Can Old News Shed Light on the Gui Minhai Case?

Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai appears in a supposed “confession” on state television in China on January 17.

There's a new twist in the case of Hong Kong’s missing booksellers. On Sunday, Mighty Current publishing house owner Gui Minhai (桂民海), who disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand back in October, emerged on Chinese state television claiming to have surrendered himself to authorities in China over a drunken driving incident more than 12 years ago.

“All on my own I made the choice to return to China and surrender myself,” Gui said in the televised admission. “This has no connection to anyone else, and I hope no individuals or agencies, including the government of Sweden, will interfere in this matter.”

The traffic incident in question, which resulted in the death of a 23 year-old student, Shen Yanchan (沈晏婵), occurred on December 8, 2003, in the city of Ningbo.

Hong Kong media have already reported a laundry list of discrepancies in these latest supposed revelations. Roland Soong has gathered many of these together at his indispensable blog, EastSouthWestNorth.

First of all, there are two versions of “Gui Minhai” in Chinese. The CCTV and Xinhua reports identify Gui Minhai (桂敏海) with the middle character “min” (敏) meaning “clever” — as opposed to “min” (民) meaning “people.” Next, Gui’s age as listed on his Swedish passport differs from the reported age of the man implicated in the 2003 road accident. The Gui Minhai of Mighty Current, born in 1964, would have been 39 at the time of the reported accident, but Chinese news reports give the suspect’s age at the time as 46.

Are these two different Gui Minhai’s? Not necessarily.

The dissident poet Bei Ling, a close friend of the Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai, told the South China Morning Post today that he believed Gui had been implicated in a drunken driving incident. He took issue, however, with the suggestion that Gui had voluntarily surrendered.

Another important fact about Gui’s admission as aired on CCTV is that he wore two different t-shirts, meaning the video was taken at different times and probably scripted. This detail certainly supports the suggestion — which most would consider a no-brainer — that this was not a genuine act of un-coerced admission.

But beyond the questions of identity and the circumstances of Gui Minhai’s “return” to China, there is the important issue of whether or not he was, or needed to be, a fugitive at all.

If, as news reports have suggested, Gui Minhai he was given a probationary sentence, there would have been no need for him to flee to Hong Kong in order to avoid jail time. While the CCTV report included an image of a “criminal verdict” in Gui Minhai’s case, it seems we have yet to see a full and credible verdict emerge.

Two detailed news reports on the Shen Yanchan case published in China back in 2005 (including this one) go into great depth about the attempts Shen’s mother, Zhou Aiping (周艾萍), made to ensure that her daughter was cleared of any responsibility in the traffic accident that caused her death. The original police report in December 2003 had found that Gui Minhai was chiefly responsible, but that Shen Yanchan had also violated traffic rules.

Neither story suggests that the Gui Minhai in question attempted to avoid responsibility, and the second story — appearing on December 27, 2005, in the Economic Daily — in fact says that “while the party who caused the accident was willing to assume ‘full responsibility’ in the form of economic compensation, [Zhou Aiping] was determined to reach a just result absolving her daughter of any responsibility.”

A partial translation of the Economic Daily story follows.

Lessons From the Zhejiang Provincial Public Security Department’s Resolution of a Petitioning Case (浙江省公安厅化解一起信访案的启示).

Zhou Aiping’s petition stemmed from a traffic accident involving her daughter.

On December 8, 2003, at around 9:17PM, a major traffic accident occurred in Ningbo’s Zhenhai District, and Shen Yanchan (沈晏婵), 23, a student at a certain vocational and technical school, was killed.

Ningbo’s traffic police division determined in its responsibility report (事故责任认定书) on December 23 that in this traffic accident, driver Gui Minhai (桂敏海) had committed four violations — driving while intoxicated, with his headlights not up to inspection standards, failing to stay within the designated lane, and not paying proper attention — and that he bore the chief responsibility for the accident. The deceased, Shen Yanchan, [the report determined], had crossed the road without paying attention to oncoming traffic, and that she bore partial responsibility.

The traffic accident responsibility report from the Ningbo traffic police division followed legal procedure. However, the family of the deceased believed that the accident was entirely the result of the driver’s intoxication, and that Shen Yanchan was innocent. How could she bear partial responsibility?

On the morning of February 13, 2004, Zhou Aiping arrived at the petitions office of the Provincial Public Security Department. Zhang Jinghua (张景华), a deputy head of the department, met with her during his noon break, calling together others from the petition and traffic divisions and offering his solemn pledge: Mistakes must be corrected!

After this, the Zhejiang Provincial Public Security Department organised forces to reexamine [the case]. On February 27, accident experts met to analyse the case and make a determination. On March 3, relying on Zhejiang University to make an estimation of the speed of the vehicle [at the time of the accident], they determined that the driver had been speeding. On March 8, they invited a judge from the province’s higher people’s court and lawyers for opinions on the determination of responsibility in the accident.

The case review went ahead systematically. According to “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Traffic Management and Punishment,” the result held that the determination that Shen Yanchan bore partial responsibility for the accident had not violated legal requirements.

But Zhou Aiping still would not accept this. She petitioned once again, offering evidence that her daughter “was not responsible.” Zhang Jinghua once again met with her, and he demanded that the relevant departments hold an evidentiary hearing (信访听证会), giving the petitioner an opportunity to fully present evidence. Zhejiang provincial Party committee member and provincial public security department head Wang Huizhong (王辉忠) issued written instructions on Zhou Aiping’s petition, entrusting relevant departments to conduct a full reexamination. All of this was a great comfort to Zhou Aiping.

On April 1, the Zhejiang Provincial Public Security Department held its “Petition Evidentiary Hearing on Zhou Aiping’s Opposition to a Traffic Accident Responsibility Report.” This was the first time that a provincial public security department had held an evidentiary hearing for an ordinary traffic case in Zhejiang province. . . . In all, 11 people attended the hearing, including Zhou Aiping and her lawyer.

While the party who caused the accident was willing to assume “full responsibility” in the form of economic compensation, she [Zhou Aiping] was determined to reach a just result absolving her daughter of any responsibility.

The sticking point in this petitioning case was that the finding of responsibility was not in conflict with the law, but the victim still could not accept it.

In early May, the day after Deputy Chief Zhang Jinghua again met with Zhou Aiping, he personally inspected the scene of the “December 8” accident with personnel from the traffic division, ran a simulation of the accident and drew a map of the scene. That the driver had broken the rules was beyond question. The problem was whether or not the victim, Shen Yanchan had also broken the rules.