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.
Over 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.