The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Who will remember my father, Gui Minhai?

The author with her father, Gui Minhai, in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1994. (Courtesy of Angela Gui)

Angela Gui is a graduate student of history and the daughter of detained Hong Kong publisher, bookseller and scholar Gui Minhai.

It’s a strange thing to mourn someone who has disappeared.

You talk about the person and catch yourself saying that he was, instead of he is. You find a book on sale that you know he would like, but you do not buy it because you don’t know whether you will see each other again. You send email upon email just to say hi but never receive a response. After 365 days, it seems increasingly unlikely.

But really, mourning is neither enough, nor allowed, when the Chinese state decides to have a person disappear. Today marks a year since my father, Gui Minhai, was abducted while on vacation in Thailand, for publishing and selling politically “sensitive” books.

His tiny Hong Kong apartment is empty, the books and the porcelain teapots collecting dust. The once rapidly growing industry specializing in books about mainland politics, in which my father’s was one of the leading bookstores, has gone unusually quiet. People whisper of self-censorship; some titles are deemed too risky to write, to publish, to print — to read. By kidnapping five booksellers, two of whom are European citizens, China has shown that it is possible to successfully diminish perhaps one of the most effective spaces for critical thinking and democratic political participation.

In China, the abduction of my father has been presented as a voluntary surrender to the infallible Chinese law enforcement. Not once acknowledging their failure to produce proof that my father ever left Thailand legally, the Chinese government has pieced together a story of him — as an immoral criminal — choosing to return to China out of guilt from causing a traffic accident in 2004. In a video aired on state-owned TV (where his T-shirt keeps changing color), my father performs a robotic, yet occasionally overly emotional, “confession.” When the Chinese foreign ministry held a question and answer event during the Lianghui, or “Two Sessions,” earlier this year, questions about the Gui Minhai case were dismissed with reference to his family “stirring up trouble.”

A year on, I still can’t contact my father. It still isn’t clear where he is being held.

Quartz reported in January that even Chinese citizens were expressing skepticism in social media about the official explanation to my father’s disappearance. But how long before that doubt has been erased by China’s panoptic censorship apparatus? In articles on the Tiananmen massacre — blocked in China, of course — the majority of Chinese students today is estimated to know hardly anything about the events on June 4 27 years ago. Members of the group Tiananmen Mothers, a support group founded by mothers of the massacre victims, have been detained and placed under strict surveillance for having the audacity to mourn their children.

Who will remember my father and Causeway Bay bookstore in 27 years? The Chinese most likely will not. With a history that is so easily manipulated, and an international community that is ready to swallow that manipulated history whole — using economic interests and a skewed image of “Chinese culture” as a nervously presented excuse — we must remember. We must remember because keeping memory alive, through writing and publishing, is so radical it has become a political act.

So who will remember Gui Minhai? Perhaps those countries that are usually so quick to assert their democratic values will take responsibility toward their citizens and demand concrete actions of China, instead of repeating empty condemnations. Or perhaps the world will stand by as more foreign citizens will disappear — because they don’t fit into China’s increasingly narrow political agenda.