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June 6, 2017

Possible Foreign NGO Law-Related Detentions: What We Know, and What We Don’t

Three labor activists affiliated with the New York-based China Labor Watch (CLW) were detained in China last week. Reports suggest that they were detained for investigating labor practices at factories in Jiangxi and Guangdong provinces. This comes days after the People’s Republic of China’s formal arrest of Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che on charges of “subverting state power.” Press reporting on Lee, who has been unreachable since entering mainland China from Macau, has frequently noted his connection to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Taiwan and mainland China.

In Lee’s case, it remains unclear whether or not his NGO ties were a factor in his arrest. As Jerome Cohen has noted, the Chinese announcement of the arrest does not mention the Foreign NGO Law. Cohen interprets this as evidence that Beijing has decided not to heighten foreign anxieties about the new law by explicitly linking it to Lee’s arrest. But it remains unclear whether Lee’s involvement with NGOs, foreign or domestic, played a role in his arrest.

Details related to the detention of the CLW activists are still coming in, but as CLW Executive Director Li Qiang told The China NGO Project, he believes the arrests are specific to the factories being investigated and not a result of the political climate or the new law. Though CLW has not registered a representative office in the mainland nor filed to conduct temporary activities—actions required under the Foreign NGO Law in order for foreign NGOs to operate in mainland China—Li said that CLW is registered as a company in China and therefore believes its investigations are conducted legally there. Li also noted that no CLW employees had been arrested in the group’s previous 17 years of work in China, leading him to believe that the arrests are related to CLW’s investigation of the Huajian Group, particularly since police had specifically asked one CLW employee why he was investigating Huajian. As widely reported in the press, Huajian produces shoes for Ivanka Trump’s brand, and some observers have suggested that this might have raised the sensitivity of CLW’s investigation; Adam Minter argues in an article for Bloomberg that the arrests are likely more related to preventing turmoil in the local labor market than to the Trumps.

With regard to the Foreign NGO Law in particular, we do not yet have enough information to fully understand how it may or may not be affecting the outcomes of these cases. In both Lee’s and the CLW employees’ cases, the Foreign NGO Law could either be the underlying motivation for punitive action, a justification for punishing activity that is otherwise deemed unacceptable, or simply a secondary consideration. The China NGO Project will continue to monitor these cases for further information about how precisely they relate to the Foreign NGO Law.

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Jessica Batke is a ChinaFile Senior Editor. She is an expert on China’s domestic political and social affairs, and served as the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research Analyst for...