The timer is ticking on Angela Gui’s website. On Monday October 17, 2016, it will show it’s been 365 days since her father, Hong Kong based publisher Gui Minhai, was taken from his holiday apartment in the Thai resort town of Pattaya by an unknown man and later abducted to China.
Gui, who became a Swedish citizen more than two decades ago, remains in custody on the mainland without legal assistance or adequate consular access, a situation which has been condemned by a dozen countries, including the US.
Four other men connected to Gui’s Mighty Current publishing house and its Hong Kong shop, Causeway Bay Books, that sold gossipy titles about China’s elite, also disappeared between October and December last year.
While his four colleagues have since been released, the anniversary of Gui’s abduction marks a year of increased concern among Hong Kong people that democratic freedoms in the semi-autonomous special administrative region are being eroded by Beijing. One of the publishers, British passport holder Lee Bo, was reportedly snatched by mainland agents in Hong Kong.
“I think Gui’s and the other booksellers’ case is a watershed moment for the international community,” says Maya Wang, researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The case shocked them into realizing that the Chinese government not only violates human rights domestically, but its growing power has meant snatching critics, including those with foreign nationalities, from abroad.”
Representatives of the Swedish embassy in Beijing met with Gui on September 28 this year. Considering the circumstances, he was fine, Gabriella Augustsson, head of public diplomacy for the embassy, said in an email.
Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström, who has been criticized in the Swedish media for being too soft in her diplomacy with Beijing, recently said that she expects a response from the Chinese authorities in the near future.
Gui Minhai, born in 1964 in Ningbo on the China’s east coast, moved to Sweden in 1988 for postgraduate studies at the University of Gothenburg. Following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, he was granted permanent residency in Sweden and was later naturalized as a citizen.
In 2012, Gui established Mighty Current Media in Hong Kong, a publisher and distributor of books specializing in mainland Chinese politics and the lives of its politicians. Such books are illegal on the mainland but still allowed in Hong Kong.
He became one of the city’s most well known publishers.
“From 2013 to 2015 Gui Minhai was the most important and challenging publisher in Hong Kong,” Chinese poet and author Bei Ling told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. “He ignored unwritten rules and challenged taboos. He believed that Hong Kong’s laws and his Swedish passport would protect him.” He was wrong.
In January, Chinese authorities said they had having detained Gui, after state-controlled TV channel CCTV aired a “confession” video of him saying he had caused a traffic accident a decade earlier. (Self-confession was a favored tool used by Mao Zedong to enforce docility through shame and humiliation.)
Since then, Angela Gui has been fighting to get her father freed. In May she gave testimony to a US congressional commission hearing on China, and earlier this month launched a website titled Free Gui Minhai.
She is supported by a network of organizations, including Amnesty International, Civil Rights Defenders, Human Rights Watch, Freedom to Publish Committee of the International Publishers’ Association and Swedish PEN.
“It’s extremely concerning that it’s now been a year and that I’ve still not been given any direct information on how he is being treated and how he is,” Angela Gui told Asia Times.
“I’ve had three phone calls in which he’s been telling me to stop campaigning, but all he ever disclosed during them was that he was ‘fine’”.
In Hong Kong, the “one country, two systems” policy should ensure that the city enjoys a high degree of autonomy.
The so-called Umbrella Movement in 2014, a sit-in occupation campaign to press the Chinese government into allowing Hong Kong more democracy, kick-started political awareness among many Hongkongers, and the kidnapping of the booksellers highlighted what’s at stake.
New political parties have sprouted in the city with the aim to increase the territory’s self-rule; some even promote independence.
In an inauguration ceremony earlier this month at the Legislative Council, a new lawmaker pledged to serve the “Hong Kong Nation”, while another wrapped himself in blue banner that proclaimed “Hong Kong is not China”.
Last week, the British government said in a report that it remained concerned over the abductions of the five publishers and that British passport holder Lee Bo’s “involuntary removal to the mainland was a serious breach of the Sino — British Joint Declaration.”
Both China’s and Hong Kong’s government rejected the report.
Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says self-determination for Hong Kong clearly is under attack.
“Beijing and the [Hong Kong’s chief executive] CY Leung government are still pretending that nothing has happened with the kidnap of Gui in Thailand, and more importantly, the kidnap of Lee Bo right in Hong Kong,” he said.
“Meanwhile, the media climate is worsening as more mainland-Chinese companies are buying up Hong Kong TV stations and newspaper outlets, even electronic news platforms. More freedoms are being eroded. Even the legal system could be compromised,” he said.
Lam expects Beijing to keep pushing its antidemocratic policies on Hong Kong.
“Things will get much worse if Article 23, the legislation on secession and sedition activities, is passed, as expected, in 2018.”
A new survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that almost 40% of polled Hongkongers, especially the young, want to move away from the city as they feel dissatisfied with the government and seek higher levels of democracy and freedom.
In the long run, an exodus of young graduates will have damaging effects on society, international business confidence and the overall economy, Lam said.
“Beijing knows that its attempt to squeeze Hong Kong further may drive away multinationals to places like Singapore. But for them, as Deng Xiaoping said, ‘stability is the overriding concern,’” he added.
While Beijing seeks stability, more rebellion is to be expected in the former British colony.
Meanwhile, the timer on Angela Gui’s website continues to tick.