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China’s Search for Dissidents Has Now Expanded to Foreign Countries

11 minute read

Just over a year ago, Gui Minhai, a publisher specializing in juicy political tales banned in mainland China, jotted down a note on his iPad. “Writing progress,” read the note, detailing the prolific Chinese-born publisher’s upcoming projects. A future book was titled, with characteristic relish, The Pimps of the Chinese Communist Party, another The Inside Story of the Chinese First Lady. But one title was notably missing from Gui’s to-do list, even though several of his confidantes say it was the naturalized Swedish citizen’s biggest project of the year, one that may have gotten him in serious trouble with the Chinese government: a tell-all — who knows how truthful? — of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rumored female liaisons.

On Jan. 17, Gui showed up on Chinese TV in a video that would have strained belief as a plot point in his best-selling but, at times, questionably sourced books detailing scandal — political and sexual — among China’s ruling elite. In the video, Gui, a Manchurian with broad shoulders and thick hair, slumps forward, face crumpling, as he says he returned to China to face justice for a fatal drunk-driving accident in his eastern Chinese hometown of Ningbo 12 years ago. Distancing himself from his Swedish citizenship, which the onetime poet picked up during exile after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Gui says, in a monotone: “Although I have Swedish citizenship, I truly feel that I am still Chinese and my roots are in China. So I wish the Swedish government will respect my personal choice, respects my rights and privacy and let me solve my own problems.” Gui’s current Swedish passport, which was issued by the Swedish consulate in Hong Kong, expires next year.

The tearful confession was Gui’s first appearance since the 51-year-old vanished on Oct. 17 from outside the gates of his seaside condominium in the Thai beach town of Pattaya. Four other men associated with Gui’s Mighty Current Media have also disappeared, most recently Lee Bo, Gui’s business partner. Lee, who holds a British passport, was last seen on Dec. 30 in Hong Kong, where he and his wife ran a bookshop hawking hundreds of salacious political accounts to curious visiting mainland Chinese. There is no official record of Lee exiting the former British colony, which is governed by different laws from the rest of China. Yet days after Lee’s disappearance, a fax in his handwriting was sent out, explaining that he had used his “own methods” to travel to the mainland and was busy assisting in an unnamed investigation. The faxed letter went on to say: “I am very well. Everything is fine.” The other three individuals disappeared while traveling in southern China on separate occasions and have not been seen in public since.

Faxed and videotaped reassurances notwithstanding, the fact that five people associated with a politically sensitive publisher have all disappeared certainly seems suspicious. Is the Chinese state now in the business of kidnapping abroad? Since taking power around three years ago, President Xi has cracked down on dissent, locking up hundreds of freethinkers and cementing his reputation as China’s most powerful leader in decades. Everyone from the nation’s top female lawyer to a moderate Muslim academic has been swept up. Most have been jailed on what human-rights experts consider suspect charges, either oversize crimes like subversion of state power or seemingly unconnected infractions such as disturbing traffic. Xi’s campaign feels both brutal and brittle — a powerful ruling party spooked by a collection of unarmed poets, feminists and lawyers, few of whom are calling for an end to communist rule. Xi may have come to power vowing to strengthen China’s commitment to rule of law but on Monday a group of high-profile foreign lawyers and heads of bar associations directly criticized the Chinese President for intimidating or detaining hundreds of Chinese lawyers, along with their staff and families.

Some of China’s detentions have been accompanied by videos in which journalists, activists and bloggers, among others, are paraded on Chinese state TV admitting to a variety of alleged crimes. The coerced feel of the confessions gives an impression less of due process and more of state control. In one example, Gui, whose shirt mysteriously changes color partway through his televised repentance, says: “I don’t want any individual and any organizations interfering with my return or hyping it maliciously.” It is a peculiar sentiment — and a familiar one. Lee’s fax used a similar formulation.

With Beijing’s dragnet expanding abroad, to include what appears to be both Chinese and Chinese-born foreign citizens, panic is setting in among communities that once considered foreign soil safe ground. Last year, shortly after Gui’s disappearance, Thailand, which now counts China as its largest trading partner, deported two Chinese dissidents who were soon to be resettled in a third country with help from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The extraditions back to China earned the Thai government a sharp rebuke from the U.N. and Western governments.

“I thought once I escaped China I would be safe,” says one Chinese dissident, as she waits in Bangkok for a UNHCR hearing to determine whether she will be classified as a political refugee. After more than a dozen of her activist friends were detained in China as part of Xi’s human-rights crackdown, she paid smugglers to transport her through three countries to Thailand. Now she worries about the unknown Mandarin-speaking men who have been tailing her in Bangkok for weeks. “If I disappear tomorrow, you will have no doubt about who took me. The [Chinese] Communist Party is too powerful.”

If Gui was planning to return to China to face up to his troubled conscience, he gave no public signal of an impending life change At his spacious Pattaya condominium, which he bought around a year ago, a new cabinet delivered days after his disappearance stands in the middle of the room, swaddled in plastic. On a desk, which afforded Gui an expansive view of the Gulf of Thailand, two days-of-the-week pillboxes sit, still filled with medicine for the days following his disappearance. On a nearby table, a bag filled with Gui’s swimming gear rests, awaiting his usual daily swim.

Gui was out grocery shopping on Oct. 17 when a man speaking broken Thai and no English showed up at the gate of the Silver Beach condominium. (His image was recorded on the building’s CCTV.) When Gui eventually returned, he asked the compound’s guard to take his groceries up to his apartment and leave them in the hallway. The two men climbed into Gui’s white hatchback. That was the last sighting of the publisher of up to half of the pulp political books available in Hong Kong. (Mighty Current Media’s books are so popular that some Asian airports stock them in prime display spaces, even if spot checks at Chinese customs can get the books’ new owners in trouble.)

For a couple weeks, Gui kept in contact with condo employee Pisamai Phumulna by phone, much as he did when he was in Hong Kong and needed her help in watering plants or ensuring bills were paid. Later on Oct. 17, he called, asking her to put the groceries — smoked salmon, bread and eggs, among other food — in the fridge. Then, in early November he rang again, saying that friends would be coming by to pick up a few things from his home and to please let them in. Four men showed up, one wearing a straw hat and sunglasses. Two spoke native Thai, while the other two only spoke Mandarin. The four registered in the building’s log with a common Chinese name, He Wei, written in Chinese. Their images were also recorded on the building’s CCTV.

The four men stayed in Gui’s apartment for less than half an hour and took, at the very least, a laptop that had been on his desk. The printer’s cartridge also appears missing. Apart from shelves lined with copies of Mighty Current’s books, such as The Mystery of Xi’s Family Fortune and The Dark History of the Red Emperor, the apartment now contains not a single document connected to his work. It’s not clear if his Pattaya holiday home ever housed such papers although Gui often edited and commissioned new books while in Thailand, according to two of his writers who live in the U.S. They both believe he was soon to publish a book about Xi’s past female companions. (Xi is married to his second wife Peng Liyuan, a former singer in the People’s Liberation Army who was for many years far more famous than her husband.)

As he left, one of the men joked to Pisamai that Gui had lots of girlfriends and had probably neglected to return to his condo because he had been diverted by his latest love affair. Pisamai had never seen him bring any woman home — other than his second wife, who lives in Germany, and his daughter, who lives in England. But this was Pattaya, infamous for its sex trade and easy morals. She giggled.

Shortly afterward, some of Gui’s friends became worried, particularly because he had failed to communicate with printers about an upcoming book. One friend contacted Pisamai. When Gui called her next in mid-November, again from an unknown foreign number, she told him his family was concerned. He hung up and never called again. Pisamai called the number of one of the four men who had visited Gui’s condo. A taxi driver picked up, saying the men had left the phone in his car on their way to a Cambodian border town.

Despite Pisamai visiting a local police station, not to mention the public outcry early this year following his business partner Lee’s disappearance from Hong Kong, no Thai or Swedish authorities have visited his Pattaya apartment. Last week, the Swedish government summoned the Chinese and Thai ambassadors to ask about Gui’s case, as well as the detention of another Swedish citizen in Beijing who had founded an NGO aiding human-rights defenders.

Meanwhile, in Gui’s Pattaya apartment, a poem by William Butler Yeats, “When You Are Old,” is filed away, among quotidian notes-to-self to buy medicine and tweak wi-fi routers. Gui studied history at China’s prestigious Peking University, and fellow poet Bei Ling, who was once jailed in China before going into exile overseas, remembers a passionate young man who thrilled at the power of words. In the mid-1980s, at a time when unauthorized translations of Kafka could be a crime, Gui and other Beijing poets sneaked into foreign salons and read whatever samizdat Western literature they could find. As censorship loosened by the late 1980s, Gui studied comparative literature and published a book called A Guide to Twentieth Century Western Cultural History. Then the Tiananmen massacre forestalled further political reform in China for years.

Somewhere along the way, Gui, living first in Sweden and later Germany and Hong Kong, discovered the profitable business of selling gossipy political tell-alls. (The more esoteric literary efforts of his publishing house failed to sell well.) He built up a stable of Chinese writers, some former poets and essayists who now live abroad, and authored some books himself. Over the years, Gui’s publishing company churned out hundreds of tales of Chinese sex and scandal. “Maybe some of the information you can’t check,” acknowledges one writer. “It’s more important that it’s a good story.” Gui made enough money to buy his Pattaya pad for $430,000.

Gui’s writers are now jittery. If the Mighty Current five have all ended up detained in China, what safety is guaranteed for the publishing house’s authors? Chinese dissidents, particularly those in Thailand, are also nervous, given the recent deportation of the two Chinese activists, one of whom dabbled in caricatures of President Xi. (They were both arrested upon being extradited to China.) Indeed, some of Gui’s friends suspect he may have been repatriated on the same chartered plane that took the dissident pair back home. “The Chinese government is so scared that it has to steal people from abroad,” says Yi Feng, a Chinese dissident and former teacher who arrived in Bangkok on a tourist visa last September, along with his young son. (They have since overstayed their visas and are trying to apply for refugee status through the UNHCR, an often years-long process.) “Maybe the Chinese government has power,” he says, “but they don’t have legitimacy.”

— With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing

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