Exactly two years ago, Swedish publisher Gui Minhai was kidnapped by Chinese security agents in Thailand. He has been held incommunicado ever since, without legal representation or trial. Taiwan Sentinel talked to his daughter, Angela Gui, about the uncertainties that arise when a family member is in the claws of the Chinese regime.
The last footage of Gui Minhai as free man is a blurry surveillance video from southern Thailand dated Oct. 17, 2015. Having just finished his grocery shopping, the Swedish publisher is seen returning to his apartment complex in Pattaya, casually dressed in a T-shirt and short pants as he steps out from his white SUV.
Gui hands his grocery bags to the security guard, and reenters the car only to disappear together with a Mandarin-speaking man who was waiting outside his apartment. The man is unknown to all of Gui’s family and friend. Gui then disappears into the vast network of secret facilities an unlawful detention mechanism of China’s security police.
His daughter Angela Gui, only 21 years old at the time, was busy finishing her university studies in the UK. She didn’t really worry during the first week that she was unable to contact her father. He usually worked long hours and would sometimes be tied up with his business, even falling asleep over the keyboard or staying overnight in his Hong Kong bookstore.
During the second week, however, she began to feel anxious, but handled her feelings by denial or joking to herself that her father might have “grown tired” of her. But by the third week without any contact, the charade didn’t hold water anymore. Angela Gui was now worried: “I started to write more and more desperate texts to him online, and called his cellphone several times without even getting through,” she remembers.
By the end of the third week she received an e-mail from Lee Bo, her father’s colleague. Lee confirmed that Gui had gone missing for over 20 days, and suspected he may have been taken to China for “political reasons.” Angela Gui proceeded to call Lee, whom she knew and had meet before in Hong Kong. “Lee didn’t know much more about the situation than he had written in the mail, and didn’t have any action plan, as he thought this would never happen,” she said, recalling the surrealistic feeling.
Only three days later, on Nov. 13, her father finally texted her on Skype. He said money was already transferred to her bank account, and that there was no reason to worry about his situation. But for Angela Gui, the message generated more questions than it answered. “All of a sudden he wrote to me in English, even though we always communicate in Swedish. The text was carelessly written with grammatical errors, which is very unlike him,” she said. “Also, I hadn’t been asking him for any money, and he didn’t answer any of the questions I’d asked him earlier.”
Later that same day, Angela Gui also saw the surveillance video from the apartment in Thailand, where she had celebrated the last Christmas with her father. It was now beyond doubt that Gui was in some kind of trouble related to the Chinese regime.
A few days later Angela Gui called the Swedish embassy in London. “I just wanted to go there and sit down and talk to someone. But the person on the other end of the line just told me she didn’t really understand why I was calling,” she recalls. In reality, the Swedish government was aware of what had happened to her father long before she did, but decided not to contact her. Angela Gui said this made her disappointed and “very sad.”
“I just wanted to go there and sit down and talk to someone. But the person on the other end of the line just told me she didn’t really understand why I was calling.”
The Swedish embassy in London instead advised her to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stockholm, where Angela Gui was told they would “get back” to her. In December, a couple of meetings which she describes as “odd” were held involving her and officials at the ministry’s consular section. “I still don’t know why I was given so little information. Didn’t they know anything, or were they just reluctant to share with me? We basically just decided to keep in touch.”
In February 2016, the Swedish embassy in Beijing was granted its first meeting with Gui Minhai. But again the daughter was not given any information from the Ministry, neither before nor after the meeting. She therefore decided to take action by contacting the embassy in Beijing herself.
While the Swedish ambassador to China refused to speak to her, Angela Gui managed to get in touch with one of the consular officers who had attended the meeting with her father. “At once I got a lot of information that was very important to me — details such as the fact that the meeting was held in English, what city it took place in, and even the actual name of the detention center,” she said.
After the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs discovered that Angela Gui had reached out to its embassy in Beijing, they contacted her with instructions to only contact the Stockholm head office in future in order to keep all communications “centralized.” It soon became clear to Angela Gui that the Swedish government was looking for a solution through so-called “quiet diplomacy” — to solve the problem behind closed doors without upsetting the Chinese regime in the process.
For me and other Swedish journalists who have made inquires with the Swedish government, only standard diplomatic language answers have been offered. We are told that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs views the kidnapping as “very serious” and that it is “working actively” with the case. But it’s impossible to know what is actually being said or done, and at what levels.
A somewhat disturbing detail is that it took the Ministry of Foreign Affairs almost three months to summon the Chinese ambassador in Stockholm. This happened in mid-January 2016, and only after a second Swedish citizen, the NGO director Peter Dahlin, was also kidnapped by Chinese security forces at his Beijing home. From that point on, both cases were reportedly being raised simultaneously.
While Angela Gui is grateful for the Swedish authorities’ work on her father’s case, she finds the reception and communication with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was “cold, and not particularly sympathetic.” Several times, the ministry told her it and her had “different roles” to play in the matter. “Of course I can accept that we have different roles to play, but I also believe mutual communication is important, while they don’t really seem to value cooperation,” she says.
Sometimes the ministry gave her the impression that she was bothered them, which made her contact them less often. Indeed, at times contact was limited to a phone call every third month. “They are more people than me and they have more resources and power than me. But this concerns my family. Should I not be allowed to know what is actually happening?” she asks.
In the case of Lee Ming-che, who disappeared in March 2017 and was put on show trial last month, the Taiwanese government was heavily criticized (mostly by the NGO community) for “not standing up to China.” The reason for this approach is obvious: a harsh response from the Tsai administration could provoke Beijing and be used as an excuse for further assertiveness against Taiwan.
But what could be behind Sweden’s unwillingness to work harder on the case? It’s the economy, stupid! Swedish trade with China is growing fast, and in the summer of 2017 the Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, visited China together with the minister of trade and a large delegation with representatives from about 60 government departments and private companies. In the following communiqué, the Swedish government listed several new deals on economic cooperation, but made no mention of Gui Minhai.
To his credit, PM Löfven did raise Gui’s situation with Chinese President Xi Jinping as well as prime minister Li Keqiang. But this was done behind closed doors, just as the Chinese regime prefers. “I am grateful that Löfven mentioned my father, but his visit didn’t change the fact that I know almost nothing about how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working with father’s case,” Angela Gui says.
All this is shockingly different from a case in 2011, when two Swedish journalists were kidnapped by the regime in Ethiopia. The Swedish ambassador to Ethiopia worked on the case “day and night” for a year before the journalists were released in 2012. Sweden’s prime minister and foreign minister were personally involved in the case, with the foreign minister twice travelling to Ethiopia to meet the country’s leaders. Despite repeated requests, Angela Gui has being denied a meeting with the Swedish foreign minister and ambassador to China.
An involuntary activist
When he first contacted Angela Gui, Lee Bo underscored the importance of talking to the media and of drawing attention to her father’s kidnapping by other means. In the beginning, however, she was extremely careful. She gave a couple of very short media interviews, but made sure neither her name nor her contact information was publicized.
Throughout the process, she said it was “extremely hard” to know how to act. Many details of the case were unclear, and the sparse information from the Swedish authorities certainly didn’t help. Several times after she spoke out, in messages or phone calls that she said were obviously manipulated, her father would contact her and tell her to be quiet. It also had the reverse effect: the fact that the Chinese regime wanted her to keep quiet was one of the main reasons she decided to become an advocate for her father’s case.
A breaking point was when U.S. Congress invited her to speak in May 2016. She was never keen on public speaking, and also did not know what it would mean for her personal safety. “But suddenly I realized that I can not always think about what would be comfortable for myself. Rather, I had to think what could be done to spread information about my father,” she remembers.
After a solid performance at Congress, Angela Gui was invited to the British House of Commons and several international organizations, including the United Nations Human Rights Council. Curiously, to this day, no similar invitation has been extended by the Swedish parliament.
When the two Swedish journalists were kidnapped in Ethiopia in 2011, Swedish civil society immediately sprang into action. After just two months, several organizations and newspaper editors issued a demand to the government to handle the case as a political rather than a consular issue (the response by Taiwanese civil society to the Lee Ming-che case was even more swift, with immediate demands on the Tsai government and several events to draw attention to the case).
With Gui Minhai, it was a completely different story. Initially, Swedish media and civil society almost didn’t react at all. Publishing only in Chinese, Gui was relatively unknown in Sweden, whose civil society is usually not concerned with developments in far away China. As a result, Angela Gui had to fight her battle more or less on her own.
At the annual Swedish book fair in Gothenburg — Gui’s hometown — in the fall of 2016 Angela Gui met several activists who were campaigning for Dawit Isaak, a Swedish journalist who was being held in Eritrea. “When I asked them if they could help campaigning for my father, they just looked confused and wondered who he is and what happened to him,” she says. This despite the fact that her father had already been missing for almost a year.
After her appearance at U.S. Congress earlier that year, Angela Gui then managed to get published in a couple of Sweden’s leading newspapers, as well as foreign publications like the Washington Post and The Guardian. The increasing attention also led to a performance on Swedish state TV in the fall of 2016, forcing a first official statement on the matter from Sweden’s foreign minister.
Personal safety at risk
Eventually, Angela Gui’s activism succeeded in forcing Swedish civil society to take notice and follow suit. In late 2016 and early 2017, Gui Minhai was awarded (in absentia, evidently) two prizes from the Swedish Publicists’ Association. In mid-September 2017, when Gui had been missing for 700 days, a first rally was held for him in Sweden, outside the Chinese embassy. Several newspaper editors were present, as well as the heads of various organizations and of one party in parliament.
A similar event is also planned in Stockholm this week to mark the second anniversary of Gui’s disappearance. Even if there has been improvement, the case still does not receive the attention it needs. At the Gothenburg book fair in late September 2017, for example, only one of the events and discussions was about the Gui Minhai case, which Angela describes as “a mockery.”
Angela Gui’s activism also comes at the cost to her personal safety. While she was preparing for a speech at the world’s largest book fair in Frankfurt in 2016, two Chinese men approached her and took photographs of her with a large camera. “That was most likely their way of saying that they are watching me,” she says.
While she was preparing for a speech at the world’s largest book fair in Frankfurt in 2016, two Chinese men approached her and took photographs of her with a large camera. “That was most likely their way of saying that they are watching me.”
The incident made her more aware of the threat she now lives with. “Even if I don’t constantly worry about my safety, the fear is always there subconsciously. I avoid being alone in unfamiliar places, and have regular contact with friends and family when travelling,” she says. She avoids using regular e-mail or SMS services, instead keeping to encrypted services for any communication concerning plans or contact information.
Angela Gui takes it for granted that she is being monitored. Once she accidentally checked the settings on her Hotmail account, only to find out that all the messages she sent or received were being forwarded to another, unknown e-mail address. Someone must have logged in and changed her settings. Consequently, she tries to communicate less online in general: “I almost pity the individuals tasked with monitoring my communication. Most of my communication with other people is short, boring and uninteresting.”
Her family has also been divided. Gui Minhai’s wife, who currently resides in Germany, decided at an early stage that she would not get involved out of fear of repercussions for family members in China. “She barely dares to speak to me anymore,” Angela Gui states flatly. The extended family in China has also come under surveillance, and Angela Gui’s closest cousin has already been visited by police. Angela Gui has almost completely stopped contacting them.
Angela Gui’s grandfather recently passed away, and her grandmother’s health is deteriorating. Due to an early warning issued by Swedish police not to travel to any Asian country, there is a risk that the daughter of the disappeared publisher will never see her grandmother again. “I used to go to Asia every year and I really miss it,” says Angela, who often dreams about travelling to China — dreams that now also include sequences where she is being hunted.
As a piece of advice for anyone who might end up in a similar situation, Angela Gui calls to mind something that Tianna Wang, a longtime campaigner for her father and political prisoner Wang Bingzhang, once told her: “She said she found it important not to focus too much on the eventual outcome. It’s impossible to know what effects one’s advocacy efforts will have. Instead she encouraged me to do what I do not just for my dad, but also for myself. I have to use my limited power to do what I feel is right and what I can control, and try to accept that some things is actually outside of my control. I try to remind myself of this whenever things get overwhelming.”
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