The second disappearance of Gui Minhai

Book about Gui Minhai's kidnapping and RSDLSwedish publisher Gui Minhai has disappeared for the second time in China. On 20 January Gui was travelling by train to Beijing in the company of two Swedish consular staff to seek treatment for a serious medical condition when Chinese police snatched him. Since then China has said nothing. Gui was first kidnapped by Chinese agents in Thailand in October 2015,  held under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) and in detention for the next two years. Since October 2017, he has been living under strict police surveillance, but officially “free” in Ningbo in eastern China.

This week a new book about Gui, and another Swede who was disappeared in 2016, Peter Dahlin, is being published by Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson. For the book, called De kidnappade Kinasvenskarna (in English, The Swedes who were kidnapped in China), Olsson interviewed Gui Minhai’s daughter Angela Gui, Bei Ling, an old friend of Gui’s from his China days, and the Swedish foreign ministry.

Olsson talked with RSDLMonitor about his thoughts on Sweden’s handling of Gui’s case and also what he has learned about Gui’s situation from writing this book.


What to you has been the most shocking aspect of Gui’s case?

Jojje Olsson: The most shocking thing was that he hasn’t had any access to medical care since he developed this ALS [Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] illness in prison. It’s a very serious illness, from the onset of ALS you [will likely] only live an average of between two and four years… There are so many examples of Chinese activists and dissidents who didn’t get proper treatment or medical care when they were detained in RSDL…  It was only when he was released in October 2017 that he visited a doctor and got a diagnosis. It points to the fact that he didn’t even get regular health check ups during the two years when he was detained, and during the first six months when he was in RSDL.


When interviewing Angela and Bei Ling, what did you understand was the worst aspect of RSDL for family and friends?

Insecurity. A majority of the families of those people in RSDL don’t know any details behind the detention. When Gui Minhai disappeared into RSDL, Angela didn’t know that according to Chinese law they could hold her father for six months in a place without any contact with the rest of the world. The worst thing, I think, is the insecurity, that you don’t have any news about what is happening – [you don’t know] why were they disappeared, and you don’t have any type of contact with them.


There are so many examples of Chinese activists and dissidents who didn’t get proper treatment or medical care when they were detained in RSDL.


Also, when it comes to Angela’s case, one of the most emotional things for her is it also destroys families. Like Gui Minhai’s wife in Germany, she doesn’t really dare to have any contact with Angela because [of Angela’s public efforts to get her father released]. And also her family in China. Angela [said] she doesn’t really dare to contact her cousin because she knows they could get into trouble because of her activism.


Do you have any information on the conditions Gui was held under in RSDL?

As I understand it when he was released in October, he was taken to Ningbo which is his hometown in eastern China where he could meet his family. He also could use some kinds of communications like Skype and his email. But every communication that he had and every movement that he made was being monitored by the Chinese authorities. And he also had to report to the police at regular intervals. And he was living in a house that was managed by the police, so it was a type of house arrest basically.

In an interview Angela gave [last week] she said that she got the impression that he didn’t want to talk about the details of what happened to him… She got the impression that he was tortured when he was detained because he was missing a tooth and had lost a lot of weight.  And he didn’t talk in detail about that and that’s because he was still in the hands of Chinese security. It’s still very likely that he will be put under another trial for the [publishing of illegal books]… He doesn’t dare to speak out to his friends and family about what happened because it will decrease his chances to be released and or get a shorter sentence. The Chinese authorities are afraid that Gui Minhai will do the same thing as Lam Wing-kee [he exposed the kidnappings and torture at a press conference in Hong Kong in 2016] that he will also talk in detail about what happened to him.


The second kidnapping of Gui took place in front of two consular staff. What does that say about China today?

It shows that China is ready to go further and further to silence dissidents and silence criticism not only from Chinese citizens but also from foreigners. It would be a new level of submission if it’s not condemned. It also shows that you are never safe, you will never know what the Chinese government can do to silence its critics. Even if you’re a foreign citizen in the company of foreign diplomats you are not safe… That’s a big change.


Why did you decide to write this book?

Because I can see that in China since Xi Jinping became President and one or two years into his presidency…  the situation has become more and more repressive, and in Sweden people are very unaware of this. In Swedish media there’s not a lot that is written about China…I use the examples of Peter Dahlin and Gui Minhai to tell the wider story of increased repression and not only in China but also how it is trying to export its repression abroad. This is really important given China’s spoken ambitions to increase its political influence abroad and also its [overseas] investments.


[Gui’s second kidnapping] shows that China is ready to go further and further to silence dissidents and silence criticism not only from Chinese citizens but also from foreigners. It would be a new level of submission if it’s not condemned.

Do you think the Swedish government treated the cases of Peter Dahlin and Gui Minhai differently?

From the point of view of the Chinese authorities, Gui is Chinese, and Peter is Swedish and because the Chinese authorities treated them differently, then the Swedish authorities had to treat them differently.

The Swedish authorities have been clear from the beginning that they view Gui as a Swedish citizen – the foreign minister has said on a couple of occasions when she was asked outright – when the Chinese side said that Gui is first and foremost a Chinese citizen, she would reply [when she was asked by reporters] no, he is Swedish. They have been quite clear on that point. That’s a good thing.

The Chinese authorities have been more persistent with detaining and holding Gui than they were with Peter and that meant the Swedish authorities gave up in one sense. They didn’t really pressure too hard. I remember one thing that Peter said to me: he said: ‘It seems that the Swedish authorities from the very beginning decided that the Gui Minhai issue should not have a big effect on the general relationship between Sweden and China.’


As a Swedish citizen yourself, what is your opinion about Sweden’s response to the two kidnappings of Gui Minhai?

I think the response should have been more open criticism from the beginning. You can see [last week] when the foreign minster made a statement; that was the first time that she openly called for his release for the 830 days that he has been disappeared. What happened immediately after that was that the European Union ambassador to China also echoed the demands of the Swedish foreign minister. This is something very important because when the Swedish government chooses to be silent, when it chooses to engage in quiet diplomacy, it also means that other countries and other organizations don’t say anything either. Because why would they go ahead of Sweden?

When two Swedish journalists were released in Ethiopia in 2012, the Swedish ambassador to Addis Ababa said a decisive factor behind their release was the support and the pressure that came from the US and from the UK and the EU. I think that the fact that the Swedish side has chosen to be silent and not openly criticized China also [has meant that] other countries and organizations have been quiet so there has been no international pressure for Gui. The important thing is to rally other countries and organizations to make joint statements.



I slept handcuffed to a chair: Li Fangping recalls his secret detention

Li Fangping lawyer photo


Li Fangping (李方平), born in 1974, is a prominent human rights lawyer who works for a Beijing law firm. He has represented several high profile clients including imprisoned scholar Ilham Tohti, human rights activist Hu Jia and the blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who now lives in exile in the US. He was also part of a team of lawyers who offered pro bono work to families who were victims of the melamine milk scandal and campaigned to end the hated Re-education Through Labour system. (Photo credit: Li Fangping)


In early 2011, as fears in China grew of a potential “Jasmine Revolution”, the police began rounding up lawyers and activists. On April 29, unidentified State Security officers kidnapped Li Fangping in broad daylight on a Beijing street. His family frantic, Li was only released a little under a week later.


 As the following will show, Li Fangping’s early experience of RSDL, although brief, contains many of the elements common to subsequent accounts of RSDL as exposed in our book, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared. That is: physical violence, denial of adequate food and sleep, threats to family, hiding the location of the facility from the detainee through the use of  black-hooding when transporting and covering of all windows in the “cell”, 24-hours guard, and the finale of forced and videoed confessions to secure release.


The following account is based on a 2017 interview with Lawyer Li in which he describes his ordeal under the precursor to Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL); effectively he was kidnapped by the state. Li was never given any documentation nor told with what legal basis he was taken. As far as the system is concerned, it never happened.


The kidnapping

On 29 April 2011, Li Fangping walked out of the office of the (anti-discrimination) Yirenping NGO when he saw a group of unidentified men waiting for him. One of them asked: “Are you Li Fangbing?” As soon as he said yes, they grabbed him. After one of them had made a phone call, they dragged him to a car. Inside, they placed a black hood over his head. Just before the hood was on he noticed that another car had joined them. During the ride they kept asking: “Everyone else has gone missing. How come you haven’t yet?”


Two people were in the front of the car, while Li was lodged between two in the back. He remembers it taking about two hours before they arrived at the facility.



Slapped around and forced to stand until 2am

Once there, they waited until he was inside a room before they removed the black hood. During that walk, he remembers climbing some stairs and they needed to shout out instructions to him to lift his feet because he was blinded from the hood. Once the hood was taken off, he saw a row of people standing in front of him.


They immediately began berating him. If he said something they didn’t like, they would slap him around.


That day they only gave him a little bit of food and he was forced to keep standing, with two guards watching over him until 2am. He was exhausted. The next day, they repeated this treatment.



Interrogated for 30 hours straight

Around 10 guards were posted to watch him, and five or six policemen interrogated him. Some of the officers played “nice cop”, others played “bad cop”. One of them said he was in charge. Li said they didn’t seem to have a specific reason for taking him. It looked like they were just grabbing people from a list of names.

Li believes that they just wanted to extract some information on lawyers in general, and also to scare him so that he would help the police in the future.
They asked him to provide information on other rights defence lawyers. They were interested in how they would meet and what they would talk about. One interrogation lasted for 30 hours straight. They threatened him that if he did not cooperate they could keep him as long as they wanted, and could even put his family members in prison. If they didn’t like his answers, they would slap him around.


Handcuffed at night

He slept with one hand tightly handcuffed to a chair next to the mattress. He always had to keep both hands and his head above the covers. He was watched 24 hours a day by at least two guards, who usually took six-hour shifts. What was worse was that the lights were kept on all the time. During the day, his mattress was leant against the wall. Other than that, the room only had a chair and a writing desk.


He never knew exactly where he had been secretly detained, but he thinks it was somewhere in the chain of mountains north of Beijing. Although the curtain in his room was kept tightly closed at all times, he could make out the outlines of mountains through the small window in the bathroom.



Release after forced confession

A little less than a week since he had been abducted, he was told he would be released but not before he had met some conditions. First, he had to promise to explain his disappearance by saying he had just been travelling. He was also forced to write a statement saying he would not give interviews to foreign media and to stop attending meetings with other rights defence lawyers. Writing the statement was not enough; they also forced him to read it out in front of a video camera. They threatened to release that recording if he disobeyed them in the future.


They dropped him off alongside Beijing’s North Third Ring Road and Li had to find his own way home. They didn’t give him any documentation to explain why he had been taken. There was absolutely no legal basis to the “Enforced Disappearance” of Lawyer Li Fangping.


The experience taught him he had to take his phone and computer security more seriously; for example by deleting records of sensitive communications on message APPs and emails. Perhaps more than that, he realized the importance of staying calm in such situations. Although he was very afraid, Li’s RSDL ordeal ultimately helped him become better at controlling his fear.



Why is RSDL the most feared type of detention in China?

Editor of The People’s Republic of the Disappeared, Michael Caster, explains the true horror behind China’s Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) to The Diplomat.



The Diplomat: The People’s Republic of the Disappeared documents the experiences of Chinese activists (and one Swede) placed into “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL). Several of those who wrote about their experiences for the book say their time in RSDL was worse than any previous treatment they had experienced, whether in legal detention centers or illegal “black jails.” What about RSDL makes it the most feared type of detention in China?


Michael Caster: Under Xi Jinping, China’s assault on the human rights community has escalated to extremes not seen since the 1989 Pro-Democracy crackdown, while technological advancements, not to mention certain complicit foreign companies, have allowed for unprecedented increases in police capacity and state control. Add to that an effort by the Party to weaponize the law through legislation whose only purpose is to mask its authoritarian objectives behind false talk of rule of law. The revised Criminal Procedure Law, in which RSDL is codified in Article 73, is case in point, as it grants agents of the state effectively unfettered power, often in violation of fundamental international law, to act in the preservation of national security, which is synonymous with the preservation of Party supremacy.


RSDL is so feared, arguably, because it is so quintessentially totalitarian, right down to the ubiquity of black hoods and midnight raids, evoking scenes from V for Vendetta. Little is known, but that is slowly changing, about what it means to disappear in China. Even a few years after it came into effect, in 2016 many people were still misled by the euphemistic title, the residential in RSDL. Torture is common. RSDL is a tool of repression, designed to terrorize and demonstrate power. It is so feared because it was designed to be feared.


This extract was published with the kind permission of The Diplomat. Read the interview in full here.  A Chinese translation is available here.

Wang Quanzhang: The last missing lawyer

Chinese lawyer missing for two years Wang quan zhang

As we enter 2018, Peter Dahlin, the Swedish rights activist, who was himself a victim of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location in Beijing in early 2016, writes about his friend and rights lawyer, Wang Quanzhang. More than two and a half years after he was first kidnapped by the Chinese state, Wang still languishes in secret detention. This extract is re-posted here with the kind permission of Hong Kong Free Press, where it was first published. (Image credit: Hong Kong Free Press.)


Chinese lawyer missing for two years Wang quan zhang


Some five years ago my friend Wang Quanzhang – China’s last missing lawyer – came over to my Beijing apartment for a Swedish-style Christmas.


By this time he had learned to tolerate, if not appreciate, the meatballs, as it was his second Christmas at my house. Since then, I’ve been deported from China and banned for ten years under the Espionage Act.


I am unlikely to spend any more Christmases in China. Wang might never be allowed to spend any Christmas anywhere, outside of prison.


Wang disappeared on 5 August 2015. For two and a half years his family, wife Li Wenzu and their young son, and the lawyers Wang had chosen for himself should he ever be detained, have not seen nor heard from him. There’s no trial in sight.


It may strike anyone reading this that his case is simply another victim’s story. Frankly, there are so many that it’s hard to keep track or become engaged.


However, his case represents something far worse, and is a window into the new China envisioned by Xi Jinping and the CCP.

To continue reading the full version, please click here; the full Chinese version can be read here.