A Student’s Experience of Being Invited to “Drink Tea”

The following blog post was written by blogger Caomin, who says he is a college student in the interior of China. According to him, it is a transcript of a conversation between him and an officer of the Domestic Security Department (DSD) who invited him to “drink tea,” or come in for questioning. The post has been circulating widely online and his blog on Sina has since been closed. Translated by CDT:

A Student’s Experience of Being Invited to “Drink Tea”

Author: Caomin (1)

Starting yesterday (May 10th), my current advisor repeatedly started calling me. Because I was out on the road, I missed a lot of her calls; finally I picked up. She said that there were some details that I hadn’t attended to which may affect my receiving a diploma. She asked if I could rush back. So I ended up taking a bus from a long ways away back to school. My advisor again called me several times. Finally, she informed me that I was to come to her office today in the afternoon (May 11th). I had never felt that she was so “concerned” for me before. This out-of-blue “care and concern” made me feel a bit uneasy but also caused me to be quite polite in response. However, I didn’t have any other sort of misgivings.

In the afternoon (of May 11), I hurried over to her office at the appointed time. I knocked, and as the door opened, there was no sign of my advisor. From the uniforms they were wearing I could tell that those waiting for me were from the Domestic Security Department (DSD) (2). I instantly felt as one does when confronting a bad omen. Even though I had known that this day would come sooner or later, I still wondered if the time wasn’t still a bit too early. I had a complicated emotion as two distinct feelings intermingled—a sense of bitterness, and the feeling of an unsettled conscience.

I was a bit nervous. I worried that I would be carried off in a police car. I had this sort of feeling like the heavens were crashing down. They seemed to read the nervous expression written on my face and tried to comfort me, telling me not to be nervous. They showed a lot of “care and concern” towards me. The school’s Party committee secretary was constantly pouring tea for me to drink. In a country so blinded by greed and in a country that treats people so indifferently, I’ve always been treated with disdain and overbearing bossiness by the powerful and self-righteous. After I was given such “special treatment” by someone with power I felt a bit overwhelmed. It was like in terms of character and dignity they were treating me as their “equals.” “Don’t be nervous. We’re basically just here today to have a conversation with you.” And this is how our “conversation” began. At the time it seemed extremely likely that this might be my “final class” at the school and perhaps in my academic career.

DSD: Where do you write your blog? Isn’t it true that you’ve written articles about the World Expo? What kind of articles?

Me: I write my blog on Sina.com. I wrote about the World Expo’s Ten Great Sins. Maybe it’s because I’m not famous like Han Han (3) that you’ve sought me out. I’ve actually been pretty influenced by Han Han and have read a lot of his novels (the National Treasure [pun for DSD] interrupted and said, “like Triple Door”). Yes, and his other novels and blog posts. I’ve always liked him, which is probably not a good thing for me today.

DSD: Well, Han Han is Han Han. What are your views about the World Expo?

Me: I’m not against the Expo itself. What I am against is the politicization of the Expo. The World Expo as a cultural and technological exhibition held in China can enlighten and broaden the horizons of those who visit. It also provides a platform to promote understanding and mutual interaction between the countries of the world. However, there is no need for the wide-scale propaganda spin that is being produced and there is no need for the excessive rules governing the lives of those who live in the city. It shouldn’t be approached as some sort of political mission. Last year when Chicago applied to host the 2016 Olympics, the proportion of those who were supportive was quite low. Other than this, Chicago from a number of perspectives was the best [place to host the Olympics]. However, I didn’t see because of this, US government agencies going out and trying to “educate” Chicago residents or threatening them if they didn’t support the city’s bid for the Olympics. I also have not seen the Shanghai Expo’s much touted slogans actually put into practice, slogans such as, “low-carbon Expo,” “going green,” “host the Expo with thrift,” “host the Expo with clean government,” and “harmonious Expo,” etc.

I’ve also been to Pudong [the area of Shanghai where the Expo is held]. It is not like how in Japan and other countries where the World Expo was held in the suburbs near forested areas (4). Furthermore, the fireworks set off on both sides of the Huangpu River were more than were set off during the Beijing Olympics. Right now in a lot of countries, the World Expo is just chicken ribs [something of little value]. At a time when people don’t even have any basic health care safeguards and when there is no unemployment aid, I simply don’t know how meaningful it is to ordinary people to have all this money spent on this kind of a thing,especially for the many people whose homes were forcibly demolished to make way for the Expo and who received very little compensation. Most of them decided to just swallow their anger but some of them chose to take the course of rights defense [weiquan]. However, those who chose this course were beaten down at every turn. Some are now destitute and homeless. Shouldn’t the government have some responsibility here? Once the World Expo comes to a close, the government is going to sell the land and make money. For many people [whose homes were taken] this an additional sort of exploitation.

DSD: The World Expo is a huge sign of our country’s rise. It should make us proud. How do you know about all these things that you just spoke of?

Me: I guess from the overseas media like BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation], VOA [Voice of America], RFI [Radio France International], DW [Duowei, Chinese Media Net], RFA [Radio Free Asia], and The New York Times. Also from Chinese websites that can be opened from within the country like the Singapore zaobao.com. I’ve never trusted the domestic media. After all, at least the Western media is independent and this can ensure their credibility. This is also an important reason why the Western media has become the global media for many people.

DSD: So your English is pretty good then? I also frequently read several overseas news websites. A lot of things they write are not very credible, and they seem to really like to report on negative things that are going on in China. We should really read more things about how our country is powerful and dynamic.

Me: My English is only average. I can only say that if I’m familiar with the basic background of the article that I can only understand from the English the basic idea of the article. News media should naturally be independent. Its purpose is to monitor what goes on in society. It shouldn’t be like how it is in China where the media is used as a propaganda tool. Our society needs to progress. In order to progress it must reveal and face squarely the negative aspects of our society and should not try to hide them or manufacture some kind of phony “harmonious-ness.” Of course the Western media is more objective. At times they also praise China, like how they praised the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. This is also something that the Chinese government is happy to hear.

DSD: Their media also has its own positions on issues which are not very objective.

Me: Everyone has their own positions and values in relation to certain issues; however, this does not mean that they can’t be objective. I think that enough free speech can guarantee the objectivity of the news media.

DSD: Our country also has free speech; however, it is not an absolute freedom of speech. You cannot defame others, you cannot interfere with others’ freedoms, you cannot leak state secrets (5).

Me: I’ve never thought that there is such a thing as absolute freedom. Freedom refers to the freedom that underlies the system of constitutional governance. Of course you can’t interfere with other peoples’ freedom, or attack or insult entities capable of having a personality and capable of acting. However, a government or a president are not such entities. In other words, I can stand in front of the White House and loudly curse the American government, I can get on television and openly criticize the government. Nonetheless, even if my attacks on the government are not truthful, I should still not have to shoulder any legal responsibility. As for the leaking of state secrets, unless I belong to a work unit where I have signed an agreement to keep information secret, then only in that circumstance should I have to bear legal responsibility for leaking state secrets. There should be a firm procedure for [prosecuting cases of] leaking state secrets. It is not an extremely broad concept. Ordinary citizens have no way of knowing national secrets. Even if they were to know, it would be because the government or a person or work unit which had signed a secrecy agreement had first leaked the secret. In that case those who had signed the secrecy agreement should be the ones held responsible. The government should be responsible to the people for these lapses; ordinary citizens do not have the so-called duty to protect state secrets. It is even more inappropriate for this [so-called duty] to be used as a method of inflicting unnecessary repression upon ordinary citizens.

DSD: Haven’t you noticed how much [freedom of] speech has improved these last years? Compared with ten years ago, there are a lot of things that the media can write about; for example, the forcible evictions that you mentioned. The Internet is also open.

Me: The reason the media can now write about these things to a large degree is because of competition from the Internet. There are also some responsible media companies who are testing the waters to see what the [government’s] bottom line is. Employees [of media companies] have to consider the market because people don’t like to hear too many things that are just fluff. It’s only because a number of things are first exposed on the Internet that the traditional media covers these things so as to “guide public opinion.” Compared with before, this can be considered a type of progress, albeit involuntary. The government cannot completely close off the Internet because it must also consider commercial interests. The government cannot completely shut people up and at the same take care of its commercial interests—it cannot accomplish both. The Google incident is a great example of this.

DSD: Tell me more about the Google incident.

Me: It’s because they couldn’t stand dealing China’s Byzantine and opaque Internet censorship system. The last straw was that the Gmail accounts of various people active in rights defense work were hacked into, and Google’s password system was violated. Google.cn stood in contradiction to Google’s values.

DSD: What you said are things that Google has claimed. How can you just believe what they said is true?

Me: I feel that some facts are just laid out before one’s eyes. There’s also no way I can go out and investigate this. Compared with some domestic internet companies, I’ve always been more inclined to trust Google. I admire the service it provides. Without a strong reputation there’s no way it could have become such a global company.

DSD: Did you know that the US Department of Homeland Security monitors the telephone calls and Internet activities [of people] within the entire country? Americans are actually not free. You’ve never been to America; there’s no way you could have sensed this. A lot of things [in America] are in conflict with the Constitution.

Me: I’m really not sure about this. Even though I’ve seen some domestic news media reports to this effect, how reliable really is the domestic news media? From other news media I have never heard that Americans’ entire lives are monitored. People in China who have been to America have never said this kind of thing. America is an open, rule-of-law country. Even if there is monitoring that occurs, I believe that it only occurs in such a way that it does not violate citizen’s legal rights; for example [it may be used] in the case of terrorists.

DSD: Have you heard about the recent Square bomb attack incident? How did they detect that?

Me: I’ve heard about this. In Times Square there was a peddler who discovered a suspicious vehicle and reported it to the police.

DSD: So how was America able to arrest the guy so quickly? America has about 200 million people (I interjected, “300 million”). American’s information is all controlled by the state.

Me: That Pakistani-American man was arrested at the airport as he was going through security to catch a flight to Dubai. This illustrates the high level of effectiveness of America’s executive and judicial branches. Just because American’s information is recorded does not mean that American’s privacy is violated. This embodies American’s [respect for] human dignity. The state has a duty to protect confidentiality; [national] security is similarly important. America expresses ample respect to criminal suspects.

DSD: America is so developed because America is pluralistic. But you just look at things from the overseas’ perspective, choosing to hear the worst. As we’ve been talking, there have been times when you’ve interrupted us. It’s as though you don’t like listening to others’ opinions. You’re too narrow-minded. However, our country has a big population; this is one of the realities of our country.

Me: It’s true that the reason America is so developed is because it has a pluralistic system. However, China has a monolithic system—that’s the reason why I’m here today. I’m not narrow-minded. I have my own basic sense of right and wrong; it’s China that often lacks a sense of right and wrong. I hope that any problem can be discussed openly. I have a lot of respect for everyone’s rights to express themselves no matter what position they hold or what ideas or opinions they have. The information I get is also pluralistic. It’s not like I only hear voices of criticism. I’m actually pretty fond of Wen Jiabao, but I don’t really like Hu Jintao.

DSD: So you also like Premier Wen?

Me: I think that within the Communist Party Wen Jiabao is an exception. He does not form cliques and he quotes a lot of wise things that inspired people have said. Let’s not talk about his family now (6); in the world of the Communist Party, there’s already enough of this.

DSD: You should know that many of the comments made online are untrue. Not long ago there was this rumor on the Internet that East Lake (Donghu) in Wuhan was going to be partially filled in to create a hotel. This thing kept on spreading and had a really negative effect.

Me: I heard about this. If that’s the case, then doesn’t the government have a big responsibility here? The government is used to working in darkness. Without an open government then of course there will be occasional rumors. If there were an open government then it could easily dispel any rumors that might be spread.

DSD: Are there many people you associate with who think the way you do?

Me: Almost no one. Maybe it’s because everyone has received this kind of education growing up where there’s only one right answer, where your essays are required to show “correct thinking,” and things like that. [This style of education] strangles peoples’ ability to think and independently analyze things. I really oppose China’s current educational system. I hope that [people] can have real civic education classes and not this system of Party style curriculum where the university administration controls everything.

DSD: You just mentioned Civic Education. You should see that the key [to our Civic Education curriculum] is our good political system. This is something that cannot be changed.

Me: I actually feel like a lot of China’s problems are directly caused by this political system. I know that America also has corruption issues.This is because of human nature. But, America’s corruption is a lot different than China’s corruption. America has a system that limits corruption, whereas in China almost all officials are corrupt; the numbers are enormous.

DSD: Let’s not talk about this corruption issue. You should notice how our country is continually getting stronger, but instead your thinking is too murky; you only focus on the negative, choosing to hear the worst. You should spend more time focusing on the general direction the country is heading.

Me: I think that what I have noticed is part of the general direction the country is heading. Our publications and our media are filled with this syrupy, effusive praise for the government. This society needs more voices of criticism to spur society into progressing. I hope that our nation can be a free and open nation like America, one that can accommodate all kinds of different voices.

DSD: In these recent years our country has continually been improving—this is the general direction. Have you sensed the progress the nation has made these recent years?

Me: I haven’t really had this sense. I get the sense more that things are going backwards.

DSD: Then where do think the problems are?

Me: In recent years there has been a series of violent eviction cases. The government, in order to make money by selling property, uses its power, in coordination with the mafia, to steal people’s homes. There is very little compensation given. [As a result], many people petition higher levels of government (shangfang) but end up themselves in prison for their efforts. Also, environmental pollution problems and all kinds of [food and product] safety issues have become more and more serious. Basic social guarantees are lacking; a lot of people get sick and die while waiting [for medical care]. Laborers’ rights are not protected. There is rapid inflation, but incomes are not rising. There is cronyism between business and government which squeezes out privately owned enterprises. Finally businesses transfer these pressures to labor. In other words, the country is improving while the lives of the people are getting worse. There are a lot, a lot of problems.

DSD: These things you’ve talked about are problems faced by the people. These problems really do exist, but aren’t we also improving? For example, this problem of forcible evictions is being addressed by new laws that will prevent violent evictions.

Me: I don’t believe that this problem can be solved by new legislation. As long as the nature of the government remains the same, then this type of problem will be difficult to resolve.

DSD: Well then tell us, in which ways has our country made progress?

Me: I guess there has been progress: for example, China gained the right to host the Olympics and the World Expo, Beijing’s air quality has improved, the economy is continually expanding, also internationally China has established all those Confucius Institutes that are engaging in cultural exchanges. In sum, there have been some improvements economically and culturally. (I’m not really sure if this counts as “progress;” they asked so this is how I answered.)

DSD: What you have said is not fully complete. More of our progress has had to do with the fact that our nation’s political system is more and more refined. The Party and the nation have resolved a number of problems. We have received more and more praise from the international community; our position has become higher.

Me: I really don’t have this same strong feeling about this that you do. Maybe it’s because I’m just a lower level member of society that’s floating outside the system and am not like you, who live inside the system and can personally experience this kind of “progress.” Of course I know that you’ve been sent here by your superiors.

DSD: This isn’t an issue about being inside or outside the system. You look at things in too dim a light. You should look at problems more objectively and rationally.

Me: I feel like I’ve always been objective and rational. I don’t make things up just for the sake of having something to criticize. I’m really passionate about the truth. But maybe in the future I should be even more objective and rational.

DSD: I have three requests for you that I hope you’ll remember. 1) Don’t write these kinds of articles again. 2) When looking at issues you must be objective, rational, accurate and comprehensive. 3) We hope that you will find a good job. Now you should worry about making a living; there are some things that you don’t need to worry about.

Me: I’ll remember.

DSD: When you enter society you’ll discover that there are a lot of problems that need to be resolved. Your way of thinking will slowly change and mature.

Me: When I enter society I’m sure I’ll discover that Chinese society is much darker than what I have seen on campus. I suppose as far as maturity goes, I’ll become more worldly. I don’t know if I’ll be able to persist in my principles and values.

DSD: I’ve also experienced the same stage you’re going through. At the time I was even more radical than you. It’s just like how when you grow up and look back at some things you did as a kid, you think how immature those things were. Don’t always carry around the flag of democracy and human rights thinking that you occupy some kind of [moral] high ground, but all the time are unwilling to hear what other people have to say.

Me: Everyone’s experiences and values are different. I don’t have this same strong feeling. Maybe I’ll change, but I always hope our society can be more and more free and open. I hope that I can make some contribution here. I hope even more that as an individual I can receive an equal measure of respect.

DSD: If you have any problems later you can always visit with this [Party] secretary here.

Me: I don’t have much longer at this school. It’s probably not necessary.

DSD: Remember what we’ve said. You can go now.

Me: Thanks.

(1) Caomin means “common person.”

(2) The DSD(国内安全保护支队)is a branch of the police force within the Ministry of Public Security, specializing in collecting intelligence, infiltrating and dealing with political dissidents, human rights activists, petitioners, religious groups as well as “subversive” activities in the cultural, educational and economics domains. Read more about the DSD via CDT here.

(3) Han Han is China’s most widely read blogger. He was recently voted as one of Time Magazines 100 most Influential People of 2010.

(4) The area where the Expo is held in Shanghai, along both sides of the Huangpu River, is not far from the center of the city and not far from the Bund, the main tourist attraction in Shanghai. Because the Expo site is along the river and near the heart of the city, the real estate is extremely valuable.

(5) China’s state secrets law has been criticized for the number of things classified as state secrets (for example, the total number of laid-off workers in state-owned enterprises; data on water and solid waste pollution, etc) and because the state secrets law can be used as a pretext for punishing people for other behavior. Zhao Yan, a muckraking journalist employed as a researcher for the New York Times, was initially charged under the state secrets law for disclosing the fact that Jiang Zemin was to retire.

(6) This reference to Wen Jiabao’s family probably refers to allegations that his wife, son, and son-in-law have prospered greatly from Premier Wen’s official position. See, for example, here, or here (Chinese).


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