Two men greeted him at the police station as he was escorted in from the January cold. Peng Chengxian didn’t ask who they were. Each wore a light-colored jacket and carried a dark handbag.
They must be “Guo Bao,” Peng says he thought. That’s the name of China’s secret police in charge of keeping order among more than 1.3 billion people for the ruling Communist Party.
“You’ve been invited here for a chat,” one of the men, who looked about a decade older than the other, told Peng. “No need to be nervous.”
“I know,” Peng, 32, replied. “It’s a ‘tea chat,’ isn’t it?”
“You know quite a lot,” the officer said. “Have you ever been to one of those?”
Peng said he hadn’t. A small-time blogger who wrote about the rising home prices, forced evictions and corruption that have accompanied economic growth, he’d read about tea chats online. The term “he cha” in Chinese, literally meaning to drink tea, is a euphemism for the informal interrogation of citizens deemed to have stepped out of line.
“Indeed! You’ve read too many things on the Internet and been influenced too much,” the officer told him, Peng said later in an interview.
Ten minutes earlier, Peng had been at home, still wearing his pajamas. His wife, Gu Qianyi, laundered clothes while his mother-in-law doted on their 8-month-old son Taotao.
A knock at the front door at about 11:30 a.m. jolted them from their Sunday morning. The moment two policemen stepped inside their home, Taotao’s grandma carried him into a bedroom and shut the door. Peng’s wife says she panicked. She grabbed his smartphone and turned on its voice recorder. Slipping it into his pocket, she nervously whispered for him to be careful.
Gu, 27, fretted about the family’s future as police drove her husband away.
Peng too was nervous, unsure what would happen to him. He knew people could vanish for months or be beaten after an unexpected brush with the law. He kept the recorder switched on until he was sure the car didn’t leave his neighborhood in the suburb of Tianjin, about 114 kilometers (71 miles) southeast of Beijing.
When the car stopped at his local police station, he calmed himself, realizing it was probably nothing more serious than a tea chat about his blogs, he said in a series of interviews.
Flower for Norway
Accounts of such conversations have proliferated online, written by ordinary people like Peng, including high school students and office workers. They describe how police use the talks to try to suppress activities that are considered a threat to stability. One woman was interrogated after presenting a flower to the Norwegian pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo to thank the country after the Oslo-based Nobel Peace Prize committee honored Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Through this process, the writers are demystifying one of the government’s means of social control. Some joke they’re members of China’s “tea party.” There is even an online guide by an activist about how to behave in a tea chat, with tips including: don’t get angry, never show fear and avoid insulting the interrogators.
A press officer from the Public Security Bureau in the Tianjin district where Peng lives said it had no comment in response to faxed questions from Bloomberg.
Peng started blogging almost four years earlier, in early 2009. He wanted to highlight problems in society so that life may get better for ordinary people like him. He’s an example of Chinese citizens whose actions, no matter how small, reflect a growing willingness to challenge authority as the country’s rapid development reshapes their lives.
His first post assailed rising home prices fueled by China’s 4-trillion-yuan ($650 billion) economic stimulus.
Barely anyone read it. Nobody cared to leave a comment.
Peng named his musings “The Silent Majority,” after a collection of essays by Wang Xiaobo, a best-selling author compared by critics to Franz Kafka. Peng bought a bootlegged copy full of typos when he was 17 and said the satirical writings stirred a sense of independence into his mind.
Most nights he spent hours glued to a bulky Samsung monitor with yellow sticky notes listing user names and passwords for various shopping websites visited by Gu. Occasionally, she forwarded his blogs around.
He wrote about issues of the day: toxic food, local corruption and the consequences of China’s one-child policy. Along the way, Peng’s blog was removed from the Web four times. He always put it back up. The latest incarnation has a picture of him seated on moss-covered rocks with the caption: “Citizen Peng Chengxian.”
“Peng is not at all radical, yet dares to speak out,” says Zhao Wei, a friend who also blogs. “And he dares to speak under his real name. I envy him for that.”
By the time police called him in, “The Silent Majority” had more than 1,000 followers on Sina.com (SINA), one of China’s most popular websites. That’s small compared with China’s best-known bloggers such as the writer and race car driver Han Han, who has more than 1 million readers.
Even though it’s known as a tea chat, no one offered Peng tea at the police station. Instead, a uniformed officer poured hot water from a thermos into disposable cups.
The conversation started with the officers asking what Peng thought about China.
“Nobody can deny the achievements of this country over the past 30 years,” Peng said he told the police. “But there are some serious problems: Corruption, forced evictions, high home prices and medical costs. The government should respect people’s right to speak.”
Next they asked questions about his childhood. Peng grew up in a mountain village in central China that had no electricity until 1996, and no paved road until 2000. His ethnic Tujia parents, from one of China’s 55 officially recognized minorities, are farmers. They pulled Peng’s older brother out of school so they could afford for him, a brighter student, to continue.
After graduating, he rejected an office job with a state-owned company to avoid getting stuck in a career as a bureaucrat in his hometown. Instead, he became an assembly line worker at Siemens AG in a nearby city. He taught himself English and followed when the factory moved to Tianjin. There he was promoted to lead a team translating design graphics.
The police already knew a lot about Peng: That Munich-based Siemens twice sent him to Germany for training, and that Tianjin officials last year gave him an urban Hukou, a much-coveted residency permit that gives migrant workers access to better schools and hospitals. Siemens recommended him for the honor because of his good performance, according to Peng.
Then they brought his family into the equation, asking: “What does your wife think?”
Peng married Gu, a colleague, in 2010. She had been attracted to the sorrow in his voice years earlier as he sang Taiwanese pop songs on the factory floor. They borrowed 170,000 yuan as down payment for a three-bedroom apartment, decorating a living room wall with dinosaur pictures for their son.
“Like all wives in Tianjin, she wants her husband to stay out of trouble,” he says he replied.
After more than an hour of questioning, Peng said he couldn’t take any more and asked why he was there.
The police expressed surprise he didn’t know, Peng said. They told him it was a blog he’d written six days earlier about journalists protesting against censorship at Southern Weekend, a newspaper based in Guangzhou well known for its liberal stance. The dispute erupted into a national outcry over curbs on press freedom. Lee Kai-Fu, the former China head of Google Inc., flagged the incident to 32 million followers of his micro-blog. Days later, he posted a picture of a Chinese tea set, commenting on the nasty taste it left in his mouth.
Peng signed a public letter of support for the workers and urged his readers to do so as well.
The younger of the plain-clothed officers asked Peng whether he realized the petition was being manipulated by anti-China forces in the West, according to Peng.
“I’m just an ordinary citizen; how am I supposed to know,” Peng said he replied. He said he just wanted to speak his mind peacefully.
“You can do that alone,” he said he was told. “It’s dangerous when people express themselves together. It’s not allowed.”
Peng would be safer if he rang the police before joining any petition in future, he said he was told.
As the conversation wore on, Peng’s wife began ringing his mobile phone. Gu said she deliberately shrieked into the phone on her third call so that the police could hear her.
“Your child is sick, you should come home! You didn’t rob or steal anything. You’ve done nothing wrong. Why is it taking forever?!” she shouted.
The police smiled and said they would let him go home.
“Listen to your wife,” the older officer told him. “Lead a normal life.”
He interpreted the comment as a veiled threat or warning, one of several made throughout the three-hour meeting, he said later. For most of the conversation, he consciously kept cool to avoid antagonizing his inquisitors and prolonging the experience. Besides, he figured the tea chat wasn’t just for his benefit.
“Such tactics are meant as a display for your family, so they put pressure on you to stop,” he said.
By the time he got home, Gu had changed the password, which included the name of one of Peng’s old girlfriends, to his blog account.
“I was angry. I didn’t want him to write anymore,” she said in a March interview at home, sitting beside Peng in bamboo chairs on their balcony in the afternoon sunshine.
Peng begged her repeatedly for the new password, she said. She resisted, telling him that she wouldn’t be able to support the family if she were left on her own; that their son may have trouble getting into a school.
When he stopped asking her, the silence puzzled her. She knew how important blogging was to him.
Logging on a few days later, she says she was maddened by what she saw.
Peng had a new blog entry. It was about the tea chat.
“My biggest obstacle isn’t the pressure from the tea chat,” he wrote, “but the difficulty is to convince my family that the regime isn’t as inhumane as it used to be” when coming down on people who speak out.
Letter to Wife
Peng had regained access to the account by using the forgotten password function to reset it after answering a pre-set security question: What is the name of your primary school?
Gu knew the answer to that question too and used it to log into Peng’s blog again. This time she changed the password and the security question too so that Peng was completely locked out.
Several days and several fights later, an e-mail from Peng arrived in Gu’s in-box at work. She adjusted the browser to the smallest size readable so nobody could see what she was reading.
In it, Peng promised he wouldn’t jeopardize the family by participating in any protest in person. He explained why he blogged: so that Taotao may eventually live freely in peace and stability. He argued that while many officials had made plans to leave China as they foresaw possible social turmoil, Peng and Gu didn’t have that option.
“We can’t afford to escape. All I can do is to try to prevent such tragedies,” he wrote. There were already rising street protests involving thousands of people, Peng added.
Tears filled Gu’s eyes.
“I was so touched,” she said. Later that day, she handed the new password to Peng.
In the e-mail, Peng made an additional promise to his wife. She could read every blog before he posted it.
He’s written more than a dozen entries since then. Gu didn’t preview any of them, trusting her husband’s promises.
“Tea chats are enough,” said Gu. “Just don’t let them invite you to dinner.”