Three activists who disappeared after investigating labour conditions at factories which make Ivanka Trump-branded shoes have been criminally detained, police in Jiangxi have confirmed.

They are suspected of “the unlawful use of special eavesdropping or hidden photographing devices,” according to state-backed mainland outlet The Paper. Police said they used the equipment to collect information, which they then supplied to foreign organisations with the goal of obtaining funds from them.

The three activists, who were working for New York-based advocacy group China Labour Watch, disappeared on May 27, the group previously said. Of the three, Hua Haifeng was arrested on suspicion of illegally using eavesdropping equipment, the group said.

ivanka trump shoe factory
This photo taken on September 14, 2016 shows workers on a production line at the Huajian shoe factory, where about 100,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump-branded shoes have been made over the years amongst other brands, in Dongguan, in south China’s Guangdong province. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker.

The activists had been investigating conditions at two factories that produce shoes for the daughter of US President Donald Trump, along with other brands.

Police in Ganzhou, a large city in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, said they had arrested Hua, and two other suspects named Su Heng and Li Zhao. According to The Paper, the police received a complaint from a factory saying that one of its employees had been secretly filming inside the factory. The factory suspected that its commercial secrets had been stolen.

The three were summoned for questioning at a local guesthouse where they were staying on May 27 and 28. Police found watches equipped with hidden cameras and flash drives and laptop computers containing photos, audio files and footage of the Ganzhou factory in their possession, the outlet reported.

The police found that Hua, Su, and Li were instructed by others and carefully planned to enter the Ganzhou factory as employees and use the spy watches to “collect internal information on production, labour, standard wages and others involving factory trade secrets, and supply it to related foreign organisations with the goal of obtaining funds from these organisations,” The Paper reported.

ivanka trump shoes
Ivanka Trump shoes. Photo: Ivanka Trump.

The three admitted to infiltrating Chinese factories as employees to provide information to the foreign organisations many times since 2010, it said.

China Labour Watch director Li Qiang previously told the New York Times that the group did not have any illegal eavesdropping equipment, and speculated that police were looking for an excuse to detain them.

The unlawful use of hidden surveillance equipment could lead to up to two years’ imprisonment, according to Chinese criminal law.

China Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying dismissed a call from the US to release the activists on Tuesday, saying no foreign country had the authority to meddle in China’s judicial process.

The Ivanka Trump brand declined to comment when contacted by Reuters last week.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.