Numerous Chinese activists, bloggers and ordinary netizens have experienced being “invited to tea” by the police—ostensibly for a casual discussion at the police station over a real or metaphorical cup of tea. At best, the invited guest leaves with a mild admonishment to behave better in the future; at worst, the “teatime” devolves into an interrogation, a confession, or even a full-blown police investigation. In Chinese, the term is often used in the passive form (被喝茶, bèi hē chá): “After the cops saw her controversial tweets, she was ‘tea-drunk.’”
In the essay translated below, blogger @clickchicken describes the surreal experience of being invited for tea at the local police station, only to have the police read aloud her tweets, admonish her for following celebrities on Twitter, and give her a short, inadvertent tutorial on how to download a VPN to circumvent the Great Firewall. Her essay was originally published in Matters under the title “My Absurd but True Chronicle of Being ‘Invited to Tea,’” and later republished by CDT Chinese.
CDT has featured extensive coverage and many personal accounts of the tea-drinking phenomenon. Li Xuewen’s “Tea-Drinking Diary” detailed his experience of being called in for tea with domestic security officers who sought to pressure him into leaving town for six months prior to Guangzhou’s hosting of the Fortune Global Forum. “Activity of the Week: Drink Tea” summarized the tea-summoning of author Murong Xuecun (for attending a gathering with friends to mark the 25th anniversary of June 4th) and online activist Liu Ermu (for his public criticism of heavy-handed government tactics against anti-smog protesters in Chengdu.) Earlier coverage includes @StonyWang: Forced to Drink Jasmine Tea and Drinking Tea and Discussing the Jasmine Revolution: A Twitter Report; student blogger Caomin’s description of being invited for tea by domestic security and grilled about his blog comments on the Shanghai World Expo; over 200 “troublemakers” bonding over being called in to tea in the run-up to a National People’s Congress session; and blogger Persian Xiaozhao’s long-form chronicle of her experiences drinking tea with police.
CDT has also chronicled long-running government efforts to impede access to Twitter, which has been blocked in China since 2009. Tactics range from intimidating activists into going silent on Twitter or deleting their accounts; detaining users of Twitter or VPNs; causing high-profile Chinese Twitter accounts to disappear from the platform for long stretches; shaming people who use VPNs to scale the Great Firewall and access Twitter; and, as you will read in the essay below, inviting people “for tea” to castigate them and read aloud their offending tweets:
For the young (and not so young) who live behind China’s Great Firewall and pay attention to politics, we all wonder to some degree or another about being “asked to tea.” We all have our own guesses, fears and questions about what this must be like. Because of the omnipresent nature of the authoritarian system in which we live, the term “national security” is sensitive and mysterious, much like the phrase “the will of the Chinese people.” With regard to being “asked to tea,” stories of questionable accuracy abound, but the practice itself cannot be discussed openly.
Fortunately, before the pandemic began, I (who am by no means an activist) was afforded the chance to enjoy this special treatment. I was invited to the police station for a long heart-to-heart with the relevant authorities. This “delightful” experience of being “asked to tea” was completely different from what I had imagined. After thinking about it for a while and considering the risks involved, I’ve decided to write this story down. After all, it’s pretty funny and can perhaps serve as a record of our times.
It was just a normal workday for me. I was in the office feeling a bit sleepy when my roommate suddenly messaged me on WeChat asking whether anyone from the neighborhood committee had come looking for me. I responded that they had not, and my roommate informed me that they had just called her to ask for some information about me and confirm that I actually lived at that address. I had recently moved there, so I assumed it was just the neighborhood committee conducting a routine update of their resident lists. I didn’t worry about it, and kept on with my work. Soon afterward, I got a call from a mobile phone number I didn’t recognize. When I answered, a male caller told me that he was from such-and-such police substation, and that I was to come to the station by 3:00 that afternoon.
At this point, I was jolted back to my senses and realized what was going on. As a good, law-abiding citizen, there was only one thing about me they could be concerned about, unless of course China had suddenly decided to crack down on gay people and was busy rounding up all the LGBTQ types. But what aspect of that “one thing” were they so concerned about? I quickly regained my composure, and calmly asked what it was all about.
The caller, who sounded quite young, told me that I’d find out what it was about when I came in. Deploying every ounce of feminine charm that I possess, I kept my voice sweet and gentle: “I’m absolutely willing to cooperate with your work and don’t want to be difficult, but I’d like to know the reason you’re calling me in. That way, I can best prepare to actively cooperate. I also feel like I have a right to know.” The man on the other end hesitated for a moment and said, seemingly quite candidly, “I don’t know the specific reason either. It’s not our police substation that’s looking for you, it’s some other department. I’m just responsible for letting you know. If you don’t come, then we’ll have to do a home visit. But what are your neighbors going to think if the police show up at your door?”
Given my instinctive avoidance of the “black hole” of a police station, and my inability to predict what would happen to me if I went there, I was actually more open to having a home visit. If I was in my own home, with so many neighbors and passers-by, I reasoned, it was unlikely that anything truly awful could happen to me. So I said to the officer, “I’ll be at home at 7:00 p.m. You’re welcome to come over then.”
Not long after I hung up, my phone rang again. The call came from a mobile phone number, like before, but the caller was a different person, with a much harsher tone of voice. I guess it was too cold for them to venture out in the middle of winter to visit my snug little abode, so they insisted that I report to the police substation before 3:00. In response to my persistent questions, the officer adopted the macho tone typical of cops in these parts. “If the police are looking for you, then there’s definitely a reason,” he said. “Why don’t you think carefully about what you’ve done? Do you think the police would come looking for you if you hadn’t done anything at all?” I repeated that I really couldn’t think of anything. I don’t steal; I pay my taxes on time; and I diligently sort my recyclables every day. The man on the other line gradually lost his patience, and yelled, “3:00 p.m. at (such-and-such) police substation—be there!” before slamming down the phone.
I stared blankly at the phone in my hand, unsure how to react. I felt depressed and anxious, but mostly just confused. Using the Telegram app, I told a few trusted friends what I’d just experienced. They, too, responded with questions: “Why?” and “What have you been doing recently?” Suppressing my annoyance, I answered that I had no idea. Maybe I had done something, or maybe I hadn’t, or maybe there was no logic to it at all. In the end, it was up to the police to explain it all, not me.
I asked my boss for leave, on short notice, and proceeded obediently to the police station. There was no use in resisting; it would only make them suspect that I resented their authority. Compliance was the only option. On the way to the police station, I conducted an emergency “political background check” on my cell phone, purging it of YouTube, Twitter, Telegram, Initium Media, and other “reactionary” apps. I erased all my conversations on WeChat, and deleted a document describing how to access VPNs. At 3:00 p.m. on a workday, the streets were fairly empty. I don’t know why, but as I approached the police station, I felt pretty empty, too.
Stepping through the doors of a police station for the first time in my life, I couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous. A tall, thin, dour man sitting on a bench in the waiting room gave me a dull stare. Avoiding his gaze, I found a uniformed officer and said, “Uh, this police officer called and told me to come here. Here’s his number.” The officer looked at me curiously. He asked me to wait, then turned and went into an inner room partitioned with iron bars. After a while, he emerged and led me to an empty room, where he told me to sit down and wait, then closed the door and left.
Glancing around the room, I noticed a security camera, but I couldn’t tell if it was recording or not. The words “mediation room” were written on the door, and on the walls of the room, there were several posters outlining the principles of mediation. There was also a window from which I could see into the courtyard behind the police station, where sunlight flickered through the leaves of some foliage. To be honest, the place had a pretty decent atmosphere.
I waited alone in that small room for quite a long time. Just as I was beginning to wonder whether they had been deluged by an influx of reactionaries and forgotten all about me, three men entered the room. None of them wore any type of police uniform. The one in the center looked to be the oldest, perhaps in his fifties or sixties. His skin was deeply tanned, and even the wrinkles on his face seemed redolent of that particular middle-aged-man cigarette-smoke odor. The other two appeared to be in their thirties. One of them held a thick sheaf of papers. I took one quick glance and immediately knew why I had been called in: the top sheet was a printed screenshot of my Twitter homepage.
The three men sat across from me and got straight to the point, asking me if I knew the reason I had been called in. I answered that I did not. They then asked me if I had ever “scaled the wall” or created a Twitter account. I answered honestly that I had. They began grilling me about specifics: what I had used to circumvent the Great Firewall, why I had created a Twitter account, and what had I said on Twitter? At that moment, I was seized by an overpowering urge to exercise my so-called dramatic skills. Putting on a wide-eyed, pitiful expression, I claimed that my college boyfriend had helped me install software to circumvent the Great Firewall, but I personally didn’t know how to use it or what it was. (This was clearly false: as a practicing lesbian for over ten years, I haven’t been with any men.) As for Twitter, I said I created my account when I was an exchange student in the U.S. and saw others playing around with it, but I didn’t like it much and hadn’t used it in a long time. (Also false: one look at my Twitter and you’d see that I’d retweeted something just the day before.) I claimed that I never posted any real content, mostly just followed celebrities, and couldn’t really remember what I’d written. (When in fact, I’ve written many impassioned screeds against the government.)
The officers still seemed quite suspicious. They asked me to turn on my phone and log into my Twitter account. I pulled out my phone, which of course I had already “cleaned up,” and continued in my most obsequious tone, “Look, Twitter’s already been deleted. I haven’t used it in a long time.” The youngest-looking officer suggested, “Why don’t you download it again.” Doing my best to look stupid, I fiddled around with my phone for a bit before asking him for help. “I don’t know how to get past the Great Firewall,” I told him, “and I don’t even have the software to do it. My boyfriend used to help me with that stuff.” He was quick to answer, “There are loads of VPNs on the internet. Just search on Baidu: there’s a lot of free software, and they even have tutorials. It’s really easy.” By that point in the conversation, things were feeling increasingly surreal, but my fear had abated. I had come here expecting to confess my “crimes,” and now the cops were giving me a tutorial on how to evade internet restrictions?
“Miss, stop fooling around here,” said the older officer in the middle. “Isn’t your account named such and such? We have all your posts right here.” He pulled the stack of papers toward him and began leafing through the pages with a look of disgust. “You’re awfully young to be writing this sort of stuff,” he chided me. I then endured the greatest torture to which any modern person can be subjected: one by one, he read all of my tweets aloud.
“’Why is it that other university students get to worry about falling in love when I have to worry about the Communist Party?’” the old officer read. “What’s that supposed to mean?” It wasn’t a rhetorical question; he seemed genuinely puzzled. Although outwardly I remained calm, my toes had started to curl like I was readying them to tunnel through the floor of my prison, à la The Shawshank Redemption. “Um, I have depression and I worry about a lot of stuff. Maybe when I wrote this, I was worried about something. It was a long time ago and I don’t really remember what I was thinking.” As I clumsily attempted to dodge the question, I had already started praying for some divine intervention to release me from this. Having your tweets or Weibo posts read out loud to you with such deadpan, painstaking clarity is unbearable. It made me want to shout, “I’m guilty, I’m guilty! I’ll confess to anything, just stop reading, please stop reading now.”
But the gods obviously didn’t heed my prayer. “Here’s another one,” he continued, “It says ‘China—’ Oh, I can’t say that one out loud.” That tweet, I remember clearly, was “China, go fuck yourself.”
When he finally stopped torturing me with tweets, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then he turned serious. “Do you know a lot about Hong Kong?” he asked. I answered that I didn’t know much. “So why have you posted so much about the riots in Hong Kong?” “I used to really like this singer from Hong Kong named Anthony Wong,” I carried on bullshitting, making it up as I went along. “He’s super good-looking and I loved his songs. Sometimes he’d tweet some things, and I’d retweet the content without really reading it. Because I was a fan, I wanted to help his numbers by giving him retweets, but I never paid close attention to what was in the tweets—also, I’m not that great at reading traditional Chinese characters. Later, when I heard he was gay, I stopped liking him and quit retweeting his stuff.” The officer shuffled through the documents he was holding, as if he was confirming that I had in fact retweeted Anthony Wong’s tweets, and seemed to half-believe my lame explanation. And although I am deeply ashamed of selling out Anthony Wong, I felt like I had to in that situation, to save my own skin.
“Miss, I can see that you have a pretty good attitude about this,” he counseled me earnestly. “It’s usually not that big of a deal for people to scale the wall and read some of that content, and we wouldn’t normally bring you in here for that. But you’ve got to stop reading these harmful messages. You’re an educated girl and you can’t go around recklessly posting stuff just because it came from some celebrity. Don’t be so easily fooled by people, or you’ll get yourself into trouble.” “Uh-huh, Uh-huh,” I nodded, “yes, I understand.”
By then, it was already past the time that government employees get off work for the day, and all three cops appeared anxious to wrap things up. The young officer handed me two copies of a document labeled “Letter of Affidavit.” Following their instructions, I obediently wrote down my name, mobile phone number, ID card number, and other personal information. I also wrote, “I registered and used Twitter to follow celebrities. I fell under their unwholesome influence and posted incorrect opinions.” (The young officer stressed that I had to write “incorrect opinions” because the content I’d posted was “factually incorrect.”) I pledged to delete my Twitter account and all tweets, and to never transgress again. I was then given two copies of a “Letter of Reprimand” which explained that posting “incorrect opinions” is a punishable offense. At the bottom of the letter was the question, “Do you understand?” I didn’t even have to write “Yes, I understand,” because those words were already printed on the letter. All I had to do was sign my name, after which I was allowed to leave the police station.
When it was all over, I went out for dinner with some friends to celebrate one of their birthdays. Every day since then has been completely uneventful.
I often think of those three police officers. They were frighteningly ordinary, just a few guys working hard to meet their KPIs. They were no different from other wage-earners compelled by circumstance to do what they do. My guess is that the older officer didn’t even understand what all my random tweets meant, but that didn’t stop him from feeling like there was something dangerous about them. I’d also guess that the two younger officers didn’t fully buy into my ridiculous explanations. The fact that they didn’t call me out on it wasn’t some benevolent gesture; it just wasn’t necessary. All they were trying to do was make a living. After this ordeal, the terrifying image I’d had in my mind of “being asked to tea” vanished. Compared to what I had imagined, they were more disorganized, simple, and crude. They were also more “real” than I had imagined. Once I discovered that those who work behind the tall walls are real human beings and not cold automatons, I instantly felt much more courageous, because of my belief in human fallibility.
I’ve told this story to a few of my friends, and every time I do, they laugh out loud. It’s too ridiculous, they say. But when I recently told it to a new friend of mine, he asked, “But at the time, weren’t you scared?” That made me stop and think, and my serious answer was, “Of course.” Of course I was scared when that cop rudely hung up on me, and when I was waiting all alone in the mediation room, and when I signed my name to the Letter of Affidavit. I was scared because I had no way of resisting. I know that I’ve probably been put on some sort of blacklist, so now I’m much more circumspect about what I do online. I don’t use Twitter anymore, and it’s gotten to the point that I care less and less about current events.
But now that I’ve written this article, that fear doesn’t seem quite so unconquerable, because when you think about it, the whole experience was actually pretty funny. I hope that everyone who reads this will get a laugh out of it.
Note: To protect myself, I have modified or obscured the time, location, content of my tweets, and the exact conversation I had with the police officers. I don’t want to be dragged in there a second time, so please keep me safe, OK? [Chinese]
Translation by Anonymous.
Additional translation content and editing by Anne Henochowicz.