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Watchdog warns of ‘chilling effect’ as China confirms it is holding missing Taiwanese NGO worker

China has confirmed that it is holding a Taiwanese NGO worker under suspicion of “endangering state security.” As the first foreign NGO worker to be held under such charges, the case could have a chilling effect on other NGO workers, a researcher from Amnesty International told HKFP.

Lee Ming-cheh has not been heard from since March 19, when he flew from Taipei to Macau. Despite requests from his family, the Chinese government has not made any statements on Lee’s whereabouts until now.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesperson from the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) – the top administrative body responsible for cross-strait policy – said that Lee is suspected of activities that endanger state security and that he is under investigation. Lee is in good health, he said.

Taiwan NGO Democratic Progressive Party

Lee Ming-cheh. Photo: Facebook.

Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International, told HKFP that Lee is the first foreign NGO worker to be detained on such charges after a broad new law regulating foreign NGOs – including those in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan – came into effect in January.

It requires any group operating in China to register with the police and be sponsored by a government entity. Groups with temporary projects must also seek approval and register with police. The law also states that foreign NGOs must not “endanger China’s national unity, security, or ethnic unity”or “harm China’s national interests, societal public interest and the lawful rights and interests of citizens, legal persons and other organizations.”

“As we and many China watchers estimated, foreign NGO workers are being targeted with vaguely defined clauses in the Foreign NGO Management Law citing ‘endangering national security’ as the reason for initiating investigation of organizations and individuals with foreign connections,” he said.

“[Lee’s] case will have a chilling effect on other foreign NGO workers working with partners in China.”

ma xiaoguang

Ma Xiaoguang. Photo: CCTV screenshot.

The TAO spokesperson said he was unfamiliar with details such as the location where Lee is being held and whether his wife will be allowed to see him, when asked by reporters.

He asked Taiwanese visitors not to worry about visiting the mainland, saying that the legal rights of Taiwanese visitors who go to the mainland to “carry out regular activities” will be protected.

“The mainland also rules according to the law… we will not arbitrarily take measures to restrict their personal freedoms,” he said.

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Watchdog warns of 'chilling effect' as China confirms it is holding missing Taiwanese NGO worker