Swedish 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.