June 17, 2016
A Fourth Causeway Bay bookseller, released from state custody in China, describes his confinement; only one, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, remains
by Ian Dreiblatt
The evening of Thursday, June 16 saw the release of Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong bookseller detained by mainland Chinese authorities for the past several months. An important development in its own right, the news also marks an important development in the unfolding story of Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish author and bookseller kidnapped by Chinese authorities at his home in Pattaya, Thailand in October 2015. Originally held with four colleagues, including Lam, Gui is now the last to remain in Chinese state custody.
Gui, fifty-one, owns Sage Communications, as well as one third of Mighty Current Media, the Hong Kong-based publishing house that in turn owns Causeway Bay Books, a popular independent bookstore. He has published more than 200 books exposing the private lives of China’s elite—a crime in mainland China, but perfectly legal in Hong Kong. (The city’s formal status is as a “Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.”) Since his abduction, these businesses have been shuttered.
As Oliver Holmes and Tom Phillips have reported for the Guardian, good-faith investigation into Gui’s disappearance by Thai authorities appears to have been “nonexistent.” Perhaps because it was accomplished on foreign soil, his has been the highest-profile of the so-called Causeway Books Disappearances, five discrete abductions of Causeway Bay personnel (namely, besides Gui and Lam, Lui Bo, a co-owner of Mighty Current; Cheung Jiping, a manager at Mighty Current; and Lee Bo, a British citizen and editor for Mighty Current). The disappearances, which international human rights NGO Amnesty International has described as showing “total contempt for due process and the rule of law,” are themselves a high-profile example of a larger phenomenon.
Since his abduction last fall, Gui has periodically been heard from: he has made phone calls to his wife and the housekeeping staff at his apartment complex, and in mid-January delivered a tearful—and obviously staged—apology on Chinese state television, claiming that he had voluntarily returned to China to accept responsibility for violating a probation agreement related to a fatal drunk-driving accident in 2005. Gui’s passport, however, was never stamped in traveling from Thailand to China, and he never mentioned an upcoming trip in conversations with friends and family. Comment on the implausibility of the apology came swiftly and directly, with Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director East Asia, tweeting:
A very elaborate script, and a skillful mix of truths, half-truths and outright lies. https://t.co/wI60HKMZDX
— Nicholas Bequelin 林伟 (@bequelin) January 17, 2016
As David Brunnstrom reported for Reuters last month, Gui’s detention was also the subject of an impassioned plea made by his daughter to the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China on May 24. “I still haven’t been told where he is, how he is being treated, or what his legal status is,” she told American lawmakers, “which is especially shocking in light of the fact that my father holds Swedish, and only Swedish, citizenship.” Alan Leong, the leader of Hong Kong’s Civic Party and a member of its Legislative Council, told RTHK, the city’s public broadcaster, that authorities in Beijing should respond to the younger Gui:
I suppose the best thing to do for Beijing to establish its credibility amongst the international community is not to high-handedly infringe into personal freedom and liberty. I think the Chinese leadership is obviously, evidently, minded to establish China as a credit-worthy member of the international community. What can be better [than if] you follow the norms of international community—namely, you respect people’s freedoms and liberty and the rule of law?
That response has not been forthcoming, but with Lam’s release this week, Gui is the last of the Causeway Bay booksellers to remain in PRC custody. In a story reported by Ng Kang-chung and Owen Fung for the South China Morning Post, Lam, sixty-one, detailed his own abduction and confinement in Ningbo, the Chinese city of about 7.5 million that, coincidentally, is also Gui’s birthplace:
I was detained in a 200 by 300 square foot room. For twenty-four hours, six groups of people took turns watching me. I was allowed no outside communication, no lawyer…. I was afraid, feeling helpless. I didn’t know what would happen or if there would be a trial. I was alone.
Lam explained he had won his freedom by promising to return with a hard drive that Chinese authorities wanted access to, including the lists of readers who had bought books from Causeway Bay. “Of course, I dared not return,” he explained. Lam also clarified that his own television confession had been “a show” (“I had to follow the script. If I did not follow it strictly, they would ask for a re-take.”), that Lee Bo’s statement (after his release last March) that he had returned to the mainland voluntarily was obviously coerced, that Causeway Bay would continue operating, and that he “hope[d] HKers will say no to authoritarian regimes.”
We reached out to Magnus Fiskesjö, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University who is also a friend of Gui’s and an expert in his case. “Today’s revelations put the lie to claims that these kidnapped men turned themselves in voluntarily,” he said, “when it really was under extralegal duress. This has huge implications, not least in Hong Kong, which is struggling to maintain its judicial autonomy and guarantee the freedoms of expression its people have been promised until 2047.
“Perhaps even more consequentially, inside China, many, many people have in recent years put their hope in moves towards the rule of law, including judges and others who have officially condemned the practices of forced confessions of the past, hoping for an impartial, professional judiciary and a new, decent society.”
The details of Gui’s detention remain undisclosed. He has a champion in his close friend Bei Ling, a Chinese poet and activist who co-counded the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Bei has been speaking about Gui’s case wherever possible, including an excellent and informative short film made by Lynn Lee and James Leong for Al Jazeera:
Despite considerable coverage in English-language media, the booksellers’ plight seems mostly to have eluded widespread attention in the US and UK. Much of the coverage that has appeared has focused on what Michael Forsythe of the New York Times describes as a “fear that the historic agreement guaranteeing [Hong Kong] its separate government and legal system [from those of the PRC] may have been dealt a severe blow.”
Americans would do well to take closer notice. For one thing, the Chinese government’s overreach is hardly just a foreign problem; as we’ve recently discussed in the cases of other nations, attacks on speech anywhere can wreak chilling repercussions and distortions of public understanding around the world. More to the point, Gui’s plight doubles as a glimpse at an advanced stage of official reprisals for public disclosures and extralegal rendition acting in concert, which—not to overstate the case—certainly bares contemplation.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.