In the past couple of years, the government of the People’s Republic of China has emerged as an increasingly Black Mirror-like, autocratic Leviathan presiding over the second largest economic powerhouse in the world. When observed from afar, the integration of digital and real-life infrastructures for discipline and control—whether in the form of factory/detention complexes for the large-scale repression of Turkic minorities in the Xinjiang Region, or in the consolidation of the “Great Firewall” and the Social Credit system for the standardization of citizens’ behavior—convey the impression of a faceless authority acting on statistics and data.
But data and statistics refer to individuals and communities whose interactions with the powers that be are negotiated on simple, everyday grounds, such as a cup of tea.
Against this backdrop, the expression hecha (“drinking tea”), and especially its passive counterpart bei hecha (literally “being tea-ed” or “being tea-drink-ed”), has acquired an ominous political connotation. In Chinese netizens’ parlance, expressions like “having tea” or “being invited for tea” are now commonly used to imply being approached by state security police officers for a forced appointment and interrogation. On the scale of state-sanctioned interventions for the silencing of alternative voices and defusing of potential dissent—spanning from patronizing rebuke to intimidation, judicial mistreatment, public shaming and “black jails” abduction—hecha interrogations are relatively “entry-level” practices aimed at nipping grassroots political activism in the bud.
As the everydayness of the expression and custom of drinking tea suggests, this kind of state intervention in Chinese civil society foregrounds once more the Foucauldian “granularity” of state power, its “capillary form of existence, the point where it reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes.”
During my second long stay in Beijing between 2009 and 2011, as an MA student, I stumbled upon a Chinese website called hechaji.com. This blog collected cautionary tales of tea-drinking sessions between Chinese political activists and the State Security Police, blueprints to be used for reference by fellow activists facing similar situations. Most of these accounts translated into snappy commentary and satirical mockery the intrusions of state authority into daily life.
A couple of days ago I left a message on Ai Weiwei’s Douban page, asking him about the “River Crab Banquet” he was organizing in Hangzhou and those who were going to attend it. At the end of my message, I also included my QQ contact. Today around five in the afternoon, I received a phone call from a police officer. Right there and then, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill of excitement thinking at how thorough was the government’s interest in my online activities!
And but so there I was, twenty minutes later, at the police station, looking for this one officer Lin who was waiting for me in his office.
Not all of the accounts on hechaji.com are so lighthearted. Some delve deep into the humiliation of these exchanges—their arbitrariness, the lack of any juridical safeguard, the presumption of guilt and the carefully orchestrated little unpleasantries aimed at wearing down the victim’s will. If anything, the occasional lampoonery betrays and confirms two things: the traumatic effect of these experiences, which calls for the coping strategy of humor, and their apparent ordinariness, presenting them as nuisances on a par with, say, dealing with the landlord or a pesky neighbor. (Writer and film director Xu Xing described to me his interactions with the local authorities in this way—they are like abusive neighbors, who dissuade you by exhaustion and the disruption of your daily life.)
Hechaji.com is now defunct; it stopped working sometime in 2014. The problematic nature of the materials it gathered, together with the outspoken attitude of its owner (whom I tried to contact, but to no avail) most likely made the website an exemplary target for the Internet crackdown implemented by Xi Jinping soon after he took office. (Around that time, if I remember correctly, Facebook and Gmail started hiccupping at the authorities’ whim; now they are altogether blocked.) For a couple of years these accounts remained generally unavailable online, but the material posted on hechaji.com between 2010 and 2012 resurfaced in 2016 on the website hechaji.wordpress.com. Owned by Automattic, a private conglomerate based in San Francisco, WordPress is outside the Chinese censors’ reach, yet still accessible from mainland China users with a VPN.
The interrogations themselves, with or without actual tea, occur mostly in police stations or, in some cases, in one’s own home, where security police might show up unexpectedly and force their way in. They can last anywhere from an hour to (in extreme cases) two days, and are always handled by at least a couple of agents. From a legal point of view, the interrogations are unjustified and unjustifiable: their purpose is intimidation, and is predicated upon the elusive threat of “inciting subversion of state power”—a pliable legal lever in the hands of the state. These are often cases of “mo, xu you” (“if none [are found], some must be [fabricated]”) in which charges can and will be made up, when push comes to shove.
Altogether, these “tea-drinking chronicles”—this is the literal translation of hecha ji—punctuate the Chinese political landscape in the wake of Xi Jinping’s ascent to power, providing grassroots accounts of how particular issues were silenced and repressed as per the CCP’s official vulgata: Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the Charter 08 project; the Democracy Party of China; the 2011 Jasmine gatherings; Ai Weiwei’s “river crab banquets”; and all things related to the ever-looming three forbidden T’s—Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen.
As Perry Link and others have remarked, these interrogations are part of the “soft blanket” of what in mainland China is known as weiwen or “stability maintenance”—an array of measures implemented by the Chinese state aimed at policing everyday behavior, preventing the coalescing of organized antagonistic groups, and singling out “troublemakers.” Although weiwen’s declared long-term goal is that of constructing a harmonious society, it is no different in practice from the apparatuses of control of any other authoritarian regime—the Russian MBG/KGB and East German Stasi come to mind.
Documents such as these also shed light on weiwen’s preeminently “Chinese characteristics.” The gray zone in which state power presents itself as humane, but where the dehumanization of its subjects begins, is populated by a host of hybrid figures who do not uphold authority blindly, but rather titrate its dosage through the interstices of legislation.
As a concerned sinologist who has to negotiate his scholarly and professional interests in the shadow of such institutional backgrounds on a regular basis (whether by applying for a visa, or by having conference fees paid by a Confucius Institute), I have often reflected upon my allegiances—to my field, and to a language and culture I have spent a large part of adult life learning.
A detailed overview of the matter of such interrogations can be found in the useful compendium by Yaxue Cao on chinachange.org. For my part, one thing I can do is share the accounts of hechaji.com in translation.
 A multi-purpose social-media platform that allows registered users to record information and create content related to film, books, music, recent events, and activities in Chinese cities.
 Grassroots protest-like gatherings organized by Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei especially around 2010. River crabs, considered a local delicacy, were used for poking fun at the authorities, in that in Chinese the word for “river crab”, hexie, sounds very similar to that for “harmony”/“harmonizing”, i.e., a blanket word used by Chinese authorities to cover and justify all sorts of repressive activities aimed at curbing political unrest.
 QQ is an instant messaging software service developed by the Chinese tech giant Tencent, similar to WhatsApp.