May 16, 2017
Angela Gui, daughter of kidnapped Causeway Bay bookseller Gui Minhai, speaks
by Ian Dreiblatt
Angela Gui did not set out to become an activist.
It was 576 days ago that Gui’s father, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, disappeared mysteriously near his vacation home in Thailand, only to surface in state custody in his native China, under murky circumstances. For more than a year now, Angela Gui has been dividing her time between graduate studies and ferocious efforts to secure her father’s release. Gui Minhai knew that his work as a bookseller and publisher would have put him in peril in mainland China, but his operation, Causeway Bay Books, was based in Hong Kong, where his activities were entirely legal. Gui disappeared at the same time as several of his Causeway Bay colleagues; he is now the only one to remain in state custody.
We’ve covered the case of the Causeway Bay booksellers in detail over recent years, including detailed information on Gui’s case at the time the last of his imprisoned colleagues was released, follow-up with experts on contemporary China, and the news, last month, that Gui would receive the Association of American Publishers’s Jeri Laber award, which his daughter accepted on his behalf at the PEN Gala a few weeks ago. (In the latest news to break on Gui’s case, his colleague Lam Wing-kee, released about a year ago, has announced that he will open a bookstore in Taiwan—which the PRC formally regards as a “renegade province” of China—to stand as a “symbol of resistance.”) Angela Gui’s more intimate account of her and her father’s lives, published in the Hong Kong Free Press, is also extremely worth reading.
Contemplating what her father’s abduction means, twenty-seven years after Tiananmen Square, Gui recently wrote in the Washington Post:
Who will remember my father and Causeway Bay bookstore in 27 years? The Chinese most likely will not. With a history that is so easily manipulated, and an international community that is ready to swallow that manipulated history whole—using economic interests and a skewed image of “Chinese culture” as a nervously presented excuse—we must remember. We must remember because keeping memory alive, through writing and publishing, is so radical it has become a political act.
We reached out to her with a few questions about her father’s case and her own experiences advocating on his behalf.
Your father turned fifty-three in prison a week and a half ago — his second birthday spent in custody. Have you been able to communicate with him at all? Are you able to learn anything about his wellbeing?
I was allowed very brief and very sporadic contact with my father for the first nine months or so of his detention. He called me a few times and sent me a couple of written messages over Skype, mostly assuring me that he was “fine” and telling me to keep quiet about what had happened to him. He wouldn’t answer any questions about his wellbeing other than insisting that he was “fine” or “okay,” which was almost certainly said under duress as we were not even able to speak Swedish to one another. It has now been nearly a year since I last heard from him; strangely, he is always logged onto his Skype account even over a year and a half on, and I sent him a message ten days ago wishing him a happy birthday which felt almost ironic. I hope he gets to read it, but I doubt he will respond. With no contact and no consular access it’s very difficult to gain any information about how my father is, as well as if and when there is going to be a trial. I worry about his health, both physical and mental, as he has a blood pressure condition, and presumably has been in solitary confinement for nearly two years now.
What’s the current state of your work to secure his release? Have there been any recent changes in his status, or in the status of your efforts?
I’ve been working for my father’s release for a bit over a year now, and the campaign has mostly focused on raising awareness of his case, and its implications for the freedom of expression in Hong Kong in general; there are still many people outside publishing and bookselling circles who do not know who he is. So I try my best to inform people about what happened to my father, and how in Hong Kong the freedom to publish is no longer guaranteed. I also do a lot of advocacy work with diplomats and governments where I try to make sure my father’s case stays a priority in diplomacy. Some officials have refused to meet with me, presumably because of the tension it creates in terms of the relationship to China. Keeping the campaign alive and raising awareness is difficult, though, as there has been no new information about my father’s situation for months. I often find myself repeating the same things over and over again, but I’m grateful as long as there are people out there who listen.
Your father’s case has become something of a cause celebre, attracting concern all around the world. What can people in nations like the US, UK, and Canada, where most of our readership is located, do to support your efforts?
There are a lot of things that one can do to help — I have a website that collects all available information in a timeline format, www.freeguiminhai.org. Embarrassingly, I don’t have time to update its content as often as I would like, but it has a page titled “How you can help,” which has a few suggestions for people who want to get involved. On a basic level, just talking about the case with friends and family, and sharing articles about my father on social media helps. Writing to one’s local Chinese consulate or embassy, or contacting one’s local elected official to ask what their government can do for my father are other things that help a great deal in keeping the issue alive.
When Chinese authorities want to add to the pressure being faced by detainees, they’ve been known to harass those detainees’ families. Have you experienced this at all? And — a separate, but perhaps related, question — have you been to China since your father’s detention?
Since I started the campaign I’ve experienced both direct and indirect harassment. Chinese authorities have made my father call me and tell me to be quiet, threatening that things would get worse for him if I didn’t. It was difficult choosing not to let myself be intimidated by this and continue, but detainees in China have rarely been helped by silence — there is a reason Chinese authorities want this. In a way I’m lucky to live in a place where speaking out even is a choice, many family members of jailed or detained dissidents are based in China and do not feel like they can do so safely. I also had a strange incident when I spoke at an event at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year; it was a private event and I had arranged to meet somebody at a particular place at a particular time, and when I arrived I was walked up to and photographed by two men who spoke mandarin. They then jumped into a minibus with tinted windows and drove off. It was clearly a way of conveying to me that I was being watched. I haven’t tried to visit China since my father was detained, and I have been advised to only travel to Europe and North America for now.
Are there any misconceptions about your father’s case that you encounter and wish to correct? Is there any information that’s been lacking from most public accounts of his situation?
I’m often met with surprise when I correct people who assume that my father is a dual, or Chinese citizen. In fact he has only Swedish citizenship — he even went through the process of renouncing his Chinese citizenship. Perhaps it is difficult to believe that China would abduct and detain a foreign citizen from a third country. But this is increasingly common.
For more background information on Gui Minhai’s case, visit the Free Gui Minhai website.
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.