For seven months last year, millions of demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong to beat back proposed legislation that would override the independent judiciary in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory by allowing for the extradition of accused individuals for trial in mainland China.
Their fears appeared well-founded after Gui Minhai, an author, publisher and erstwhile resident, was sentenced last Monday to 10 years in prison.
He was convicted – during a closed-door hearing – for “providing intelligence overseas” after his extraordinary rendition to the mainland from Thailand nearly five years ago.
The verdict came as China is preoccupied with containing the coronavirus outbreak.
“Beijing has been taking draconian measures against public intellectuals, taking advantage of this atmosphere of fear to deal with members of civil society when most people’s attention is focused on fighting the outbreak,” Willy Lam, a longtime commentator on Chinese politics and senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, told Al Jazeera.
“At a time of national emergency, when parts of China have fallen under virtual martial law, authorities think they can do whatever they want.”
Even though Gui is not the first bookseller to face prison in mainland China, over the years his case has emerged as a diplomatic tug-of-war between Beijing and Stockholm because he is a Swedish national.
In Stockholm, shock and outcry over the sentencing have led to a lot of hand-wringing over how best to keep pressing for his release.
“People feel that silent diplomacy didn’t work and that in hindsight his case should’ve [been] escalated to the EU early on,” said Magnus Fiskesjo, Gui’s acquaintance and a Swedish academic in the US who has been rallying global attention to the case from the start.
“We treated this too much like a consular case, not a political case, and diminished the importance of this case,” added Fiskesjo, who first met Gui in the mid-1980s when he was a diplomat posted to Beijing.
Contrary to Beijing’s claim that Gui renounced his foreign citizenship and thus all rights to consular access, Fiskesjo said court testimony from consulate staff in China shows Gui renewed his Swedish passport and national ID card between late 2017 and mid-2018.
While the campaign for his freedom wages on, the heavy sentence was undeniably the final nail in the coffin of a lively chapter in Hong Kong’s publishing industry.
Protected under the city’s constitution, Gui and many others were doing brisk business with a genre most popular among the hordes of mainland tourists: tell-all tomes on China’s leadership, forbidden just across the border.
The titillating titles on Chinese politics churned out by Gui’s publishing house and his competitors not only whetted people’s appetite for juicy behind-the-scene factoids of the opaque dictatorship but also afforded China-watchers a window on political infighting and intellectual debates in Beijing.
However, the crackdown began soon after President Xi Jinping came into power in 2013.
In 2014, just as a Hong Kong-based publisher was about to put out a politically sensitive title, he was convicted of smuggling and tax evasion in mainland China and sentenced to serve 10 years behind bars.
In October 2015, Gui retreated to the Thai resort town of Pattaya to write – under a pseudonym, for he knew his works have ruffled feathers in the highest echelons of power in his native China.
Just a few days before he was to return to Hong Kong, where his suburban flat was under renovation, he was disappeared, as were his four colleagues – only to reappear in mainland China giving confessions on state television.
One of them, store manager Lam Wing Kee, was released by the authorities after promising to give them the bookstore’s full author and customer list. Instead, he spoke out on the serial abductions and his own detention.
After attending the first few anti-extradition bill marches last June, Lam moved to the Taiwanese capital Taipei and is preparing to open a bookstore there next month.
Although Gui was the only one among the five who faced jail time, the damage to publishing operations in Hong Kong was complete.
“The impact is devastating and the message is clear: If you cross the line, both your business and you will be ruined,” said Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University. “No one can afford to take that risk.”
Even though Hong Kong’s protesters succeeded in forcing their government to scrap the extradition bill, Gui’s sentencing made it clear Beijing will not brook any compromise.
“With this sentencing, Beijing once again renews its support for extraditions for all those who pose a threat to national security,” said Lam. “This portends something even more ominous.”