On June 30, hours after Xi Jinping signed Hong Kong’s national security law in Beijing, authorities in the territory hastily implemented the controversial legislation. A chill descended on the city as observers across the globe analyzed the potential impact of the law. The next day saw the first 10 arrests under the new legislation, among a total of nearly 400 made at a march commemorating the anniversary of the 1997 handover.
With anxiety high over Hong Kong’s future, former NGO worker Luo He drew on experiences from the mainland to offer advice on dealing both with new police powers and extralegal methods long used to target mainland activists. CDT has translated the essay in full:
Since the passage of the Hong Kong National Security Law on June 30 [sic], Facebook has been inundated with disappointment and grief. I understand those feelings—the things you used to own, the things you are proud of, love and cherish, just got yanked away by force. It’s only natural to have a sweeping sense of sadness, regret, anger, fear, and even hopelessness.
Of course, aside from those sentiments, I also see people engaged in an active discussion about how to deal with it. I happen to have also had to deal with some trouble at the public security bureau recently, so I’d like to share some stories about how Chinese activists have been dealing with “invitations to tea” in their daily lives, and outline the troubles that people might encounter with the “pandas” (meaning domestic security agents). In the future, our friends in Hong Kong may also have to deal with these things on a daily basis.
The following is purely based on my own personal experience and shallow understanding, please excuse me if it’s not comprehensive.
#Forced eviction: Forcing people to move out of their office spaces and homes was a common tactic against NGOs and dissidents. Through forced eviction, they deny you a stable home and a steady work space, making you unable to lead a normal life or career. Sometimes they do it “gently,” telling you outright that they don’t want to rent the place to you, and that they are willing to pay you some money to move out. (Remember to set the default penalty higher in your lease. In 2015, we received 60,000RMB after being evicted.) Yeah, that’s state stability maintenance funding well spent… And sometimes they do it in a “violent” way, they cut off your water and electricity, and throw out your stuff. They’ll even weld the door of your office and place guards there to stop you from entry. If you call the police, you’ll be ignored. If you visit a petition office, they’ll ask you to file a lawsuit for a lease dispute. They’ll kick you around like a soccer ball.
#Invitation to tea: I’ll divide this into regular invitations and sensitive day/event invitations. A regular invitation is for understanding your daily work and current plans. The domestic security agents need to report on you from time to time, there’s nothing to worry about for these invites. Just be chill, don’t be combative, confrontational, or defiant. But, don’t agree to every invite either. You can decide for yourself how frequently you want to meet with them. For these meetings, you don’t have to answer all of their questions. Just select a few. And you can ask them: “Why are you interested in this question?” “How do you view our work? Do you think we are doing a good thing or a bad thing?” “Why are you asking these detailed questions? Do you have to put so many details in your report?” “If your family and friends’ rights are violated, do you want someone to help them?” “Do you like your job? Do you want a new one?” “If you didn’t do this anymore, what would you like to do?” In the end, it’s about treating a “panda” like a “human being.” Talk to them as such.
#Sensitive date/event invitation to tea: These invites are usually triggered by some event or special occasion. It can be as small as an isolated event, conference, or training; or a big one like June 4th, the Umbrella Movement [2014 protests in Hong Kong], [2019 Hong Kong] anti-extradition movement, etc. These tea invites can be more dangerous than regular ones, thus warranting more caution—they will ask you about the specific event and participants, about your own role and those of other people. For example, if when the anti-extradition movement broke out, I happened to be in Hong Kong, they’d ask: “Have you participated in protests?” “What do you think about the Hong Kong protests?” “What do your Hong Kong friends think about it?” “You should avoid those activities by any means,” and so on. For conferences and training sessions, they’ll usually ask: “Who is participating?” “Who is hosting?” “Who contacted you?” “What did everybody say?” “What did you do afterwards?”
Don’t put yourself in a passive position of being “interrogated” or “questioned.” Be proactive. Ask them questions. They won’t necessarily answer truthfully, but that doesn’t matter anyway. It will help you feel in control and make the “tea drinking” process less stressful or torturous.
#Cultivating sources: After meeting with you for a few times, the pandas will directly or indirectly make these suggestions: “Work for us.” “Give us useful information.” “We will reward you.” “If you don’t, you’ll have a hard time at XXX.” “We come to you because we trust you and want to help you live a better life. If you refuse, there are many others who want to work for us.” If you find yourself in that situation, please be careful. Under no condition can you trust them or agree with them. Stick to your principles and bottom line. Be very clear about that, do not give a vague response. You are nothing more than a piece on their chessboard. Do not violate your conscience. I believe one should always have their feet firmly on the ground, there are no shortcuts in life.
The first time they offered me something like that, I was furious. I told them: “Impossible. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. Go talk to those who are willing. Don’t ever bring that up with me again.” Then I got up to leave. In an unctuous way, they said I misunderstood them. They said I didn’t have to think too much or be so intense, and that I could simply say no. Sometimes they may offer you seemingly good deals, such as a guaranteed grad school offer or opportunities to study abroad. They may promise you smooth operation of your organization, or a good financial reward. They may have something against you, or they may use educational opportunities for your kids as the bait. Whatever they use, I believe there’s no way out if you agree to it.
If you say yes, you’ll always be under their control. The more you cooperate, the more leverage they have against you. You’ll never be able to step out of it. You’ll never be able to live a righteous life, forever living in darkness like a zombie. Don’t you think that sounds scary and painful? Don’t think they’ll protect you from being exposed, that’s impossible! And even if you aren’t exposed, can you live with yourself like that? Can you look in the mirror? Can you accept yourself as someone who sells out your friends, colleagues, and comrades? Also, once you say yes, the pandas will also see you as spineless. Do you think they’ll trust you completely? I don’t think so. I think they’ll despise you.
#Asking around about others: When they invite you to tea, they may ask you in a seemingly casual way whether you know about some person or organization. To these questions, I usually say: “Don’t ask me about others. First, I don’t know. Second, even if I do, I don’t want to talk, I only speak for myself. Third, I don’t like to talk about people without their permission or presence. And I trust that you don’t like it either when your friends casually give out your information to strangers, right?” Then they’d say: “Don’t worry, just asking,” to which I’d say: “Then I don’t have to answer, do I?” But we all know that they are not “just asking.” They do everything with a purpose.
#Harassing family: My partner, parents, and older brother have all been harrassed because of my work. The pandas know everything about them. But fortunately, they are all regular working people, none of them a government employee. And I am a nobody myself. So, they haven’t bothered my family too much. Just look at the families of those “709 lawyers.” Many have had their family members’ employment threatened, or seen an opportunity for promotion disappear or their kids unable to go to school. Some of their family members on government subsidies may see those benefits taken away.
#Personnel to-be-investigated/controlled: If you make it onto their “to-be-investigated” or “controlled personnel” lists, you won’t receive any formal notifications, so it’s possible that you are being surveilled without knowing. If you are on that list, when you go to a government agency for any kind of business, as soon as you swipe your ID card, they’ll look at you differently. You pretty much can’t get anything done. And the civil servants won’t tell you that you are on some kind of a list. They’ll simply say: “Oh, sorry, the system is down today. Perhaps you could come at another time? Or let us give you a call when the system is back on?” Or maybe they will ask you to go to a different office. You’ll get kicked around like a soccer ball. For example, your village or neighborhood committee will ask you to go to the subdistrict office; and your subdistrict office will tell you that their system is also down, or that they just had a new rule, so you should go back to your village or neighborhood committee. That’s how they kick you around. No one will tell you honestly that you did something that made them unhappy and now you are under their control!!
If you get on their list, you will encounter a lot of troubles. For example, you won’t be able to get a resident’s permit, which will further complicate your life. Please refer to “In Guangzhou, Having No Resident’s Permit Can Lead to Grave Consequences!!!” To use Guangzhou as an example, without a resident’s permit, you can’t get a driver’s license or a vehicle registration; your kids can’t enroll in school based on the point system; you can’t get a travel permit to Hong Kong and Macau or a replacement national ID card in Guangzhou; getting a household registration or a transfer will be restricted—greatly impacting almost every single aspect of your life.
#Border and customs restrictions: You won’t get notified of your restricted status here either, unless they take away your passport, which they may euphemize as “we’ll take care of that for you.” It’s likely that you’d only know about your restricted status once you try to leave the country. After that, you’ll frequently be stopped at the border and customs. They will pull you aside and tell you that you can’t leave the country. They may give you a myriad of reasons, or not offer a reason at all.
#Being traveled: If the pandas pay special attention to you, don’t want you to participate in some special occasion or event, and meanwhile they worry they won’t be able to control you, then you may be asked to leave your city so things don’t get out of control for the pandas. If you refuse to comply, they may take you away, “travel” you somewhere and then bring you back afterwards.
#Character assassination: Defamation campaigns against dissidents include exposing personal lives, slut shaming, questioning your finances, accusing you of intending to subvert the state or damage social stability, or of being used by foreign forces. They twist your character, vilify you, isolate you from society, from your family and community, so that you can’t live or work normally. If someone’s in a situation like this, support from family and friends is of utmost importance. If those in their closest circle don’t believe or accept them and instead let them face this all alone, then that will be a heavy and fatal blow.
#Annual organizational registration: Some registered organizations may fail to pass the annual recertification process, then could have their registration revoked. Therefore, in order to maintain legal status, some organizations will make compromises, either in terms of their work or resources. Now, I don’t want to judge that, every choice comes with its own price and consequences.
#Tax/financial issues: Another issue that a registered organization may face is constantly having its taxes or financial records investigated. They will use financial/tax issues as an excuse to order you to undergo reform. Sometimes they require you to shut down first, sometimes they don’t. But the purpose is clear, to pick on you. These social organizations don’t have much money to begin with, and some even qualify for tax exemption. Most of them have no issues. As far as I know, none of these investigations has resulted in conviction.
The biggest deterrent effect following the imposition of the national security law is the creation of fear and the destruction of trust among people. We must accept our “fear” and that of our friends because it is real. We should think about how to regain power amid fear! Fear is not always negative: When fear arises, if we let it be, then we discover that it goes away. Don’t fight it, face it. When fear is seen and accepted, it can then turn into power. If we don’t allow or accept fear, if we can’t face fear, if we push it down or ignore it, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Fear doesn’t mean we should give up, it doesn’t mean we should yield. The best way to overcome fear is to see it, accept it, and move forward with it.
Trust can be destroyed. The imposition of Hong Kong’s national security law has made people fear for their safety. It has damaged trust, which is the most precious and fragile thing at the moment. We need trust and solidarity more than ever. Out of caution, people may choose to lay low, we may see subtle changes in relationships between people and between organizations. We used to be able to talk, discuss, and even argue freely. Going forward, we may have to hide our opinions out of concern for safety. How do we move forward? It’s a test for our wisdom and our perseverance.
The methods I mentioned above are very personal and can only provide some reference. We all have our own situations and personalities. And as we face different levels of pressure, we may choose different ways to respond. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. I hope you find my story helpful in some way. [Chinese]
Translation by Yakexi.