Taipei says that Chinese authorities have been unresponsive to its requests to investigate the alleged disappearance of a Taiwanese NGO worker on the mainland.

Taiwanese media reported that Lee Ming-cheh has been out of contact since Sunday, when he crossed the Macau border into Zhuhai, China through the Gongbei crossing. He was working at Taipei’s Wenshan Community College, and supported civil society organisations in the mainland.

Taiwan NGO Democratic Progressive Party
Lee Ming-cheh. Photo: Facebook.

He also formerly worked for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan’s Taoyuan county. The DPP is nominally – but no longer outspokenly – pro-independence, and has seen a deterioration in relations with mainland China since coming into power last May.

Lee’s wife told Taiwanese media that he went to China on this occasion for personal reasons only, in order to arrange medical treatment for his sick mother-in-law in Guangdong province.

No record of check-in or arrest

On Sunday, Lee’s wife requested assistance from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Macau – Taiwan’s de facto consulate.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council then confirmed with the Chinese police that Lee crossed the border at 11:51am on Sunday, according to Taiwanese media. However, the council said it did not receive any record of him either checking in at a hotel, or being arrested.

In a Thursday press conference, council spokesperson Chiu Chui-cheng said Taipei attempted to contact the Chinese authorities through both official and unofficial communication channels, but they remained unresponsive.

On Friday, Lee’s wife released a statement to the Taiwanese media pleading with the Chinese authorities to provide information: “We ask the Chinese government and the Straits Exchange Foundation [Taiwan’s unofficial authority to negotiate with the mainland] to tell us, is Lee Ming-cheh alive or dead?”

macao gongbei border
Gongbei border crossing. Photo: Uvacavmatt via Wikimedia Commons.

A new overseas NGO law came into effect in China on January 1, requiring any group operating within its borders to register with the police and be sponsored by a government entity. It stipulates that NGOs must not harm national security or national interests, but rules for implementation are vague.

“The fact that Lee Ming-cheh has gone missing once again raises serious questions about the safety of people working with civil society in China,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia director, in a press release on Friday.

Taiwanese media also speculated that Lee’s disappearance could be linked to Taiwan’s arrest of a mainland student for alleged espionage two weeks ago.

In late 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers also went missing – some while working in mainland China, others from Hong Kong and Thailand. One of the booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, returned the following summer. He alleged that he was kidnapped by authorities and detained for eight months.

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.