An activist investigating working conditions at a supplier for Ivanka Trump's fashion brand in China has been detained, his NGO said Wednesday, putting a fresh spotlight on Chinese business activities linked to the US presidential family.
Two other men working on the investigation have been missing since Sunday, according to China Labor Watch, a New York-based non-government-organisation.
"In 17 years (since our organisation was founded), we have done countless such investigations and have never had any problems," the group's director, Li Qiang, told AFP.
"But this is the first time we've investigated Ivanka Trump (manufacturers), so it may very well be related to the brand."
Ivanka Trump is US President Donald Trump's daughter and a White House adviser, whose fashion brand sells clothing, footwear and accessories.
Her husband, Jared Kushner, has joined her as a top aide to the US president and his own family business has come under scrutiny over its financial dealings in China.
Trump lambasted Beijing over its trade practices during the US presidential campaign, but he has established a friendly rapport with President Xi Jinping since they met at the US leader's Mar-a-Lago resort in April along with Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
"We appeal to President Trump, Ivanka Trump herself, and to her related brand company to advocate and press for the release of our activists," Li said.
Hua Haifeng, 36, has been held by police and accused of illegally using "eavesdropping equipment," said Li, who rejected the accusation.
The father-of-two was working undercover with the two other men, Li Zhao and Su Heng, in Jiangxi province.
Deng Guilian, Hua's wife, told AFP her husband had planned to return to their home for a holiday earlier this week.
She said she was notified of his arrest, but not where he was being held, on Tuesday in a phone call from a Jiangxi public security bureau.
Amnesty International said Hua was detained by mainland police last week after he tried to travel to Hong Kong to publicise the findings of his investigation.
"The trio appear to be the latest to fall foul of the Chinese authorities' aggressive campaign against human rights activists who have any ties to overseas organisations, using the pretence of 'national security,'" said William Nee, China researcher at the human rights group.
- 'Extremely worrying' -
Li said the activists were probing two factories owned by major footwear producer Huajian Group -- one in the city of Dongguan in southern Guangdong province, the other in Jiangxi's Ganzhou.
They discovered that employees were required to work overtime while being paid less than the minimum wage, according to Li, who alleged that the factory issued fake pay slips that showed wages greater than the workers' actual compensation.
Aside from Ivanka Trump, the factory also manufactures products for Coach, Nine West, Karl Lagerfeld, and Kendall + Kylie, Li said.
Huajian Group, the Ivanka Trump brand and police in Ganzhou did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for the company told AFP in October that it had made about 100,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump-branded shoes over the years.
Huajian president Zhang Huarong also told AFP at the time that the company was moving production to Africa, saying "some manufacturers can't even survive in China anymore".
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular press briefing she was "not aware" of the arrest.
But in general, she said, "we also hope that NGOs can also observe China's laws and not engage in any illegal activities."
The arrest highlights again the business dealings of the Trump family in China.
Last month, the Kushner family's real estate company sparked an uproar after his sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, headlined events in Beijing and Shanghai to seek more than $150 million in investment in a US luxury apartment complex through a controversial US visa programme.
While Trump in January pledged to "buy American", US Customs bills of lading examined by AFP revealed that more than 50 tonnes of Ivanka Trump-branded items were streaming towards American ports from China even as he spoke.
Trump has himself sought dozens of trademarks in China.
- Crackdown -
Xi has overseen a tightening of controls on civil society since assuming power in 2012, with arrests that have drawn international condemnation.
Li said on separate occasions this month and in April, Hua and one of the other activists, Li Zhao, had attempted to meet him in Hong Kong but were turned away because they were "suspected of criminal activity."
Deng said her husband had been a labour activist for more than a decade.
"So many people don't understand factory workers' plight," Deng said. "No matter our financial struggles, I never questioned the importance of my husband's work."