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Hong Kong bookseller disappearances

Sweden ‘using me as chess piece’ says detained Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai in government-arranged interview

In the meeting with the media - which SCMP agreed to provided no conditions were placed on the questions it asked - Gui said he was not forced to face the press and that he wants Swedish authorities to stop interfering in his case

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 February, 2018, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 11:35am

Detained book publisher Gui Minhai on Friday accused the Swedish government of using him as a “chess piece” to make trouble for Beijing, claiming in an interview arranged by Chinese authorities that he did not want to leave the country.

Speaking at a detention facility in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, he said: “The year 2018 is election year in Sweden … some politicians might be using me for political gains. I can’t rule out that some are trying to use me to create trouble for the Chinese government.”

I have seen through the Swedish government ... I may consider giving up my Swedish citizenship
Gui Minhai

The 53-year-old, mainland-born but a naturalised Swedish citizen, went on: “I have seen through the Swedish government. If they continue to create troubles, I may consider giving up my Swedish citizenship.”

Gui made the accusations in a 20-minute interview with several Hong Kong, Taiwanese and mainland media groups arranged by the Ministry of Public Security.

The Post agreed to the interview with strictly no conditions attached on the questions it could ask after it was approached by the ministry on Wednesday.

After the interview, the ministry issued a statement saying the authorities had imposed criminal coercive measures – a euphemism for detention – on Gui on suspicion that he leaked state secrets abroad.

Gui had been at the centre of the missing Hong Kong booksellers controversy of 2015 and was in detention in China until last October for a drink-driving offence. Little was known of his movements since then except that he was living in Ningbo.

But last month, reports emerged of his dramatic arrest by 10 plain-clothes policemen while he was on a train from Shanghai to Beijing, accompanied by two Swedish diplomats. The Swedish government said it was providing consular assistance to Gui as he needed medical help, and denounced his detention as a “brutal” act.

However, during the Friday interview, Gui gave a different account of his decision to seek the Swedish government’s help, claiming that its officials had worked on him unrelentingly to persuade him to leave China. The Post was unable to independently verify his claims.

Throughout, Gui, who had been reported by his daughter Angela Gui as showing symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, sought to project a picture of calm, breaking into smiles frequently.

He was in a plainly furnished room when reporters were brought in to meet him. Two security guards appeared at the end of the interview, before reporters were ushered out.

Asked by the Post if the Chinese authorities had forced him to face the media, he insisted he had requested the meeting to tell the public the “truth” because the Swedish government had “sensationalised” what had happened to him.

He said that after he finished serving a two-year term for his drink-driving offence, he rented a flat in Ningbo. He could then regularly meet his three sisters and elderly mother, who was in poor health, he said.

He complained that the Swedish diplomats had been contacting him on a daily basis to persuade him to leave China for Sweden.

He claimed they did so despite knowing that the case against him for running an illegal business – publishing gossipy books about the Chinese leadership and having them delivered to the mainland – had yet to be concluded.

“Swedish diplomats secretly came to Ningbo and told me several proposals to get me to Sweden. They told me that I was just a step away from succeeding. I just needed to take this one step and I could make it to Sweden successfully. I had declined a few times. But because they were instigating me non-stop, I fell for it,” he said.

Gui, who occasionally spoke slowly, went on: “Sweden offered me a plan, and that was to use my medical appointment as an excuse to get to the Swedish embassy in Beijing. And then they would wait for an opportunity to get me to Sweden.”

China detained bookseller Gui Minhai ‘to stop him from telling his story’

Earlier this week, China’s foreign ministry confirmed Gui’s arrest, saying he had been detained for breaking the law, without specifying which laws.

On Friday, Gui said he regretted buying into Sweden’s plans and that he felt like he was becoming its “chess piece”. He said Sweden had not told him details of his visit to the embassy, but only that he would meet a Swedish person who was a Chinese expert, as well as someone from an unnamed US foundation.

“My wonderful life has been ruined and I would never trust the Swedish ever again,” he said.

He said he was currently being detained at the Ningbo detention facility and could not leave China, as his illegal business case had not been concluded.

Asked if he wanted to leave China, he replied: “I hope I can live in China.”

On his health, he said he started to feel muscular atrophy in his left hand seven months ago. The same happened to his right hand and left leg one to two months ago. But no doctors had diagnosed him with ALS, he said.

Medical examinations had found that he had problems with his spine which led to the muscular atrophy, he said. If he indeed has ALS, he said, it could not be cured anyway even if he went back to Sweden.

Asked if he had a message for his daughter Angela, who lives in the UK, Gui said: “I feel ashamed about myself. I have made mistakes. I have promised my old mother that I would spend Lunar New Year with her. My message to my family is that I hope they will live a good life. Don’t worry about me. I will solve my own problems myself.”

Hong Kong’s missing booksellers – a timeline

Last month Gui wrote to the Swedish ambassador to China, Anna Lindstedt, asking the Swedish authorities to stop interfering in his business.

In response to Gui’s latest remarks, the Swedish foreign ministry said in a statement: “We want to emphasise once again that Sweden has acted strictly in accordance with basic international rules on consular support.

“We continue to demand that our citizen be given the opportunity to meet with Swedish diplomatic and medical staff, and that he be released so that he can be reunited with his daughter and family.”

William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said “it was almost certain” Gui was coached to read out the government’s talking points. 

That was because the language he used, accusing the Swedish government of “sensationalising” what has happened to him, was the exact language state media adopted throughout the bookseller saga and even its crackdown on human rights lawyers, he added.

“It’s important to note that he was making these statements while he is in detention, and denied access to consular services and lawyers of his choice. Therefore, one should readily look at his claims with a grain of salt,” Nee added.

Gui was the co-owner of Mighty Current publishing house and the first of five Hong Kong booksellers who mysteriously disappeared from late 2015 before reappearing in custody on the mainland at different times, to all claim they went there voluntarily.

Gui’s last media appearance was in 2016 on state-run CCTV after he first went missing in October 2015, from his apartment in the Thai resort town of Pattaya. During that TV interview – widely dismissed by overseas media as a forced confession – he claimed he had returned to the mainland of his own accord to serve time for a drink-driving offence he committed in 2003.

Gui’s publishing associate Lam Wing-kee, who was also taken by mainland officers before making it back to Hong Kong, has said a video he appeared in was also a “forced confession”. For that video, which Beijing showed to the Hong Kong government, Lam would later say he was made to read from prepared scripts over and over until the Chinese authorities were satisfied.

Another associate, Lee Po, also said he planned to give up his British citizenship in an interview in which he insisted he was not kidnapped by Chinese agents.