The Chinese government has broken its silence on the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers widely suspected of being detained by the authorities over the publication of controversial books critical of China's elite.
Swedish national Gui Minhai, 51, a bookseller and publisher who went missing from his holiday home in Thailand in October, made a televised 'confession' on Chinese state TV on Sunday (17th January), in which he claims he voluntarily surrendered to Chinese authorities over a hit-and-run incident from 2003. The incident apparently took place in Ningbo in December 2003, resulting in the death of a young woman.
Gui said on government-controlled station CCTV: “It is my own choice to come back and to confess my crime. It is nobody else’s business. I need to take responsibility for it myself.”
The station tweeted yesterday: "#BREAKING HK bookstore owner Gui Minhai, reportedly missing, turns himself in for hit-and-run 11 years ago (Xinhua)".
The so-called confession has been met with scepticism in other countries. However, Gui warned "any individual or organisation" against intervening or "engaging in malicious speculation", as part of his broadcast.
"Even though I am a Swedish national, I truly feel that I am still Chinese and my roots are still in China," he said. "So I hope that the Swedish side would respect my personal choice, rights and privacy and let me solve my own problems."
A spokesperson for the Swedish foregin ministry told the BBC it would not be commenting at this time, while seeking clarification from China.
Gui and three of his colleagues from the Mighty Current publishing house disappeared in October 2015, followed by the disappearance of colleague Lee Bo, a Briton, on 30th December. It is widely believed they have been held in detention over a tome in the pipeline about the love life of China's president, Xi Jinping.
Amnesty International’s China researcher, William Nee, told the Guardian: “Even if this story is true – which is a big if – it still leaves many unanswered questions.
“Why would four other employees of a company need to go missing in order to assist with a regular criminal case? How could other missing or otherwise investigated colleagues of Gui Minhai have any connection to the case? What form of detention is Gui Minhai held under? Has he had access to legal counsel or consular visits, and if [not], why not?”
Nee further told the Hong Kong Free Press that the decade-old crime "however factual" seemed "an unconvincing way to divert the public’s attention from many other important issues.” He added: "Even if Gui and Lee are pro-actively cooperating with an investigation, it still needs to be conducted according to Chinese and international law, but thus far we have seen no signs of due process.”
News outlet Quartz reported that Gui's family, notably his wife, were unaware of any such accident. His daughter, who lives in the UK, told Reuters she believed, in spite of the reports, that he had been abducted. She told Reuters: "There's got to be a reason it happened now and that the others were taken as well."
Another handwritten letter apparently from Lee has also emerged, blaiming Gui for his predicament and refering to Gui as a "morally unacceptable" person and alluding to "other crimes" on Gui's part.
Amnesty International's East Asia regional director, Nicholas Bequelin, tweeted: "A very elaborate script, and a skillful mix of truths, half-truths and outright lies."
Benjamin Haas, a China news correspondent for Agence France-Presse, tweeted: "Is Chinese gov actually stupid enough to think Gui Minhai interviewed under murky circumstance asking Sweden not to investigate = case closed?"
Tweets also point out that the colour of Gui's t-shirt, underneath his jacket, changes from grey to black half-way through his 'confession'. Documentary director Han Yan commented: "T-shirt inconsistent in Gui Minhai interview. In film we call these goofs, oh wait it's not film, it's CCTV 'news'".
The European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) recently issued a joint statement (January 11th) on behalf of The American Booksellers Association (ABA), the Association of American Publishers (AAP), the Authors Guild (AG), and PEN American Center (PEN), expressing the organisations' "extreme concern" over news reports and urging the US to get involved.
At the time, Carles Torner, executive director of PEN International, said: "We know that China has all too often resorted to enforced disappearances to pressure critical voices to recant or ‘confess’ to alleged ‘offences’ when they have merely been expressing themselves freely. The authorities must come clean as to whether or not they are holding any or all of these five and release them if they are held in connection with their freedom of expression."
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