Hong Kong bookseller disappearances spark widespread anger and alarm

Chinese-born book publisher Gui Minhai appeared on Chinese TV saying he surrendered to police over a fatal drink driving incident. Photo: Supplied People take part in a rally on January 10 in Hong Kong, protesting the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers. Photo: Lam Yik Fei

A protester shouts slogans outside the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong during a protest against the disappearance of the five men. Photo: Vincent Yu

The disappearance of the five booksellers has sent shivers through Hong Kong as anxiety grows that Chinese control over the city is tightening. Photo: Lam Yik Fei

As far as dramatic plot turns come, it would not have been out of place in one of the salacious political volumes he published.

Gui Minhai, a successful Hong Kong publisher specialising in sordid tales of Communist Party political intrigue, vanished without warning from his 17th-storey apartment in the Thai beach town of Pattaya in October.

Last Sunday, the 51-year-old naturalised Swedish citizen resurfaced, but in police custody; tearfully confessing on Chinese national television to killing a young woman while drink-driving more than a decade ago in his hometown, the coastal city of Ningbo.

“I want to bear responsibility and accept punishment,” he said, his face crumpling behind thick glasses, his tousled hair adding to a tired, defeated demeanour. “Turning myself in is a voluntary choice of my own, and has nothing to do with anybody else.”

The 10-minute news package aired on state broadcaster CCTV was prefaced by a newsreader presenting his voluntary return as the unimpeachable truth amid a whirlwind of conjecture.

“Just who is Gui Minhai?” she asked, rhetorically. “What is the truth behind his so-called disappearance?”

But there is evidence that points to a more sinister reality. Gui’s close friends and supporters insist Gui was taken against his will from his Pattaya condominium; a brazen abduction of a foreign citizen overseas by Chinese security officials.

Gui is just one of five men associated with his Mighty Current publishing house to have disappeared since October. Three of the men, Lui Bo, Lam King-wei and Cheung Ji-ping, disappeared while travelling in southern China on separate occasions; none has been heard from since.

Lee Bo, Gui’s business partner and a naturalised British citizen, was the last to vanish, last seen on December 30 in Hong Kong, where he runs a bookshop in Causeway Bay. Responding to an enquiry from Hong Kong police, Guangdong police said, 17 days after the missing persons report was lodged, that it was “understood” that Lee “is in the mainland”. There was no official record of him leaving Hong Kong.

Gui’s Mighty Current churns out the type of scurrilous political pageturners that pack the shelves of Hong Kong book vendors. While strictly prohibited on the mainland, they are popular with curious Chinese tourists. Much of it is grounded in some truth, but liberally peppered with questionably-sourced and unverifiable detail.

Typical titles have chronicled the rise and fall of disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, fallen security tsar Zhou Yongkang, and the shake up in the People’s Liberation Army. There have been those that have tackled President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive and warring factions within the Communist Party elite.

But what appears to have finally crossed the line were some of Gui’s newer titles in the pipeline purporting to detail Xi’s romantic history. Among the titles that were reportedly being considered for the book were The Lovers of Xi Jinping and Xi Jinping and His Six Women.

The disappearances have sparked widespread anger and alarm in Hong Kong, where its vibrant media, unfettered by mainland censors, have loudly speculated that the men were political targets of the Communist Party because of the books they published. It has struck a particularly raw nerve, given the perceived encroachment of mainland interests in Hong Kong was already a key driver in citywide pro-democracy protests in 2014.

The furore has also forced Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, frequently derided as a puppet for Beijing interests, to speak out.

“The freedom of the press, the freedom of publication and the freedom of expression are protected by laws in Hong Kong,” Leung said. “It is unacceptable if mainland legal agencies enforced law in Hong Kong.”

Sweeping crackdown

The Hong Kong bookseller disappearances reflect the increasing lengths China’s security apparatus is willing to go to in its sweeping crackdown on dissent since President Xi’s ascent to power three years ago.

In a regime of fear and intimidation, hundreds of rights lawyers, including rights icon Pu Zhiqiang and top female lawyer Wang Yu have been swept up. Moderate Uighur academic Ilham Tohti was handed life in jail for criticising the party’s ethnic policies in far-western Xinjiang. Even a financial journalist, Wang Xiaolu, was arrested for making “unauthorised” reports on China’s sharemarket chaos in August.

In many cases, detailed televised confessions have been used by the state to assert its narrative on these arrests, while attempting to feed public sentiment that western media reports were distorting the truth – or worse, working in concert with “foreign hostile forces” to undermine party stability.

The party leadership has long warned its cadres against the dangers of western values – democracy, press freedom and human rights – infiltrating China for fear they might undermine the party’s control over Chinese society. Ironically, it led to the arrest of veteran journalist Gao Yu, who was alleged to have leaked an internal party document detailing those warnings. She has since been released on medical parole.

In yet another recent case, another Swede, legal rights activist Peter Dahlin, was detained by authorities early this month. His non-governmental organisation, China Urgent Action Working Group, trained and provided help to local rights lawyers. And French journalist Ursula Gauthier was expelled from China in December for reports critical of the party’s record in Xinjiang.

But those who choose to operate in mainland China are at least cognisant of the risks. The chilling point about the Hong Kong booksellers is the Communist Party’s almost brazen boast – that they can get to you no matter the colour of your passport or where you live.

“I am not worried,” Lee Bo told the South China Morning Post in November, just weeks before his disappearance. “I have avoided going to the mainland for many years.”

Speaking at a news conference in Beijing on Wednesday focused on market access and trade, the European Union’s chief representative in China, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, said there was “a deterioration of the human rights climate in China, especially when it comes to human rights defenders and human rights lawyers”.

He said the apparent increased targeting of foreigners represented an “extremely worrying trend” but hoped “it’s not representing the new normal yet”.

“We have also seen cases that involve foreigners, in this case EU citizens,” he said. “You know what I’m referring to. This is obviously an issue of grave concern.”

“Let me solve my own problems”

Viewed in the context of the five connected disappearances, Gui’s televised mea culpa is especially chilling. Like many before him, international rights group have condemned the practice as a violation of due legal process, while emphasising the likelihood the on-camera confessions were obtained under duress and scripted.

Adding to his supporters’ doubt over his confession’s authenticity were his improbable requests for Swedish authorities and the media to stay out of the way.

“Even though I am a Swedish national, I truly feel that I am still Chinese and my roots are still in China,” Gui told the cameras. “So I hope that the Swedish side would respect my personal choice, rights and privacy and let me solve my own problems.

“I do not want anyone or any institution to get involved or get in the way of my returning, nor do I want any malicious media hype.”

A Guardian investigation into the day Gui disappeared in Pattaya found he had been out buying groceries and found a man, who spoke Chinese, waiting for him when he returned to his apartment.

Gui told a security guard to deliver the shopping to his apartment, and, as if he was expecting to return shortly, later called to ask an apartment manager to help put the fruit in a fridge.

It was only days later that the manager heard Gui was uncontactable. She dialled the number the men had used to call her and dialled it.

“A taxi driver picked up. He said that that phone was left in the car by four men.” The driver said they were trying to negotiate a price for a taxi to Poipet, a Cambodian border town notorious for its bribable immigration officials.

Gui’s daughter Angela, who lives in the United Kingdom, dismissed the idea her father had submitted to Chinese detention voluntarily.

“I do still believe he was abducted,” she told the Guardian.  “I still think it is suspicious that he and his associates went missing.”

As for the purported crime he confessed to on Chinese television:

“Even if it is true, I don’t think that is why he is there,” she said.

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