(New York, April 19, 2017) – Chinese authorities should immediately release a longtime Taiwanese democracy activist who has been detained for a month on suspicion of endangering China’s national security, Human Rights Watch said today. Chinese national security laws allow the authorities to deny Li Ming-Che, 42, access to his family and lawyers, leaving him at serious risk of mistreatment.

Li Ching-yu (C), the wife of Taiwanese human rights activist Li Ming-che, detained in China, attends a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan on March 31, 2017.

“Chinese authorities have offered no credible evidence for the grave allegations against Li Ming-Che,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately notify Li’s family of his whereabouts, and allow his family and lawyer to visit him.”  

Li has been missing since March 19, 2017, after he crossed from Macau into Zhuhai in China’s Guangdong province. A friend of his who had planned to meet him in Zhuhai said Li never arrived. Ten days later, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office – the government agency responsible for cross-strait affairs – confirmed at a news conference that the “relevant authorities” had detained Li and placed him under investigation on suspicion of “engaging in activities that endanger national security.”

Li, a manager at Taipei’s Wenshan Community College, has worked for Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and is a longtime supporter of civil society groups and activists in China. Li had used an account on WeChat, a Chinese social media and messaging app, to discuss human rights issues and Taiwan’s democratic transition with Chinese activists, but in 2015 he was blocked from sending group messages. Li has also taken books to Chinese activists and families of detained rights lawyers. On his most recent trip, Li planned to see friends and seek medical treatment for his mother-in-law.

On April 10, Li’s wife, Li Ching-yu, was prevented from boarding a flight from Taipei to Beijing to try to visit with and deliver medications to her husband. An airline employee at the airport informed her that her taibaozheng – a Beijing-issued travel permit necessary for Taiwanese to visit China - had been cancelled. Li Ching-yu told the New York Times that she had not received an explanation for the cancellation. She also said that a Taiwanese person who has ties with Chinese authorities contacted her to say that if she ceased her public campaign calling for her husband’s release he would be freed. She said the person told her that if she continued, a confession by her husband would be broadcast on Chinese TV.

A spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office warned at a second news conference on April 12  that outside interference with Li’s case would “complicate” matters and “harm the interests of the person concerned.”

Although China’s Criminal Procedure Law requires police to notify families within 24 hours of criminal detention, the requirement can be waived in cases involving “national security” and “terrorism,” and when the police believe that such notification could “impede the investigation.” Similarly, although the Criminal Procedure Law allows lawyer-client meetings within 48 hours of lawyers making such requests, in cases involving “national security,” “terrorism,” and “major corruption,” police approval is required before such meetings can take place.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, authorities have apprehended citizens of other countries – inside and outside China – for their work helping Chinese human rights lawyers and activists or for speaking critically of Chinese leaders. Those detained include a Swedish human rights activist, Peter Dahlin; Gui Minhai, a bookseller also from Sweden; James Wang, an American businessman; and Lee Bo, a British bookseller. Some of the detainees had also been forced to give confessions on state media. Authorities have also used televised confessions to vilify detained journalists, bloggers, activists and lawyers, and increasingly have used national security charges to prosecute and imprison activists solely for their peaceful criticism of the Chinese government.

Under international law, a government commits an enforced disappearance when state agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The use of televised confessions violates the right to a fair trial and can often be linked to torture or other ill-treatment.

“Beijing’s persecution of those who work to advance human rights and justice in China increasingly targets non-citizens,” Richardson said. “Repeatedly levelling national security charges against peaceful activists marks another alarming escalation in Xi’s campaign against human rights.”