Translation: “Tea-drinking Diary” by Li Xuewen
Last week, according to the U.S. government-backed Radio Free Asia, domestic security officers in Guangzhou approached a number of local activists and other politically sensitive figures, ordering them to leave the city for six months until after Fortune magazine’s Fortune Global Forum in early December. A planned dinner gathering of activists that Tuesday night was disrupted by telephoned warnings of detention, RFA reported, and activist Wang Aizhong was held and questioned for several hours after the meal.
One of those asked to leave the city was Zhang Leilei, a campaigner against sexual harassment on public transit who reportedly plans to stay in Guangzhou. Writer Li Xuewen and his girlfriend, lawyer Huang Simin, were also told to go. Li moved to Guangzhou last year after losing a publishing job in Beijing in 2014 due to alleged official pressure: punishment, he claimed, for attending a seminar to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In a 2012 autobiographical essay translated by CDT, Li described the various recollections of the 1989 protests he had encountered over the previous 23 years. “One’s opinion of June Fourth,” he wrote, “is the most basic measure of the morality of every Chinese person.” Huang is one of the lawyers defending protest-monitoring citizen journalist Li Tingyu, whom she profiled last year in an essay translated at China Change.
Li described last week’s “tea drinking”—a euphemism for interrogation or other conversation with police—on his Xiumi blog. His account on the platform has since been deleted for “serious violations of the user agreement,” but the post is archived at CDT Chinese, and translated here:
Tea-drinking Diary—Guangzhou, Loving You Isn’t Easy
This afternoon, at a little past three o’clock, my girlfriend Simin and I had just returned from running some errands. The weather was hot, and I was getting ready to take a rest at home. There was a knock, which I thought was a delivery man, but when I checked the screen, there was the familiar sight of Master Shen of the Haizhu National Treasures [Domestic Security Department] standing at the doorway. “I knew you two were here,” said Master Shen. “Doesn’t the lobby camera point straight at my home?” I replied. As I said this, I walked to my room, put on some pants, and went back out to open the door. They came in one after the other, three National Treasures, one—Master Chen—city-level, the others district-level. Their ages varied: Master Shen is quite old, while one of the others was a handsome young guy I’d seen before while drinking tea. Behind them were some men in uniform, very solemn. Made up of the three levels of city, district, and local substation staff, this second team was pretty big, arrayed at the door.
The National Treasures and I sat on the sofa, while the local substation officers went around looking through the inner rooms. Pointing at one of the men in uniform, Master Chen of the city department said “he’s the head of the local police substation.” Then he got straight to the point: “June 4 [Li uses the censorship-evading homophone “willow silk”] is approaching, and July 1 is right after it. On top of that, Guangzhou’s hosting the Fortune Global Forum this year. You need to leave town for six months.” I was shocked. What Fortune Forum? I’d honestly never heard of it. I’m a man of letters—what’s a forum about fortunes got to do with me?! Master Shen said that “the Fortune Forum’s on the same level as the Hangzhou G20. A lot of people have to go.” I said “as far as I’ve heard, when the G20 was in Hangzhou, all those people only had to leave for as long as the meetings were open. Why do we have to go away for six months?” Master Shen said “they were locals. Non-residents like you have to leave.” There’s even a hierarchy among stability maintenance targets, I thought. Those with local residence rights and those without aren’t the same! Resentfully, I spat “you lot lost me my job before Spring Festival, and blocked my royalties for ‘The Chronicle of Zhao Family Village’ [Chinese; background]. Then you forced me to leave Haiyang district, and now Guangzhou. You’re driving me up a blind alley!” Master Chen said “it’s what the higher-ups want.” I was getting fired up. At first I thought that with June 4 approaching, we’d have to go away for a few days, but I never expected having to leave for half a year! I waved my hands at the substation head, and pouted “look, the chief’s here today anyway, why not just arrest me now?” At this point my girlfriend finished making coffee, and courteously gave some to them. This pissed me off. I banged the table: “They’re driving us out of Guangzhou, and you’re giving them coffee?!” They weren’t angry. To my surprise, they all laughed.
I went on: “Last time you told us to leave Haizhu, and pressured our landlord until he called us and told us to move. Now you’ve stepped it up, telling us to leave Guangzhou. Are you going to drive us out of China next?” “You know it’s not the Zhang*De*jiang era anymore,” Master Shen said. [Zhang’s name is punctuated with asterisks in order to avoid keyword censorship.] “Guangzhou’s changed. You two are blacklisted from this year’s July 1 and Fortune Forum: there are orders from above.” “We have every right to live here,” I said. “In theory, you’re right,” said Master Shen. “But why did you come to Guangzhou? Weren’t you OK before, in Beijing?” Master Chen joined in: “Yes, what’s so good about Guangzhou anyway? You can go to Suzhou, it’s much better.” “We like Guangzhou,” I said. “I came here with my girlfriend because it’s down to earth, very inclusive. I like Guangzhou.” Master Shen said, “if I wasn’t in this job, I’d welcome you here.” “Aren’t you worried we’ll do something extreme if you force us like this?” I asked. “Haven’t many others?” Master Chen said, “you have a point. But the thing is, because you’re a high-ranking intellectual, we came here to talk to you instead of having these guys throw you into a car and drive you away!” I’d forgotten that I was a so-called high-ranking intellectual, as this was the first time since I left the system that anyone had called me that. “You think so highly of me! I’m overwhelmed by your generosity. But I can’t possibly accept you compelling me like this!” Simin said unhappily, “you drove out those others with no legal basis or procedure. What did you have, to speak of?” They stayed silent, not accepting the lawyer’s implication. Then Master Shen said: “We weren’t even looking at you to start with. Isn’t your girlfriend, lawyer Huang, involved with the 709 affair? It’s only because of her that we got to know about you.” Simin, sitting next to me, said “apparently I’m more important than you.” I laughed: “If that was what you were really after in the first place, why are you always looking for me and not her?” Master Shen said, “now you’re important as well.” “No wonder she was more important, with me cooking and washing dishes at home,” I said. “But what’s she done?” Master Chen said “isn’t she always involved with sensitive cases, hyping up legal hotspots?” Huang Simin said “what have I ever hyped? I’m always very low key. If there are people paying attention to a case, that’s not something I can control. If someone gives Li Tingyu an award, it’s not because I told them to!” Master Chen said “in any case, you’ve come to the higher-ups’ attention.” Master Shen said “it seems you were acquainted with that Wang*Yu.” Huang Simin said “yes, I invited her to a meal when she came to Wuhan on business.” “Is there even a problem with showing hospitality to friends,” I asked. “Who doesn’t have any friends?” “I don’t know,” Master Shen said. “Anyway, they’re concerned about you both. Don’t they say, ‘don’t fear thieves stealing from you; fear thieves noticing you’? You’ve been noticed.”
I went on, asking “how come July 1 is sensitive now, too?” Master Shen said “that’s the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. We’re afraid you’ve got some sort of alliance with people there.” Huang Simin said “I’ve been barred from leaving the country for nearly two years, I can’t go to Hong Kong!” “You haven’t thought this through,” I said. “We have nothing to do with anyone in Hong Kong. Why are there so many sensitive dates these days?” “You’re right, there are so many,” Master Chen said. “So rather than having us force you to move all the time, which is as bothersome for us as it is for you, it’d be better for everyone if you left Guangzhou.” “You know as well as we do that these sensitive dates are all made up. China can’t go on forever without relaxing this high-pressure stability maintenance. Once we have democracy, you guys won’t have to wear yourselves out like this.” Master Shen said “Who knows what the future holds? The present’s the present.” I turned to stare straight at the handsome, silent young National Treasure, and said “the future belongs to your generation.” He laughed, but still said nothing.
Next we talked about the situation involving the previous night’s dinner. They blamed me for ignoring what they’d said, and going to the meal. “An old friend was in town,” I said. “Why shouldn’t I have a meal with him? Besides, I didn’t get your phone call telling me not to go until I was already there. My friend would have thought me too unreliable if I hadn’t shown up.” Master Shen said “there were so many of you eating together. Yesterday we were preparing to arrest you, and called the district police to take you all into custody.” I asked, “didn’t you talk with Wang Aizhong after the meal until 11 o’clock?” Master Shen said “Wang Aizhong is the big fish in Guangzhou at the moment: he pays for [protest] banners, always pays the restaurant bills, does a lot of big business.” “We split the bill at yesterday’s meal,” I said. “We split the bill at all our meals in Guangzhou.” They shook their heads, and said nothing. “You said Wang Aizhong’s the big fish. Where do I rank?” I asked. “Take a guess,” said Master Chen. “Top 50?” I joked. “Nationally, yes,” Master Chen replied. “In Guangzhou, top 10, at least.” I was amazed. “You’re flattering me. I’ve only been here a little more than a year, and spent most of that time at home, reading and writing. How can I have made the top 10?” Master Shen said “in any case, the leaders saw a list of reported names. Yours was on the lists from several departments. Last night’s meal also had your name on it, and the leaders got angry. “So you’re chasing me out of Guangzhou because I went for a meal last night?” I asked. Master Shen said “that’s not it. It’s that you’ve become our nemesis.” No matter what he’s saying, Master Shen always smiles. He’s a National Treasure who looked back fondly on Zhang*De*jiang’s Guangdong. I’ve dealt with him many times, and we’re still on fairly good terms. I said to him, “when I came to Guangzhou I had a work agreement with a publisher, but you lot ruined that. I wrote a few articles to get by, and you told me not to write. You’re too much.” They said nothing.
The two officers from the local substation had been sitting on stools off to the side all along. One was smiling, the other expressionless. At this point a phone rang. The substation chief answered, stood up, and said to Master Chen of the city department “I’ve got to go: the deputy political commissar’s coming. You keep talking.” To me, he added “Mr Li, I’m the local substation chief. If anything’s the matter, come and find me. I’ve no hard feelings toward you. It’s often possible to work out a compromise in the end.” “I don’t want to give anyone any trouble,” I said. “‘From an exchange of blows, friendship grows.’ Could you have a word with the neighborhood people, and get them not to watch us so closely? That expensive-looking CCTV camera’s been pointing at our door for months.” The substation chief said “where? I don’t know anything about that.” With that, the two policemen opened the door and left.
Then we went on talking, neither Simin nor I inclined to leave Guangzhou for those sensitive dates, fearing that it would be too complicated. In the end we were deadlocked for half the day, before they proposed a solution: we’d promise to return to Wuhan temporarily at the end of May, after Huang Simin had finished her current work. We’d be back in Wuhan before June 4, then we’d come back to Guangzhou for the last ten days of June. We were exhausted from talking, and the National Treasures were tired as well. Master Chen, who kept looking at his watch, said “that’s it for today.” “I know you’re following orders, and it’s difficult for you,” I said. “It’s even harder for us. But we have an understanding, right?” Then I opened the door to let them out.
After the National Treasures had gone, Simin opened the delivery we’d received. She’d ordered some brightly colored underwear: watching her happily trying it on, my own mood improved as well.
The previous day we’d had torrential rain in Guangzhou. Today the weather was great, with the sun shining on the palm trees in the courtyard, shooting green light into the room. It was especially pretty.
Guangzhou’s a great city, I thought to myself. I really hate to leave. [Chinese]