Angela Gui: Being an accidental activist

Angela Gui was unable to join us at our Freedom to Publish Seminar at Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018 but she responded to questions on how she deals with being an activist on behalf of her father.

You call yourself an “accidental activist.” Why?

For a long time – and in some ways still – I didn’t feel like I could properly own the title of activist. Initially I felt I didn’t have the experience necessary for what I thought would constitute useful activism, and although I had always been interested in issues of rights and global politics on a less personal level I hadn’t envisioned myself stepping into a role of active advocacy. Having to do so very suddenly at the age of 21 was a very overwhelming experience. I think I chose the epithet ‘accidental activist’ to somehow reflect my struggle to reconcile acting on my values and beliefs with being a rather quiet person who likes to avoid the spotlight.
I started calling myself an accidental activist in 2016 because I thought I had entered the world of activism as a complete rookie in quite a strange and unconventional way; but the more I have worked with other activists the more I’ve realised that we’ve had more in common than I’d previously thought. Nobody fully chooses to take on the burden of activism; it’s something one feels driven to do as a reaction to having been failed by governments and other institutions.

What can you tell us about your father’s current situation? And: what kind of contact, if any, does he have to the outside world?

Unfortunately I have very little to share right now. My father was in incommunicado detention until around this time last year, and then he was ‘released’ into a form of house arrest in Ningbo (Zhejiang province) where he was under constant surveillance. We were able to have regular contact then, and he could also spend time with our family there. But then in January this year he was seized whilst travelling toward Beijing on a train to visit the Swedish embassy for a medical examination. The agents claimed he was suspected of trafficking in state secrets among other crimes, which we haven’t seen any evidence for. He was detained again, and had to participate in a bizarre and obviously staged ‘press conference’ in which he claimed to have been used as a pawn by Swedish diplomats for their own political gain. To my knowledge he has since remained in detention without any contact with the outside world.

How can your father – a Swedish and EU citizen – be subjected to such treatment?. What can you report on the Swedish and EU efforts to engage in a dialogue on his case?

According to international and domestic Chinese law, he can’t. So this is a question that I have kept asking, as well as kept urging governments to ask China. I welcome the increased attention the case has had from the international community in the past year; the EU, for example, are certainly being more vocal since the abduction on the train in January. Having said that, I still believe that the public condemnations of this need to be followed up by real consequences, which is something I think the Swedish government has yet to demonstrate. It is difficult for other governments, the EU included, to deviate from the approach that Sweden has chosen in dealing with my father’s case, as he is a Swedish citizen.

While I’m glad that governments are expressing more concern over my father’s situation, I think reactions have been far too slow. By early 2016 it was clear that my father had been abducted from Thailand and taken into China for political reasons. Yet the first public statement on his case issued from the Swedish foreign minister was issued after the second abduction early this year. I worry about the precedent this sets for dealing with arbitrarily detained EU citizens in China.

You’ve had human rights training at the United Nations in Geneva. How did that help you?

The focused training for activists which International Service for Human Rights offers is an invaluable resource for people like me. Our group was taken through the different tools that the UN offers for our particular causes and we were taught how they could be used. Navigating such a large and complex body as the UN can be extremely daunting and I’m grateful that ISHR were there to walk us through it. As someone who doesn’t speak the language of diplomacy, one of the hardest things to figure out in the beginning is how and where to start. In my experience some human rights NGOs that I contacted early on weren’t able to offer much help, and had I had more knowledge of how to navigate the various UN mechanisms to request action on cases like my father’s, I might have had a clearer sense of what to do in the first few weeks following his first disappearance.

What sort of backing have you had from the US? After all, you gave testimony to the U.S. Congress’s Executive Commission on China.

I’m in regular contact with representatives of the U.S. government and they have shown quite a bit of interest in my father’s case; they also have more experience dealing with cases of arbitrary detention of foreigners in China than most European governments. As my father is neither a citizen nor a resident of the United States, the government isn’t able to do very much on his behalf. They have however had a dialogue on the case with the Swedish government, and I would like to see this continue in more coordinated ways. The U.S. government is very aware that what happened to my father could just as well have happened to an American citizen.

How great is your fear that by calling for your father’s release, and criticizing his treatment, you are actually provoking further reprisals?
This is certainly one of the things I never stop contemplating. I think speaking about the case and urging governments to be more vocal in their calls for clarity and my father’s release are things that in general terms have a positive impact. Past cases of people imprisoned or detained for political reasons in China have shown that public advocacy has led to the person being released, shorter sentences, or improved conditions such as increased contact with family, transfers to better facilities, and so on. But of course, things are constantly in motion – not least politics – and the success of public advocacy can depend on factors like current domestic political climate, the terms in which said public advocacy is conducted, and the nature of the ‘crime’ the person is suspected of. I often spend a lot of time thinking about how I frame or phrase things, and about what to make public versus what to keep to myself. In the end there is no way of knowing what is going to effective and what is going to be harmful, but I do think that in diplomacy people often underestimate the destructive consequences of inertia. If governments had responded faster to the initial abduction, then I don’t think my father would be likely to find himself in the situation he is in today, with escalated charges and very small chances of being released anytime soon.

To what extent have social media helped or hindered your cause?

Social media has been a great platform for sharing updates on the campaign, and it also offers an accessible way for people who wish to get involved to do so; sharing an article or a tweet means it has the potential of reaching so many more people, and that makes it a very valuable advocacy tool. It has also allowed me to connect with people who are in similar situations, and I really believe the support from others who are campaigning for their family members’ freedom has been one of the things that have kept me motivated and inspired to continue.

The accessibility of social media is also what sometimes creates problems for the campaign, though. I have had tweets and other content posted on social media taken out of context to support narratives constructed for other people’s personal gain, or to create sensationalistic headlines which can seriously misrepresent my father’s situation. Last year when he was transferred from a detention facility to residential surveillance an article started circulating claiming that he was free; within an hour there had been articles in multiple languages which were being shared on Facebook and Twitter. As the campaign is very much a one-person job, it was impossible for me to address the inaccuracy of this claim before the damage was already done and people had started believing that the case had been solved.

You get the support of a whole network of people, activists and politicians. But would it be right to assume that your daily toil as an activist can sometimes be a pretty solitary occupation? Do you have bad days?
If I am to be honest I have many more bad days than good days working on the campaign. It is very solitary even though a lot of the work entails talking to other people, and good news are few and far between. I have had so much fantastic support and guidance from other activists, organisations, reporters, and politicians, but at the end of the day there’s just me with my laptop, trying to figure out priorities and plans. I also struggle to give the campaign the time I think it deserves. I have accepted that the campaign is likely to be long-term and this means that I do my best to maintain a normal life: I have a dog, I study for a PhD full time, and I teach. In the past six months I have been struggling with health issues from trying to juggle too many things at once, and unfortunately this has meant that the campaign has had to take a bit of a backseat in my life for the time being.
All this being said, though, I still am one of relatively few people who are able to talk publicly and openly about human rights and the rule of law in China without facing very serious repercussions. It’s a strange privilege to have, but I do my best to use it well.

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