October 25, 2017

China says Gui Minhai has been released. What does that mean?

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Gui Minhai, in happier days

For years, we’ve been closely following the case of Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, apparently abducted by agents of the People’s Republic of China while on vacation in Thailand two years ago, and held in his native city of Ningbo ever since.

Last week, after years of strained hopes, ferocious activism, and continued PRC repression, we reported on speculation that Gui was about to be released, having served out the two-year sentence for drunk driving that Beijing appeared to be using as a pretext for his continued detention. As we noted then:

While Chinese authorities have been brazen in their disregard for the law, the very existence of a legal pretext offers some hope that the appearance of legality will be maintained — which could spell Gui’s release.

As we have before, we reached out to anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjö, a friend of Gui’s and activist fighting for his release. Fiskesjö cast doubt on the RFA story, particularly in light of the apparent resolution of Gui’s drunk driving charges more than a decade ago. He says that case seems to have been dug up for the purpose of discrediting Gui, and confusing world opinion.

Asked how the report should be read, he suggested, “As unconfirmed reports that would be positive if they were true.”

Today, Reuters is reporting an announcement from Beijing that Gui has in fact been relased:

“According to what we understand, because Gui Minhai has served his sentence for the crime of causing traffic accident casualties, he was released on Oct. 17,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement to Reuters.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry said it had been informed by its Chinese counterpart of Gui’s release and that it was working to confirm the information.

But something’s not right: a week later, no one, including Gui’s daughter Angela Gui, has heard from him. “I still do not know where my father is,” she said in a statement. “I am deeply concerned for his wellbeing.”

Deep concern may well be warranted: China has a long history of claiming to have released controversial figures who remain, by all appearances, under careful state supervision. This summer, we reported on poet Liu Xia, widely believed to be under extralegal house arrest after the death of her husband, liberal dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo — despite claims from Beijing that she was “a free Chinese citizen and simply grieving in private.”

That came a few months after China claimed to have released human rights lawyer Xie Yang on bail after he pled guilty to “inciting subversion of state power and disrupting court order”; his wife, Chen Guiqiu, told Radio Free Asia, “He may have been let out of jail, but he hasn’t really regained his liberty….  He’s been ‘disappeared,’ just like a lot of the other July 2015 people. He’s not free. They are pretending to set him free. It’s a joke; I want to make that very clear. He must be under unimaginable pressure.”

In the summer of 2016, Beijing insisted that twenty-four-year-old human rights activist Zhao Wei had been released on bail—like Xie, she was said to be with her parents, resting—even as her husband, You Mingleiurgently announced that he had neither heard from nor been able to locate her. (An interview with Zhao soon turned up in the theretofore indepedent South China Morning Post, which had recently been bought by the massive Alibaba Group. In it, the activist most improbably said, “I repent for what I did. I’m now a brand new person,” fueling widespread speculation that the paper’s editorial independence from the Chinese Communist Party had been an immediate casualty of the acquisition.)

And so on.

As for Gui, his situation remains unclear. We reached out again to Fiskesjö, who is Swedish, and he told us:

We have to carefully make sure this is not a repeat of what has happened to other dissidents in China, who were declared free and then nevertheless could not be reached by friends or family. They were obviously just in a new form of detention and just as much manipulated by the authorities. Gui Minhai, as a citizen of my country and not of China, must have the freedom to leave China and return to Sweden.

Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.

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