Drinking Tea with the State Security Police

By Yaxue Cao, published: March 1, 2012


It’s been a while since “he cha” (drink tea, 喝茶) came to mean, in certain contexts, “summoned and interrogated by the state security police.” A cup of tea may or may not, be present, but either way, it is “having tea” in the parlance of the Chinese netizens. It occurs like this: the interrogatee is called upon by at least two or more state security police at home or at work, approached by them somewhere else, or telephoned for a forced appointment. He cha itself occurs mostly in police stations, but also in secluded offices at workplaces or in schools; in some cases, in one’s home where security police show up at the door and force their way in against the will of the host. It can last anywhere from an hour to several hours.

hechaOver the last few days I have read through 30+ accounts of “he cha” with the state security police, thanks to a wonderful website devoted to collecting such accounts by netizens (Google Translated, but very rough) and to the people who chose to tell.

Who Are Being He Cha-ed and for What Reasons?

It appears that many things Chinese citizens do can attract the attention of the state security police. Taking a quick stock of the cases I have read (since the site hasn’t been updated since July, 2011, the cases reflect the going-ons of an earlier time), the reasons are as varied as can be:

  • Signing 08 Charter (the document for which Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 10 years in jail);
  • Attending, or expressing interest in, Jasmine gatherings;
  • Signing online appeals, in one case, for improving prison management; in another, against the detention of a Uighur scholar;
  • Intent to attend events organized by Ai Weiwei (this was before Ai Weiwei was detained and held for 86 days last year);
  • Attending the memorial of a woman who self-immolated to protest against violent demolition;
  • Writing blogs or articles on the themes of democracy and freedom, about June 4th, Tibet or Xinjiang;
  • Twitter expressions;
  • Sending a bouquet to the Norwegian Hall of Shanghai Expo in connection to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo;

In one case, two security police visited a young man in his workplace, asked about his roommate and the latter’s NGO work, and tried to get him to spy on the roommate.

What surprised me most, as I went through these accounts, was how diverse the interrogatees are: artists, businessmen, developers, shop owners, corporate employees or managers, amateur authors, retirees, college students, high school students, and yes, a middle school student, for taking pictures of police with assault rifles on the day of the rumored jasmine gathering (there wasn’t one) and posting them online.

600+ attended Ai Weiwei's "River Crab" Feast in Shanghai in November, 2011, to protest the demolition  of his studio by the government.

600+ attended Ai Weiwei’s “River Crab” Feast in Shanghai in November, 2011, to protest the demolition of his studio by the government.

Components of a He Cha Session

When the state security police descended on these law-biding citizens, often in plain clothes, asking to have a talk with him or her, they didn’t bother to show their ID and did so only reluctantly in some cases when the interrogatee insisted.

Never mind the warrant. There was none.

In one case, the wife of an interrogatee opened the door to find policemen asking her husband to go with them. When she asked why, she was told “it’s inconvenient to say.” When she insisted the police show a warrant, the police said there was no warrant, threatened to use force, adding, “You are in China.”

The Interrogation:

The security police asked an interrogatee’s name, employer, what websites he or she had visited, who were his or her friends, questions about what he or she did, with whom he or she was associated, especially who “directed” him or her, his or her motivation and purpose. From the questions they asked, it is clear that there aren’t areas where they would not invade.

Answering questions, the interrogatee and the police engaged in a back-and-forth exchange where the police tried to impose themselves, and the interrogatee tries to defend him/herself or evade their questions for self-protection. While each interrogatee handled his or her own situation differently, the state security police emerged to be very similar in the narrative they tried to impose and the threats they made:

  • Stability is all, turmoil is bad for everyone, and you have to take into consideration the interests of the nation;
  • Democracy is not for China; look at Taiwan, what a mess (the Party was making the most of the brawling scenes seen in Taiwan’s legislative body, but I am sure the Taiwan card can no longer be played now that enough people have seen the latest Taiwanese presidential election with envy and admiration);
  • China is doing great; other countries are suffering from economic crises while China has tons of money;
  • You have family responsibilities, you have social responsibilities, and what you have done is irresponsible;
  • Your thoughts are not normal; these are not things for you to worry about; and you should mind your own business and focus on making money;
  • Ai Weiwei is a bad person; he is associated with anti-China forces overseas; he gets awards from them;
  • What you are doing is bad for yourself. Do you want to end up in jail? Going forward in life, do you want to have a criminal record?
  • You are manipulated by others; others are using you;
  • America also has corruption and injustice;
  • Activists overseas are all controlled and financed by the US government and their job is to disrupt and sabotage China.

The list can go on depending on what occupies the security police at the moment.

Charter 08 and Liu Xiaobo.

Charter 08 and Liu Xiaobo.

Their ignorance nauseated quite a few of the people they tried to “educate” with the “right thoughts.” In one session, the security police looked blank when the interrogatee mentioned the names of Gandhi, Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, and were puzzled by his statement that “government should be locked up in a cage.” In another, the police appeared not to know what Twitter was and asked whether it was the website of the interrogatee.

Most of the security police tried their best to play nice at the beginning. But as the conversation went on and they became frustrated, they would often jump up, smacking the table or huffing at the interrogatee. In one case, several security policemen yelled at the interrogatee, sticking their fingers in his face, “Are you a Chinese or not?”

You are not a Chinese if you are not like them.

In another case, when the interrogatee argued it was his natural right to attend the River Crab Banquet (河蟹大宴), an event to be held in Shanghai by Ai Weiwei in 2010, the police blasted, “Don’t talk about natural rights with me! Here the Communist Party rules!”

At the end of the session, an interrogatee was asked to sign the transcript of the interrogation, authenticating it with his or her finger print.

The Search:

Without exception, the security police searched computers of the interrogatees.

They looked up search histories and browsing history, downloaded personal files and, in one case, two Japanese pornographic films, which made the interrogatee wonder what it was for: for the policeman himself or for his job?

In some cases, they rummaged through the books an interrogatee had around, questioning why he read certain titles. A policeman turned red when he discovered a book titled On American Democracy. “Where did you get this book?” It was available in bookstores everywhere.

They photocopied IDs and business cards. In a few cases, they took away the computers and didn’t return them until days later.

In one case, they demanded to see, and photocopied, the interrogatee’s bank deposit book.

They didn’t always give the interrogatee a list of the things they took away.

The Guarantee:

Without exception, they asked the interrogatee to sign a written document, toward the end of the session, guaranteeing he or she would not do certain things. There was always pain and shame on the part of the signees because they had done nothing wrong; but they knew they had to submit, or they would invite more trouble for themselves.

About the inevitability of submission, Wang Lijun (王立军), the former head of Public Security in Chongqing who recently sought asylum in the American Consulate in Chengdu, knows best. “If I am jailed, I will have to say whatever they ask me to say,” he was reported to have told the Americans.

In some cases, they asked the interrogatees to report their activities and whereabouts everyday.

Threats and Insinuations They Made

Needless to say, he cha is all about intimidation, direct and indirect:

  • What you have done would have landed you in jail in the past;
  • You haven’t broken the law, but you have gone astray, and you are moving toward committing crimes. We are helping you and you should know better;
  • If we want to, we can jail you this minute;
  • (to a young man who gets paid for his writings for overseas publications and sites) We will see that you receive not a penny!
  • (to a man who makes 8-9k a month) It would be a pity if you lose your job for doing what you did;
  • Where does your wife work? What’s her name?
  • Where do your parents live?
  • Who is your landlord? (More often than not, the security police came with this information already and, in more than one case, the landlords were so scared that they quickly drove the tenants away.)

He cha, it appeared, doesn’t involve beating or sustained verbal abuse. That’s because it is the “low end” of the government intimidation and persecution, and depending on how big a threat you are in their perception, things can become much worse. Gu Chuan, an activist and former editor-in-chief of a blog host, was he cha-ed twice, for signing a condolence letter for Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) in 2005 and for signing 08 Charter in 2009. And last year during the Jasmine paranoia, he was detained for 63 days and tortured badly.  

Responses of the Interrogatees

Some people dealt with their he cha sessions with composure and even playfulness, others left useful advice, such as “be firm and you have done nothing wrong.”

One of them, who was he cha-ed for signing an online appeal to eradicate prison bullying, felt deeply hurt and saddened: “How can they possibly visit me for this? How can they pressure a citizen for expressing himself out of conscience? How can they be so weak?”

One way or another, it is hard to exaggerate the kind of fear he cha can strike into ordinary people. It lays bare the fact that the state has every power over you, is prepared to use it in the most wanton way, while you have no power, no rights, and there is nothing you can do to protect yourself.

A man, who was taken to a police station and questioned about his blog and his signing an appeal against the detention of a Uighur scholar, wrote: “Nervousness aside, I was so frightened to see the two policemen. I kept thinking how will this develop, how should I answer their questions? When they asked about my family, I became more afraid. …

“…If I don’t yield, what will they do to me? Will they simply take me and jail me? Are they going to search my computer? Will they use the pornography in my computer against me?

“The interrogation is over for more than a day now,” he continued, “but I am still deeply upset. …What’s so disconcerting is not so much about the confession I wrote in the station, nor am I fearing for what they may do to me next. What bothers me is not the fear itself, but why I am so fearful. Why am I so fearful for something I believe I did right? Why am I so fearful for the videos and files saved in my computer? Why am I scared by the mere question ‘Do you pay attention to politics?’”

“Never before have I longed for freedom so badly as I do this moment—freedom from fear.”

Since I had the idea of writing a post about he cha a few of weeks ago, I have been paying attention to he cha-related tweets on Twitter. A young man reported being he cha-ed in Sichuan for attempting to travel to the Tibetan areas in northern Sichuan; another, a volunteer translator for a site that translates overseas articles, reported that his editor was he cha-ed for publishing “radical” translations; a man was he cha-ed for posts regarding the water contamination in Zhenjiang; Tibetan writer Woeser was summoned for the Nth time for her writings and tweets; an artist in Beijing was he cha-ed for staging a performance art show in support of the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng; a young mother was he cha-ed for being one of the organizers of the “Right for Fair Education” movement that seeks access to education for children of migrant workers.

The list can go on and on. I have learned for the first time how widespread he cha is and how much the state security police is watching. It seems that they are watching everywhere and everyone.

Just the other day, three Twitter friends had the following exchange:

A: There are far more ordinary netizens who have had he cha experience than we imagine. Sit at a table with a group of netizens you have never met before, you are bound to find someone who has been he cha-ed. There are all sorts of reasons for it, but none for breaking the law.

B: It’s good to he cha—it improves your sight.

C: The government creates its opponents through he cha.

All three of them have had he cha experience, perhaps more than once, and they know.

I, for one, am glad people shared their he cha experiences and made it public. When the security police, without exception, threaten, or coax you not to tell, you know you must tell, and to tell is the only weapon you’ve got.


32 responses to “Drinking Tea with the State Security Police”

  1. hooey_ru says:

    Actually not just the police does “hechaing”, e.g. tax authorities can also call people, even foreigners, to “drink tea” about their underpaid taxes. I was amused at how the foreigners admired the Chinese tax authorities who were supposedly so polite and nice as to offer you a cup of tea instead of summoning you for interrogation.

  2. Just a bit of off-topic trivia. The phrase ‘he cha’ originally came about from the Hong Kong Cantonese “tseng yum nai cha” (‘to be invited to have milked tea’) during the early 1970s when Hong Kong set up the Independent Commission for Anti-Corruption (ICAC), our anti-graft agency. In those days, the primary targets were policemen (local and expat), and it was the standard phrase used by everyone at the time for being hauled into the ICAC for questioning. At that time, nearly all new immigrants and illegal aliens from the mainland didn’t understand this phrase “tseng yum nai chai’ to mean interrogation, so we could assume that phrase was a Hong Kong ‘thing’ – until the Hong Kong cops-and-robbers movies brought it into wider currency into the mainland. If the Mandarin phrase ‘he cha’ did mean interrogation at any time before 1973, then I can presume it was being used principally in a facetious or ironic sort of way. Just my twopence of a trivia.

  3. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout…About TomAbout Yaxue CaoAbout CaseyComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China Movies中文 ← Drinking Tea with the State Security Police – Who is being questioned? […]

  4. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  5. sculptsone says:

    Thank you for posting this. I think it is very representative of what is happening in China, and people need to see this and realize that it is happening

  6. […] In two posts at Seeing Red in China, Yaxue Cao presents an overview of over 30 accounts of “tea drinking”—interviews, typically conducted by State Security police or ‘guobao’ 国保—from the Chinese-language site, He cha ji (Records of Drinking Tea). The first post explores the many reasons for which people may be invited to drink tea: […]

  7. […] 47, is one of those writer-scholars who have been invited to “drink tea” with the goons — an ominous euphemism in China for being summoned for questioning. It seems he had written last year that China, unless it made […]

  8. […] 47, is one of those writer-scholars who have been invited to “drink tea” with the goons — an ominous euphemism in China for being summoned for questioning. It seems he had written last year that China, unless it made […]

  9. Yaxue C. says:

    Listen to a Hecha song by a young man in Yunnan. His name is Lu Yipeng (陆一鹏): http://grooveshark.com/#!/s/-/4vtwcU?src=5

  10. […] Yunfei, 47, is one of those writer-scholars who has been invited to “drink tea” — an ominous euphemism in China for being summoned for questioning. It seems he had written last year that China, unless it made […]

  11. […] those who is deemed to be “harming the national security.” If you have read my recent post “Drinking Tea with the State Security Police”, you know how liberally that harm can be claimed. And this is not the only thing nauseating […]

  12. […] to “tea drinking”, which means an interrogation summoned by the state security police. Various acts of citizenship could trigger “tea drinking” – it could be writing a blog about freedom and democracy, […]

  13. […] in conversations about freedoms and rights. And he had been frequently summoned by police to “hecha”, or to be interrogated, warned and […]

  14. […] Nevertheless this is not the end.  Shanghai police went to her home to ask her to stop calling people to take the mass walk. Pan’s mother was scared and cried.  Pan had to give up for the sake of her mother. She handed in her communications appliances and had to cooperate with the police for 24 hours monitoring and a possible second time tea-drinking hell-chat. […]

  15. […] a lover of tea ceremony, though I cannot ascertain whether it alludes to police summons known as “he cha,” or “to have tea,” a common practice used by Chinese security police to warn and threat […]

  16. […] [“Drink tea” refers to police summons for interrogation, an extralegal practice used by Chinese security police to intimidate dissent and social activism. – the Editor] […]

  17. […] must be many who were informants, but did not tell me. The journalists were “invited to drink tea” [a euphemism for being summoned for questioning] and provide the police with information […]

  18. […] his signature to an online call of support for Ai Weiwei in 2011, he was taken away by police for an inquiry, in front of his colleagues at work. Zhen quit of his own accord “to protect the Red Cross from […]

  19. […] phrase “invited to tea” is internet slang in China for a visit from the state security […]

  20. […] phrase “invited to tea” is internet slang in China for a visit from the state security […]

  21. […] phrase “invited to tea” is internet slang in China for a visit from the state security […]

  22. […] phrase “invited to tea” is internet slang in China for a visit from the state security […]

  23. […] expression “invited to tea” is web vernacular in China for a check out from the state safety and security […]

  24. […] sentence “invited for tea” is internet language in China for a visit of the state security […]

  25. […] phrase “invited to tea” is internet slang in China for a visit from the state security […]

  26. […] term “invited to tea“Is internet slang in China for a visit by the state security […]

  27. […] phrase “invited to tea” is internet slang in China for a visit from the state security […]

  28. […] phrase “invited to tea” is internet slang in China for a visit from the state security […]

  29. […] phrase “invited to tea” is internet slang in China for a visit from the state security […]

  30. […] phrase “invited to tea” is internet slang in China for a visit from the state security […]

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