China confirms custody of one of five missing Hong Kong booksellers

Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, disappeared last year during a trip to Thailand. He's among a group of Hong Kong booksellers believed to be held by Chinese authorities. 

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Members from the pro-democracy Civic Party carry a portrait of Gui Minhai (l.) and Lee Bo during a protest outside the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China January 19, 2016. One of Hong Kong's staunchest pro-Beijing lawmakers said Gui's tearful confession on state television to a hit-and-run accident more than a decade ago in China is unlikely to appease public concerns that he may have been abducted.

Chinese authorities have admitted for the first time they detained at least one of five missing Hong Kong booksellers three months after he disappeared in Thailand.

Gui Minhai, a naturalized Swedish citizen, appeared on state TV in China Sunday saying he had turned himself over to authorities in October over a fatal drunk-driving accident in China back in 2004.

But Mr. Gui’s daughter and other observers still believe he was abducted and punished for publishing books that have irked China and its leaders.

The disappearance of Gui and four colleagues from the Mighty Current book distributor and Causeway Bay bookstore has led many conclude they were being forcibly held in China for political reasons.

The whereabouts of Gui’s four other colleagues is unknown, with the exception of Lee Bo, who Hong Kong police confirmed on Monday was in China, without saying on what legal basis.

Chinese law enforcement agencies are not supposed to carry out operations in Hong Kong, which retained its own legal system after the 1997 handover from British rule. Under the “one country two systems” arrangement, freedom of expression is guaranteed on paper.

China has largely respected that arrangement, but there are growing concern over a more controlling attitude that threatens Hong Kong's way of life and freedoms.

Gui's daughter, Angela, who is studying in Britain, told the Christian Science Monitor that she still believed her father had been forcibly taken back to China over his publishing business. She said she had been informed by Sweden that there was no record of him leaving Thailand. He was last seen at his apartment in Pattaya on Oct. 17.

“I don't think it was coincidental that others were taken as well,” she said, referring to Gui's four colleagues. “I find this whole new development very worrying.”

After Ms. Gui spoke to reporters on Sunday, she received a Skype message from her father telling her he went to China on his own to "solve personal problems" and asking her to stay quiet.  

A suspended jail sentence 

On Sunday, state broadcaster China Central Television alleged that Gui had returned to China voluntarily in October and surrendered to police as he was plagued by “guilt” and “shame” over the drunk-driving incident. The report said he was given a suspended two-year sentence in August 2004 but that he absconded three months later.

In the televised interview, Gui said he returned to China “out of my own choice.”  The report said Gui has written “several” confessions and was “willing to accept any punishment.”

He urged the Swedish authorities and others not to get involved. “Although I have Swedish nationality, I genuinely feel I'm a Chinese and my roots are in China so I hope the Swedish authorities can respect my choice, rights and privacy,” he said. The report alleged he was involved in other criminal activities.

Gui's interview is the latest in a recent rise of public confessions made by high-profile suspects who have antagonized the Communist Part; most have later ended up in jail. 

Three of Gui’s colleagues vanished while traveling in China. Mr. Lee, a Hong Kong citizen with a British passport, vanished on the night of Dec. 30.

The Causeway Bay bookstore is owned by Mighty Current, which specializes in sensational books about the private lives of Chinese leaders. Sources in the industry say Gui was preparing to publish a book on Xi's former lovers before he disappeared.

Gui’s daughter said she spoke to him just four days before he vanished and he did not say he planned to go to China. She said her father thought he and his business were safe in Hong Kong. In mid-November, he wired money to her bank account without any explanation.

Headline Daily, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper, reported on Sunday that the wife of Gui's colleague, Lee, received a letter from him stressing he had returned to China voluntarily and that he was implicated due to Gui. He reportedly wrote he had “recently” found out Gui had a “complicated history” and was “involved in other crimes.”

Rewriting international norms 

Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong journalist who was jailed in China a decade ago on espionage charges says that China is “rewriting new rules in everything,” including international norms. He said the treatment of Gui and Lee were similar to how he was dealt with in Chinese custody ten years ago.

He said Gui's televised confession, and his request for outsiders not to take up his case, wasn’t credible. “How could he be speaking the truth when he is not free?” he asks.

Eva Pils, a China law expert at King's College, London, said the televised interview was disturbing and reflected that he was under great pressure.

“The fact that he was apparently forcibly disappeared some three months ago is disturbing. So is the fact that not only he but also several colleagues working in the same industry have disappeared or been taken to mainland China, this rather suggests that his case is not about the alleged drink-driving case but about the ongoing attempt to control the Hong Kong publishing industry,” she says.

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