The disappearances of five men affiliated with a Hong Kong publishing house specializing in Chinese government exposés took several strange twists this week.
One man appeared on state-run Chinese TV saying he’d voluntarily returned to the mainland to face justice in a 2003 drunk-driving case. Meanwhile, the wife of another said she had received a handwritten letter, purportedly from her husband, reiterating that he too had returned to the mainland of his own volition to assist with “investigations.”
Both of the men hold European passports. Gui Minhai, owner of the publishing house, Mighty Current Media, is a Swedish national who who vanished in Thailand in October. Lee Bo, also known as Lee Po – who was last seen in Hong Kong in December and is a co-owner of a bookshop associated with Mighty Current – is a British citizen. Three associates of theirs are also missing and were last seen in mainland China.
Friends, family members and Hong Kong lawmakers have all questioned whether Gui and Lee were taken to the mainland via extrajudicial means, and whether this signals that the Chinese Communist Party is willing to go to new lengths to punish its critics abroad.
In Sunday’s broadcast on CCTV, Gui tearfully said he had returned to mainland China of his own free will to make amends for a DUI case that left a 23-year-old woman dead in Ningbo.
In the video, Gui says that although he “now holds Swedish citizenship, deep down I still think of myself as Chinese. … I hope the Swedish authorities will respect my personal choices, my rights and my privacy, and allow me to deal with my own issues.” In his comments, Gui does not specify where the video was recorded, nor how he returned to the mainland.
The video has been met with a wave of disbelief in Hong Kong and beyond. Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia regional director, posted on Twitter that the segment was “a very elaborate script, and a skillful mix of truths, half-truths and outright lies.”
Gui appears in two different shirts in the video, possibly indicating it was a compilation of multiple interviews made at different times. Others have said that the age on Gui’s Swedish passport does not match that of the man implicated in the drunk-driving case.
I hope the Swedish authorities will respect my personal choices, my rights and my privacy, and allow myself to deal with my own issues.
Sweden has pressed China for answers about Gui’s case and location, and summoned the Thai ambassador in December for information. But Gabriella Augustsson, head of public information at Sweden’s Embassy in Beijing, said Wednesday that Swedish diplomats still had “not received any information about his whereabouts.”
“We continue to seek clarification,” she said. If Gui was taken to mainland China against his will, she said, that “would be very serious.”
According to the official New China News Agency, Gui was sentenced in August 2004 to two years in prison for the traffic case. The sentence came with a two-year “reprieve” akin to probation in the United States.
But the news agency said that Gui worried that if he stayed in China, he could still go to jail if he did something wrong, and that he left the country in October 2004 using a fake identity. Chinese police issued a warrant for Gui’s arrest in August 2006, the agency said, for fleeing China and violating the terms of his reprieve. The news agency said Gui had been on China’s wanted list ever since.
Gui’s daughter, Angela, who is in Britain, told the Guardian newspaper this week that she could not deny or confirm details of the traffic case, but rejected the idea her father had returned to China of his own accord.
“I do still believe he was abducted,” Angela Gui told the paper. “I still think it is suspicious that he and his associates went missing. Even if [the confession] is true, I don’t think that is why he is there.”
The note, reprinted in the South China Morning Post, said that Lee had learned about the DUI case and had realized that Gui “has a complicated history … and is a morally unacceptable person.”
The letter, addressed to Lee’s wife, Choi Ka-ping, asserted that Lee’s circumstances represented no threat to Hong Kong’s autonomy. “Some people used my immigration methods as an excuse to wantonly attack ‘one country, two systems’ and the Hong Kong government,” the note read. “This is ridiculous!”
Hong Kong, a former British colony of 7 million people, became a semiautonomous Chinese territory in 1997 under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.” That framework was intended to preserve a range of civil liberties for Hong Kongers, including freedom of speech, that do not exist in Communist-run mainland China.
Hong Kong also retained its own legal system, and under the Basic Law, which outlined how the territory would be administered for 50 years following the handover, mainland law enforcement officials are barred from traveling to the territory to make arrests.
“It would be a violation of the Basic Law if … mainland law enforcement agencies had been operating in Hong Kong,” the European Union delegation to China said in a statement earlier this month. “This would be inconsistent with the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.” The delegation called on authorities in Thailand, China and Hong Kong to “investigate and clarify the circumstances of the disappearances in conformity with the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, Hong Kong Secretary of Security Lai Tung-kok said his department had written to Guangdong’s public security bureau to request access to Lee. Lai said he has yet to receive any information on the three other missing Hong Kong men.
Albert Ho, a Hong Kong lawmaker and chairman of a long-standing local group that supports political prisoners in mainland China, said: “We’ll continue to exert maximum pressure on our government officials. They understand they’re duty bound to protect the basic liberty and safety of Hong Kong people.
“It’s very, very embarrassing for the Hong Kong government to be unable to obtain some substantive information,” he added.
The disappearances have had a chilling effect on Hong Kong’s once-vibrant trade in books critical of the Chinese leadership. Tomes about the private lives of mainland political leaders — some well-sourced, others largely speculative — have for years been popular purchases for mainland tourists on cross-border trips.
Hong Kong publisher Jin Zhong said last week he had suspended plans for a book criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Jin, head of the Hong Kong publishing house Open, decided this month to scrap plans to publish “Xi Jinping’s Nightmare” by Yu Jie, a Chinese writer and democracy activist living in the U.S.
“Many booksellers are afraid of selling these kinds of books now,” Jin said in a phone interview last week. “This crisis is very severe.”
“The whole thing about Hong Kong’s safety in the publishing industry, including book and magazine publishing, is that we are guaranteed by law that Beijing and Hong Kong will not cross into each other’s territories and arrest people,” Jin said. “So this time we need to consider a lot of things, and take a step back in order to protect ourselves.”
“Under such circumstances,” he said, “many of my family members said ‘since you know there’s such a risk, why do you want to do this? Do you not want your family anymore? Since you can avoid [persecution], why not just avoid it? So I decided to tell Yu Jie to hold temporarily and wait for a bit.”
Yu has already written one highly critical book about Xi Jinping, “Godfather of China Xi Jinping.” Several booksellers initially refused to publish the book, and the few who agreed faced heavy intimidation. One, Yiu Mantin, was arrested during a visit to mainland China before its release. Chinese authorities accused him of smuggling industrial paint, and in May 2014 sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Jin agreed to publish the book after Yiu’s arrest; it was released in 2014.
Last week, Yu wrote an op-ed in the local newspaper Apple Daily claiming that several other Hong Kong booksellers had refused to publish “Xi Jinping’s Nightmare,” and he now planned to publish it in Taiwan. He called the democratic island a “last lighthouse of publishing freedom in ethnic Chinese society.”
Lee’s Causeway Bay Books has closed since he went missing, and at least one prominent bookstore chain, Page One, has taken politically sensitive books off its shelves. On Jan. 10, thousands of Hong Kong residents gathered to protest Lee’s disappearance, shouting, “Free Lee Bo!” and waving banners that read “missing person.”
After the video of Gui was broadcast on Sunday evening, Lee’s family told Hong Kong media they had received a handwritten message, purportedly from him.
The note, reprinted in the South China Morning Post, said Lee had learned about the DUI case and had realized that Gui “has a complicated history … and is a morally unacceptable person.”
The letter, addressed to Lee’s wife, Choi Ka-ping, asserted that Lee’s circumstances represented no threat to Hong Kong’s autonomy: “Some people used my immigration methods as an excuse to wantonly attack ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and the Hong Kong government,” the note read. “This is ridiculous!”
Ho, the lawmaker, said Lee’s bookstore is under pressure to move its inventory of 30,000 books from its warehouse, where Lee was last seen.
Kaiman reported from Hong Kong and Makinen from Beijing. Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau and special correspondent Violet Law in Hong Kong contributed to this report.