Written by Jackie Sheehan.

So, the Chinese authorities – you remember them, they’re the people who had absolutely no idea what had happened to five missing booksellers and publishers from Hong Kong, and certainly had nothing to do with their disappearance – have now paraded Gui Minhai on television confessing that he went back to China of his own accord last October, stricken with guilt at having left the country 11 years ago in contravention of the terms of a suspended jail sentence he received for causing death while drunk-driving in Ningbo.

He ran then, he explained in his emotional confession, because he was so afraid of going to jail. It’s not the most logical series of events: having received a suspended sentence, he was so afraid of prison that he immediately broke one of the main terms of the suspension that was keeping him out of prison. And then, having escaped from China, in order to lie low and do his utmost to avoid attracting Beijing’s attention, he set up a publishing company specialising in books about the CCP leadership such as Yu Jie’s Xi Jinping, China’s Godfather, using the same name (more or less) under which he was supposedly convicted in Ningbo in 2003.

Two friends of Gui, poet Bei Ling and publisher Jin Zhong, have said they had heard that Gui had been involved in a fatal drink-driving incident in China in 2003, but for everyone else, the credibility of his supposed confession has not been helped by crude continuity errors in the film shown by CCTV, with Gui’s hair changing length and his undershirt switching from grey to black and back again. There are also discrepancies between an original Xinhua report on the fatal accident from April 2005, which gives Gui’s age as 46, and current Xinhua and CCTV statements that he was born in May 1964, and so was aged only 40 in April 2005. The Min in his given name is also represented by a different character in the Ningbo records and in Hong Kong references to him.

But there’s no need to spin conspiracy theories about events in Ningbo more than a decade ago, as they clearly have nothing whatever to do with the real reasons for Gui’s detention and that of four or his colleagues from Hong Kong. In another well-timed letter from detainee Lee Bo to his wife in Hong Kong, Lee has revealed that he has only just found out that Gui “has a complicated history” and is “a morally unacceptable person”, so it’s hard to see what he could add to the evidence in a case he’s only just heard of and which was settled more than ten years ago. Nor does it explain why Lee had to be taken over the border to Shenzhen to help with enquiries, or why the three other associates of Lee and Gui are still missing and unacknowledged as guests at Xi Jinping’s pleasure.

Conveniently enough for Beijing, Gui also used the opportunity of his televised confession to try to wave away the Swedish authorities who, due to his Swedish passport, have been investigating his disappearance. Fortunately they regard his citizenship as more relevant in strictly legal terms than the deep sense of being Chinese which he claimed, under what duress we can imagine, properly brings him under Beijing’s jurisdiction, and continue to seek clarification as to his whereabouts. His daughter, Angela Gui, also has no intention of letting up on her efforts to secure her father legal representation.

But it’s not easy to find a good lawyer on the mainland these days. Pu Zhiqiang’s three-year suspended jail term looks less like leniency for a high-profile figure than it does a way of exercising complete control. As others noted as soon as Pu’s fate was announced, this is exactly how the ordeal of his fellow lawyer and rights-defender Gao Zhisheng started. As Gao was repeatedly disappeared into detention and brutally tortured, so the Chinese authorities denied all knowledge of where he was, right up until the moment they returned him to prison days before the period of suspension expired. It’s a worrying precedent for the missing men from Hong Kong.

In the crackdown which since last July has seen 317 lawyers or law-firm employees detained, taken in for questioning, or having other restrictions placed on their liberty, the Fengrui legal firm in Beijing has been a particular target. Ten of its staff, including Wang Yu, are now facing serious criminal charges under state-subversion legislation following up to six months of detention, mostly incommunicado and without legal representation. Three more staff who are supposed to be out on bail also remain incommunicado.

Meanwhile in Shandong, lawyer Shu Xiangxin has been jailed for six months ostensibly for defamation, but actually, most believe, because of his investigation into links between Jinan officials and organized crime as part of his work on a land dispute. While in detention he was reportedly punched, dragged across the floor, left in the cold with inadequate clothing, and suspended by a handcuff from an iron bar for eight hours, as well as being denied medical treatment, food, water or access to a toilet.

It’s no great surprise that these cases continue to occur given China’s official response to questions before a UN committee in November 2015 about the disappearance and torture of Gao Zhisheng and many other lawyers: “The ‘report’ about the incommunicado detention of some ‘dissidents’ for more than three months and about the ‘torture’ they have suffered is not true.” Three years earlier, the torturers of lawyer Jiang Tianyong put it equally directly but with greater candour to him: “Here we can do things in accordance to law. We can also do things not in accordance to law, because we are allowed to do things not in accordance to law.”

Jackie Sheehan is a professor and Head of the School of Asian Studies at University College Cork. Image credit: CC by 黃埔體育會/Flickr