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Picture: Danijel Grbic, Bebop Media
Picture: Danijel Grbic, Bebop Media

Words of Thanks by Angela Gui, representing her imprisoned Father Gui Minhai, Writer, Book Dealer and Publisher from China

Hallo everyone,

and my most heartfelt thanks to Mr Skipis for your powerful words, and the beautiful reading of my father’s poem.

My name is Angela Gui and I’m the daughter of Gui Minhai, who should have been here with us today. But since he is still unjustly imprisoned in China for his work for the freedom to publish, I am here accepting this award on his behalf.

My father has always been a writer. He was severely myopic as a child, and ended up reading books indoors instead of playing outside because glasses were so expensive. As a university student, he wrote poetry to narrate his life, about the small things, like cigarettes, and occasionally also the big things, like freedom. In 1988 he left China to pursue postgraduate studies in Sweden, and remained there after the Tiananmen Square massacre the year after, worried that he wouldn’t be safe if he went back. He became a Swedish citizen, and began trying to write in Swedish.

When I was growing up, my father worked and travelled a lot – he wrote books and served as a board member of the Chinese Independent chapter of PEN. I remember thinking there was nowhere in the world my father hadn’t been, and while that could almost have been true, he still wasn’t able to go back to China.

In 2012 my father and his business partners set up a publishing house in Hong Kong, specialising in political titles that were banned in Mainland China, and two years later they acquired Causeway Bay Books, a bookstore with the same specialty. Back then Hong Kong was what people have called a ‘beacon of press freedom’, where the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle set out after the handover of the city in 1997 meant that so-called ‘banned books’ could be freely published and distributed there. Tourists from Mainland China started seeking out the bookstores known for carrying banned literature, hoping perhaps to gain new perspectives – even if they knew that some of the titles were thinly sourced – on what was going on in their country.

At first, the crackdown started gradually. By 2015, my father and his colleagues had learned that customers had had books confiscated at the border, and printing businesses were becoming more selective with what publishers they chose to work with in the fear of backlash from the central Chinese government.

In October that year, my father was working long hours to prepare a manuscript for publication, and went to spend some time in his holiday home in Thailand where he felt it was easier to focus. One morning he went out to get groceries and found a Chinese-speaking man waiting for him at the gate when he returned. They spoke briefly, got into my father’s car, and then they drove off. That was the last time anyone saw him until he suddenly appeared on a Chinese news channel months later, forced to confess to crimes and to claim that he had returned to China voluntarily.

By that time my father’s four colleagues at the bookstore had also mysteriously disappeared, and made similarly bizarre confessions in Chinese state-controlled media. Since his abduction, my father has been in Chinese police custody with no legal representation or consular assistance. With the exception of a short period in late 2017 and early 2018, I haven’t been allowed to speak to him, and I currently have no way of knowing for sure if he’s even still alive.

In February this year my father was sentenced in secret to 10 years in prison, supposedly for ‘illegally providing intelligence overseas’. To my knowledge no basis for this sentence has been presented by Chinese authorities. Chinese authorities also claim that my father is no longer a Swedish citizen.

During the brief period of time where I was allowed to communicate with my father, he managed to give me a collection of poems he had written in prison and asked me to try to have them published. In an attempt at black humour – or perhaps he was being entirely sincere – he pointed out that he thought that at least prison had made him a better writer. Working with Swedish publishing house Kaunitz-Olsson, we got his poetry published in Swedish and Chinese earlier this year, and we’re now working with the Foundation, the German Publishers’ Association, and Chinese Independent PEN, on having the poems translated into English and German. I’m very grateful for this and hope that soon you’ll all be able to read the poems too.

It’s deeply honouring to see my father’s efforts for the freedom of expression be recognised like this by the Palm foundation – not least because Palm himself too was a bookseller who made enormous sacrifices for what he believed in. But it’s also with great sorrow that I accept this award for my father – sorrow that he cannot be honoured in person as he should be, sorrow that he and I can’t joke and laugh together like we used to, and sorrow that since the kidnappings of him and his colleagues, Hong Kong has had its freedoms entirely eroded.

Since the Hong Kong National Security Law was passed this year, Hong Kongers can no longer even protest with blank signs without fearing arrest and imprisonment – what happened to my father and his colleagues is now, according to Beijing, legal. As recently as a few weeks ago, a new law was imposed to unseat ‘unpatriotic’ lawmakers in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Facing persecution after having participated in protests, young people are fleeing overseas and leaving their families behind because they feel they have no other choice. It seems that the abductions of my father and the other booksellers was a harbinger for even worse things to come.

The situation in Hong Kong shows how serious the Chinese government’s repression of free speech has become. I hope – and I’m sure my father would share that hope if he knew – that his receipt of this important award will help, in whatever little way, towards changing that.

Thank you.