Tea-drinking culture has a very long tradition in China. It is a form of art, a necessary component in social gatherings. However, since around 2007, Chinese netizens have started using the term “tea talk” or “forced to drink tea” (被喝茶) to describe interrogations by the internal security police. These tea talks with police have become so common that Chinese netizens, in particular those who are active and influential, regard it as part of everyday life.
A person can be summoned for a tea talk for different reasons. Online opinion leaders, people who write about or host online platforms for political dissent, those who share sensitive information from unofficial channels, and signatories of online petitions are all frequently “forced to drink tea” with police. Opinion leaders are invited for tea on a regular basis, so that police may make sure that they are behaving “responsibly” in their role as opinion leaders.
Police typically arrange tea talks by calling the person in question or by arranging a meeting through his or her place of work, known as a “work unit” (單位）in China. For example, a university student's work unit will likely be the university's Chinese Communist Party Branch.
Police may use tea talks to identify information sources, intimidate the netizens, or even to “aid” the investigation of a “potential” (i.e. future) crime.
Identifying Information Sources
When meeting for tea, internal security police will ask netizens to identify the sources of political information or ideas that they spread. If they fail to cooperate with the police and do not identify these information sources, they may be subject to prosecution and charged with “spreading rumors” or “causing public disorder”. In some cases, police offer material or financial incentives to netizens in exchange for them working as police informants.
Tea sessions can also serve as a warning sign, indicating to netizens that they are on a watch list and that they have to be careful about what they say online.
In early 2013, a controversy between editors and government censors at the influential Southern Weekly newspaper led many online opinion leaders, including Google's former CEO Li Kaifu, popular Taiwanese actress Annie Yi Nengjing, and real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang to express their support for the newspaper's editorial autonomy.
All three were all called for a “tea chat” with police, after which Kai-fu Lee said [zh] in his micro-blog: “The tea was really bitter” and “from now on, I can only talk about the East, the West and the North; I can only talk about Week day,” in a tacit reference to the Southern Weekly.
Annie Yi Nengjing refused to cooperate. Her contract with Dragon TV network, where she starred on the program “China's Got Talent,” has since been terminated.
Investigating a “potential” crime
Police will interrogate a netizen either as a witness to a crime, or even as a suspect. Everything the netizen says is put on record.
Police summoned netizen @borderline_citizen_weibo (＠邊民微博）for a tea talk [zh] in September 2012 after he commented on the 2011 Mekong River massacre, in which the crew members of two Chinese cargo ships traveling along the river were killed by unidentified attackers. Based on the initial testimonies of major suspects and his own information sources, the microblogger wrote online that he believed that the principal suspect, Burmese drug lord Naw Kham, had made secret agreements with Chinese military and public security personnel in the past.
During the interrogation, the police asked @borderline_citizen_weibo to identify his information sources or to face charges of “creating public disorder”.
Strategies for Tea Talks
To help others prepare for a potential tea talk with police, online opinion leader Wu Gan（＠超級低俗屠夫）shared [zh] some “tea talk” tips with other netizens. Below is a summary of his advice:
1. Don't be afraid and don't be angry.
2. Only talk about yourself. Try your best not to provide information about others.
3. Tell the police that you believe in what you have done and that you are prepared to face the consequences.
4. Don't take their questions personally.
5. Don't humiliate or criticize them during or after the tea talk.
6. Don't trust them and don't assume that you'll be able to persuade them to take your side.
7. If you don't want to engage with them, you may consider signing the guarantee document. [This document certifies a citizen's promise to follow police instructions, which might stipulate that they may not blog about certain topics or discuss politics online. This document is not legally binding, so you do not have to abide by what you have signed.]
8. If you want to minimize risk, avoid getting involved in local incidents. Pay attention to other provinces as you are outside their jurisdiction. [Internal security police usually operate at the provincial level. The standard procedure for carrying out cross-border operations has to go through the local police unit, which requires a lot of paper work.]
9. They may try to put pressure on your friends, family, or employer. Try to tell your social circle about it and get their support for your cause.