The historian Angela Gui grew up in Gothenburg, and has recently become a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, in the UK. She is also the daughter of the publisher and bookseller Gui Minhai, who has been imprisoned in China since autumn 2015. Officially speaking, he has now been released, but he is not what we would call free.
“He lives in a monitored residence in China, he is unable to talk freely, and there is much that remains unclear about his well-being. I hope that we are at a turning point, so that he will soon be able to go home”, says Angela.
She is not able to comment about what is being done, or by whom, to ensure Gui Minhai’s release, but she herself devotes many hours a week – working on almost a full-time basis – to her father’s case. She is supported by a network of activists and politicians, but her work remains a solitary occupation.
“There are not many people who know everything about my father’s unique situation”, says Angela Gui, who adds that she has to be careful about to whom she opens up. It has happened in the past that sensitive information has been leaked to the press by people she trusted.
High tempo and tradition
Since August, Angela Gui has been a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. Although she found the first term interesting, it was also stressful and she is feeling the strain.
“I wanted to throw myself into everything, and really get to know the university and the faculty, but it has been a little overwhelming. The faculty expects us to devote forty hours per week to our research, in addition to teaching and participating in seminars and workshops. I have now come to understand that most PhD students do most of their writing during holidays, when there are no other students around.”
Moving to Cambridge has required quite a lot of readjustment. Angela Gui went to Cambridge from the University of Warwick (also in the UK), where she had first spent four years studying for a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and then a further year on a master’s course in the history of science.
“Founded in 1965, Warwick is a modern and relaxed university – at least, in English terms. Cambridge has a huge amount of tradition – almost a ridiculous amount – with many old rituals. When you are admitted to my college, you have to drink wine from the horn of an extinct ox-like animal while, at the same time, two people keep watch to make sure that nobody stabs you in the back”, she says with a smile.
Raised in Gothenburg
Angela Gui was born in 1994 and grew up in the Högsbo suburb of Gothenburg. Both her parents are originally from China, and Gui Minhai – who was first to come to Sweden – moved here in 1988. He first studied at the University of Gothenburg history master’s programme, and went on to research in Chinese history.
Her parents divorced when Angela was five years old; and in conjunction with this she went to China to live for a year with her father.
“My parents believed it was important for me to learn about Chinese culture and to get to know my cousins. In China’s single-child culture, cousins are very important – more like siblings are here.”
Angela Gui went to a Chinese school where there was an emphasis on discipline, before moving back to live with her mother in Gothenburg. Her encounter with the Swedish pre-school year scheme system was a culture shock.
“We began by ‘doing the rocket’, where everyone moves and claps their hands faster and faster. I found this quite alarming, and wondered ‘are we really allowed to be doing this?’ In China, we had to start our mornings standing in straight lines, singing in unison.”
Understimulated at school
In the Swedish school system, Angela Gui was ahead of everyone else in all subjects apart from mathematics; she became bored and found it difficult to sit still. In the fourth year, however, a trainee teacher turned up with whom she found she was able to discuss things.
“She gave me a book about morality and ethics, and we would discuss ethical dilemmas such as euthanasia and abortion. I thought it was great that there was someone who wanted to talk to me about topics that I thought were interesting! It was also at this point that I really got interested in reading non-fiction books.”
Angela Gui truanted a great deal throughout her basic schooling, but kept up by reading at home. At school, she wasn’t the best-behaved of pupils.
“I regularly got into fights, and I was also a real know-it-all who’d always shout out the answers during tests. At the same time, however, I was smart, and the teachers couldn’t understand why I didn’t make more of an effort. I didn’t really understand why I behaved the way I did either, but I later found out that I have ADHD.”
Mother was a dancer
When the time came to choose her subjects for upper-secondary school, Angela considered pursuing the arts programme of courses, as she enjoyed singing, drawing and painting.
“My mother is artistic and gave me encouragement. She was a professional dancer in China, and then worked as a dance teacher. She now works as a preschool teacher but she plays many different instruments, sings and dances. On the other hand, my father encouraged me to choose academic subjects, and the two of us have always had interesting discussions together.”
In the end, Angela Gui chose to study the social science programme at Donnergymnasiet in Gothenburg.
“There, I read a lot about philosophy, geography, sociology and politics, and I realised that I wanted to go on to university and study something theoretical.”
She discussed the various alternatives with her father and came to the conclusion that she wanted to study theoretical sociology. The courses that were most attractive were in the UK.
“I was accepted by several universities in England, and I chose Warwick because it had a high ranking. I also thought that the university would be in the beautiful town of Warwick, but it turned out that it isn’t. It is actually in Coventry, which was heavily bombed during the war and now has lot of grey, concrete architecture”, laughs Angela.
Illness aroused a new interest
At Warwick, Angela Gui studied sociology with a specialisation in social theory, but she became seriously ill during her second year. Following consultations with many doctors, she was eventually diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
“It’s a kind of catch-all diagnosis, in the absence of anything more specific. I felt that I was not being taken seriously, and this was really frustrating – but also interesting. It made me reflect on how the structure of medical science has evolved.”
The subject of Angela’s master’s thesis was lobotomies in Sweden in the 1940s – how lobotomies can be understood when viewed from the perspective of the historical development of human thought.
“Lobotomies were seen as a way of helping people to achieve their potential and to be able to perform their work. Sterilisations were performed for completely different reasons – for reasons of eugenics – on people who were not considered to have any potential.”
Curious about China’s history
All the work she has been doing to secure Gui Minhai’s freedom has made Angela curious about China’s history. Her doctoral project is about the use of pictures in China’s public health campaigns against tuberculosis in the mid-twentieth century.
“The pictures show, for example, rosy-cheeked children being vaccinated at a healthcare centre, and healthy people who each have their own toothbrush. It is exciting to see how the knowledge of bacteria makes inroads into China during this period, as well as the adjustments that were made in order for western medicine to fit into the cultural context.”
For security reasons, it is not possible for Angela Gui to travel to China to search through the archives, but she doesn’t believe that this constitutes an obstacle to her research.
“The largest collections of propaganda posters are to be found in the Netherlands and the USA, where they have been used for research into brainwashing. Furthermore, all researchers find it difficult to gain access to what they want to find in Chinese archives today. It is often the person that works in the archive that decides what researchers are allowed to see, which may be of no interest at all.”
Gets new ideas all the time
To prevent a potential loss of focus, Angela Gui has reached an agreement with her supervisors that they will meet frequently for a progress review. She believes that there could be a large number of researchers who have ADHD.
“I get new ideas all the time, and the advantage of that is that I have many ideas to choose from. I recognise some of my traits from my father. He could also sit up writing all night when he was researching, and get three days’ work done in just a few hours.”
Angela thinks it is interesting that she is now researching Chinese history – the very subject for which her father received his PhD.
“When you grow up as the child of divorced parents, you often hear that ‘you’re just like your father’, or ‘you’re just like your mother’, to describe characteristics that are seen as negative. I didn’t intend to turn out like him. I have always wanted to be my own person.”