October 17, 2017

Today marks two years in prison for Gui Minhai


Gui Minhai, with his daughter in happier times

Two years ago today, Gui Minhai, a Swedish publisher and co-owner of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Books, disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand.

Gui was one of five men associated with Causeway Bay to go missing. All of them later turned up in state custody in the People’s Republic of China; today, only Gui remains in custody. As we noted last year:

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.

(David Bandurski, author of Dragons in Diamond Village, pointed out shortly after the confession that available records suggest Gui was involved in a traffic accident in 2003, but that the matter was thoroughly resolved at the time.)

The abductions appear to have been precipitated by Beijing’s discomfort with some of the books Causeway Bay was selling, pulpy works of political gossip, with often questionable sourcing, about Chinese Communist Party higher-ups. Under the complicated “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong is formally a part of China, but is supposed to have its own system of laws and courts; the books were prohibited under the strict censorship codes that prevail in the Chinese mainland, but legal in Hong Kong. The abductees held various nationalities; Gui, born in China, is a citizen of no country but Sweden.

Gui Minhai as he appeared during his televised confession.

We’ve followed Gui’s story in depth over the past two years, interviewing his daughter (the most vocal activist pushing for his release), noting his receipt of the Jeri Laber Award from the Association of American Publishers, and considering some of the obstacles faced by the diplomats working to secure his release (hint: China does a lot of trade).

Gui’s profile keeps rising. Last week, during a string of days marked by high-profile speakers and occasional bursts of violence, Frankfurt Book Fair director Heinrich Riethmüller offered comments including him in a list of writers and cultural workers being imprisoned and harassed around the world. “It’s discouraging,” he said, “to see that fundamental human rights can be trampled in so many places at once.”

And this week marks a potential turning point for the publisher. Last week, Radio Free Asia reported that Gui’s daughter, Angela Gui, had noted that today’s anniversary means that Gui has completed his two-year sentence for the drunk driving charges Beijing has used to justify his detention. 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.”

Even in those unconfirmed reports, the younger Gui does not seem especially optimistic. “I hope they will [release him], but I have a feeling there is another trial in the pipeline,” RFA quotes her as saying. “I think there is still a charge outstanding that they will try him for, but I hope that they will let him go.”

A vigil in Gui’s name is planned for London’s Chinese embassy this afternoon.


This piece has been updated with further perspective on Radio Free Asia’s reporting.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.