semi-governmental Straits Exchange Foundation in Taipei said.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office announced his detention Wednesday, 10 days after Lee went missing in the Chinese territory of Macau.

The office, which represents mainland China in Taiwan, did not explain the reason for the detention, but Taiwanese officials said colleagues of Lee, 42, described how he used social media to tell at least 100 people in China about Taiwan’s growth as a democracy.

He also had a history of helping human rights lawyers in China, although there were no reports that he did so on the most recent trip.

China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and tells its people through state-controlled mass media that the two sides must eventually reunite. The communist government discourages exposure to democracy, which in Taiwan’s case could lead to greater autonomy — rather than unification — through election of anti-China presidents or voter referendums in favor of independence.

Taiwan broke away from the mainland in the late 1940s when Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek fled there from mainland China after being defeated by Communist forces. Democracy emerged in Taiwan only in the 1980s after decades of authoritarian rule. Relations between Beijing and Taipei have been icy for 70 years, without formal diplomatic relations.

A Taiwanese person gets detained in China less than once a year for political reasons, Straits Exchange Foundation Deputy Secretary-General Lee Li-chen said. But Lee Ming-che is the first case involving a Taiwanese human rights activist, she said. An unknown number of other Taiwanese do human rights work in China without incident, she said.

“We feel pretty nervous now,” the foundation official said, adding that her organization had sent three letters and made calls to its counterpart foundation in China for more information. “If they can tell us what laws they’re using and the location of the arrest, we or the [Taiwan] government or his family members can do follow-up.”

The case will further upset tense relations between China and Taiwan, analysts in Taipei fear. The two sides have not formally talked since May, when President Tsai Ing-wen took office in Taiwan. Tsai disputes Beijing’s condition for dialogue — an acknowledgment that both sides belong to “one China.” Senior members of her Democratic Progressive Party advocate more autonomy for Taiwan.

“This case might worsen the relations between the Taipei and Beijing governments,” said Wu Chung-li, a political science research fellow at Academia Sinica, a university in Taipei. “It’s a challenge to both governments: How can they both rationally deal with this case? And I’d say that’s pretty important.”

The Taiwanese government’s Mainland Affairs Council criticized China in a statement Wednesday for not answering official inquiries about Lee’s disappearance. China should say what legal grounds it has for restricting his freedom, let him contact family and give him access to a lawyer, it said.

“The Mainland Affairs Council urges China to communicate on this matter and handle it in appropriate way,” the statement said. “At the same time, avoid affecting today’s complex, sensitive cross-strait [Taiwan-China] relations.”

Since May, China has retaliated against Tsai by pulling back on Taiwan-bound group tourism and short-term exchange students, scholars and government officials believe. Last year it persuaded an African country allied with Taiwan to drop relations, the government in Taipei says. In December and January, China’s People’s Liberation Army passed its aircraft carrier around Taiwan, which is 99 miles away from the mainland at its nearest point.

Lee Ming-che once worked for Taiwan’s ruling party, although a party spokeswoman declined to describe details of his work.

The philosophy graduate of Chinese Cultural University in Taipei more recently volunteered for a league of Taiwan human rights groups gathering information on international laws to make sure Taiwan was complying, said Chiu Yi-ling, secretary general of the league member Taiwan Assn. for Human Rights.

Lee has visited China once a year for the last decade and had made friends there through social media, colleagues said.

Police in China have “targeted” 248 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists in a crackdown since July 2015 and convicted three, London-based advocacy group Amnesty International says.

Over the last year, Lee was using the social media service WeChat from Taiwan to teach people in China about the ethnically Chinese island’s growth as a democracy, Chiu said. WeChat is a Chinese service with about 700 million active users.

“China is right next to us and their human rights situation is terrible, so he had paid careful attention to it in recent years,” Chiu said. Protesters, activists and writers are periodically detained, sometimes without notice to family.

The data transmission function of Lee’s WeChat account was shut off last year and a box of books on Taiwan democracy he mailed to a contact in China in 2016 never made it, said Cheng Hsiu-chuan, president of Lee’s employer, Wenshan Community College.

Colleagues suspect Lee was detained in Macau on March 19, shortly after he flew there from Taiwan and cleared immigration, or perhaps later that day as he crossed a land border into the mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai. He wanted to reach the nearby city of Guangzhou to see friends and pick up medication for his mother-in-law in Taiwan, his wife, Lee Ching-yu, said.

Chinese police and state security officers detain other Taiwanese for political reasons, but their cases seldom cause a stir in Taiwan, said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan.

“It’s quite often, but they’re not reported unless they belong to an organization that makes a fuss about it,” the scholar said. Some return to Taiwan in weeks or months. Others are probably in prison, Lee said.

A dealer of old stamps was once detained because someone in China believed the stamps were politically suggestive, he said. In 2015, Chinese authorities detained a Taiwanese practitioner of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong.

Lee Ming-che could face a tough prosecution because in January China started enforcing a law that gives police and other agencies the power to restrict nongovernmental organizations, including those based offshore, Amnesty International said in a statement Wednesday. Violators face three years to life in prison, the group said.

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

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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