Translation and commentary by Peng X
In this unusual transcript of a recent encounter between feminist activists and police in a southern Chinese city, we witness the state’s repressive tactics in operation alongside the humour and defiance of those questioned. This interview provides more background to the events examined in our article, “We should all be feminists?” The harassment of feminists analysed there as part of the Chinese state’s strategy of repression and recuperation is here seen in finer detail, as Public Security officers try to interrogate and force activists to leave Guangzhou. In an afterword to the interview we examine a few points raised in this dialogue.
This interview was first posted on Xiao Meili’s Sina Weibo feed, where it was swiftly removed by authorities, and then reposted on various websites such as here. Xiao introduces the interview’s context below, and her narration of the scene is italicised throughout. The speakers in the dialogue are feminist activists Xiao Meili and Zhang Leilei (ZL) and Public Security officers “Wang” (W), “Xiao Shenyang” (XSY) and “Shen” (S).
On June 22nd, 2017 the police again tried to contact us via third parties, by harassing our three friends, Da Tu, Guo Jing and Xiongzai, and intimidating their landlord into threatening to kick them out of their flat.
On the morning of June 27th, in another act of harassment, a number of police in a large truck again went to our friend’s flat, bringing the landlord with them. There were no formalities, and again the police tried to intimidate our friends and the stability of their housing.
The Domestic Security officers have told our friends that they are undertaking this campaign of harassment and intimidation in order to pressure Zhang Leilei and me to move out and leave Guangzhou. This is the fourth time they have tracked us down and attempted to force us to leave the city.
The last time I was made to ‘drink tea’ [i.e. be interrogated] (May 17th) I recorded some of the interview. I am sharing this now for two reasons: 1) the police have always been very closed and secretive with their words, deeds and identities, so this text can help us to understand something more about the police, and 2) the dialogue is interesting and funny too.
On May 17th, the police arrive at our front door. They are not in uniform; they bang on the door and repeatedly yell questions through the grille, waving documents around. There is little light so we can’t see any information. Eventually they take us to a nearby police kiosk (警务室) to ‘drink tea’. Of the four police who come that day, one calls himself Shen, a second is reluctant to disclose his name but looks like the comedian Xiao Shenyang, the third insists his name is Wang and is over 30, while the last never speaks and has a fat face covered in acne.
As the interview goes on, they reveal very little about their own circumstances, but constantly show that they know about our friends, our families and our situation. We know they want to use this information to intimidate and oppress us, and to make us feel guilty.
So I try to refuse the unilateral nature of the interrogation and instead ask them questions, turning the interrogation around. I also sometimes don’t listen to them, instead asking them questions related to their own lives, to remind them not to forget themselves or that we too are living human beings.
- Who are you?
Xiao Meili (Me): Are you actually from the police station?
Wang (W): We’re Public Security, from the Ministry of Public Security.
Me: What’s the difference between the police station and the Ministry of Public Security?
W: They’re the same, there’s no difference.
Me: You don’t have to wear police uniforms?
W: We can wear uniforms.
Me: But you don’t have to wear uniforms?
W: We want to decrease the distance between us, so we decided to dress the same as you, alright?
Me: They don’t deduct your wages if you don’t wear uniforms?
W: The counter and service police have to wear them; they’re our colleagues too. We’re the same.
Me: So, how am I supposed to know you’re police?
W: Well, didn’t I just show you my badge? And we’ve come to a police kiosk, where nearly everyone is Public Security. How would people who aren’t police be able to use this kiosk?
How smart—just like this they can hide their identity. I’m slow to respond. They’ve been running us around in circles. Of course they’re from Domestic Security, right? They’re just ashamed to admit it. […] I’ve heard that the police tend to look down upon Domestic Security officers.
Me: What’s your name?
Wang (W): I’m Mr. Wang. You can call me Officer Wang.
Me: Officer Wang, you’re Wang … who?
W: Umm, just call me Officer Wang, Officer Wang is fine.
Me: But you know our full names. What about yours?
W: Oh, well you’re famous, you’re public figures. We’re just little people, we’re at the bottom.
Me: But you’re the police, surely you can tell us your names!
W: We didn’t want you to be nervous… so we wore casual clothes. (This has nothing to do with the question.)
Me: Well, I’d actually be more relaxed if you wore a uniform.
W: Really? Why do you say that?
Me: I wouldn’t want anyone to think the mafia had kidnapped me.
Then I turn to Officer Shen.
Me: What’s your name?
Shen (S): I’m Mr. Shen.
Me: Shen who? You know my name is Xiao Yue, so what’s your name?
S: Shen… Shen… Shen Ming.
Me: Shen Ming? Which “Ming”?
S: “Ming” as in mingtian (tomorrow).
The conversation turns to sending us back to our hometowns.
S: We can take you back to Chengdu.
Me: You’ll take me [to my hometown]? If my mother thought I brought this boyfriend back with me she’d be scared to death!
S: Scared to death, always a bit too old… (What does this have to do with anything?)
Me: Are you married? Do you have a child?
Me: How old are you? You’d be about as old as my dad, right?
S: I’m 50.
Me: Yeah, you’re about as old as my dad. Officer Wang, how old are you?
S: He’s also married.
Xiao Shenyang (XSY): [pointing to the other Domestic Security officer who hasn’t said anything yet] He isn’t married. He’s about the same age as you.
W: You can take him back [to Chengdu] with you.
S: (Tries to change the subject again…)
Me: How old is your kid?
S: Already grown up.
Me: Older than me?
S: About your age.
Me: Boy or girl?
Me: Where does he work?
S: Same as me.
Me: He’s also Public Security?
Zhang Leilei (ZL): (Points at the millennial) It’s not him, is it?
(The officers laugh awkwardly)
Me: (I turn to ask Xiao Shenyang) What’s your name?
XSY: Have a guess.
Me: Me, guess?!
XSY: Zheng Churan didn’t tell you?
Me: Nope, she didn’t.
S: Well, we’re all Zheng Churan’s friends, we’re really tight.
(Datu, someone says you’re friends?)
XSY: When she went to Beijing, I was the one who picked her up and took her home.
They’re referring to the Feminist Five Incident: On Friday March 7, 2015 in three different cities, police broke into the homes of five feminists who planned to distribute stickers about sexual harassment on mass transit. It was the morning of the planned event. They were detained in Beijing for 37 days. Feminists from all over the world sent solidarity messages. In the end, they were released without charges.
XSY: When she was sent to Beijing, I took her. When she saw me, she burst into tears and held on to me tight. She was really shivering.
Me: Were you happy about that?
XSY: Me? She was happy…
Me: Did it [make you] feel good (爽)?
XSY: You think I look like someone who would do something bad to her?
Me: Awkward, hahaha (Indeed, how sleazy)
XSY: Was I happy? I guess you could say that.
We chat for a while…
Me: You look a bit like [the comedian] Xiao Shenyang [小沈阳]. (This officer really, really looks like Xiao Shenyang)
XSY: Ha, you only just noticed?
Me: Other people say that too?
XSY: My name is Shen Dayang [沈大阳——only the middle character is different].
Me: I don’t believe it.
XSY: I’m serious!
Me: (Pointing to Officer Shen) So you really are his son?
XSY: No, his surname is Shen as in Shenyang. My name is Shen Dayang.
(… He thought these were two different characters [but they actually had the same surname—probably pseudonyms])
- Why don’t you just arrest us?
After these initial attempts at niceties, these people who claim to be police officers begin to threaten us.
The following dialogue gets repetitive, and is interspersed with my own reflections. Several paragraphs consist of repeated, focused threats.
S: Now look, if you two had done these things in Beijing we would have already…
XSY: You both know, it’s not like you don’t know that if you were in Beijing… Those five girls (姑娘)… What you’re doing isn’t fundamentally different from what they did.
S: What you’re doing is even bigger. If you were in Beijing you’d be in the same situation as them.
XSY: They hadn’t even done [what they planned to do]… (So you also know they didn’t actually do anything) Have you considered this? There’s no essential difference between what you’re doing now and what they planned to do.
Me: If that’s the way you see it, then why haven’t you arrested us?
S: We want to talk with you first.
XSY: We could solve this problem right here and now. We’d prefer not to use the other method to solve it. That way of solving things isn’t without its problems. This solution, for you and for us isn’t without its shortcomings either, but the other solution is also a problem – either way will be problematic. But, don’t you think this way — sitting and talking — is better? Do you still want us to use that other way to solve it?
Blablabla… Didn’t you detain the Feminist Five without just cause and torture them for over a month without finding evidence of anything illegal? For that you received international criticism, making yourselves look bad. Yet you speak as if we benefitted from this somehow.
After talking for a while longer, the threatening approach starts again.
S: (Pointing to ZL) You shouldn’t be leaving mainland China (出境) so often.
XSY: Everyday you’re interacting with people (互动) [online].
Me: You may be the only ones paying any attention. [Those posts] haven’t been getting many hits. Each Weibo post gets only a few dozen hits. You’re the most enthusiastic [readers].
XSY: What’s the difference between this and what they planned to do in Beijing on Women’s Day? And you actually went through with it.
Me: What are you doing here, saying this stuff over and over again? If we’ve broken the law, then just arrest us. You can take us [to the station] and then bring us back home.
XSY: Then your haloes would glow again (你的光环就又光辉了)! (In his eyes everyone’s motivation is either fame or personal benefit.)
Me: We don’t have haloes.
S: If that’s what you need, we can take care of it [i.e. arrest you].
XSY: This conversation isn’t going anywhere.
ZL: That’s just her personality—explosive. (ZL giving the cops a way to save face.)
- Can you help us fight against sexual harassment?
The officers ask us to end the billboard activity against sexual harassment, and ZL asks if they could help us to do that.
ZL: We organized that activity because we raised forty thousand yuan and can’t use it. If you would help us to use that money, we wouldn’t have to do this.
ZL is referring to March 2016, when the feminist group we belong to launched a fundraiser for a placard about sexual harassment on the metro. We raised 40,000 yuan to pay for the placard to be displayed in the Kecun metro station [in Guangzhou] for one month. Four draft designs were produced, but in the end we were informed that only the state could initiate public service announcements and that we had to find a state agency [to initiate this campaign]. We approached a number of agencies, including the Women’s Federation, but none were willing to help. We couldn’t think of any other option, until it occurred to us that we could use our own bodies as billboards, carrying the placards around with us in our lives.
W: You could just return the money [to the people who donated].
Me: No we can’t.
ZL: So many people donated!
Me: Could the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) help us put the money towards an ad?
W: To place an ad? Or help you return the money?
Me: Placing the ad would be the way to use the money.
W: But it costs money for the MPS to place ads, too.
Me: We would pay for it with the 40,000 yuan.
W: You mean you want us to deal with the 40,000 yuan? We can help you think of something to do with it.
This sort of pointless conversation continues for a while…
W: (Finally understanding that we want them to place an ad about sexual harassment) Oh, you mean place an ad! No, we couldn’t do that. That would require money.
Pointless conversation resumes…
W: I think you ought to communicate with the Women’s Federation about the women-related part.
Me: We’ve already contacted the Women’s Federation. We called them directly.
W: It’s like with our information desk, people are always calling but the lines are always busy, no one can get through.
Me: D you know anyone there? This is related to your Public Security work, right?
W: Well… you mean… do they have a relationship with us? What do women’s issues have to do with us? We aren’t the Women’s Federation, that’s a specialized agency.
Me: Women are people, and you’re supposed to take care of people’s safety, right? So doesn’t this also have to be part of your work?
W: We generally do criminal cases…
ZL: I also want to solve this matter, and you can help us!
S: You can give the money to the Women’s Federation if you want to. The Women’s Federation also defends women’s rights—actually, the same as you! The problem is just that it’s not appropriate for you to be the agent (主体) in doing this sort of thing.
ZL: How about you help introduce us to someone at the Women’s Federation, we don’t know anyone there.
S: Or you could go talk to those registered NGOs. They’re legal and registered. There are lots of them in Guangzhou… Give the money to some poor children… Just adapt a little.
Me: Just tell us what we’re allowed to do and we’ll go spend the money on that.
S: Why are you asking us when it comes to what you’re most familiar with?
Me: We just don’t know [what to do]. We chose this project because we thought there was nothing wrong with it.
S: Some things are different when done by different people. It’s important who this agent is (主体身份). (What matters isn’t what you do but who you are)
XSY: It isn’t easy to initiate cooperation with government agencies. Personal activities may be free, but when it comes to a person’s status as a legal entity, on the other hand… (one isn’t free)
W: As long as it’s managed according to the regulations, it should be fine.
S: If you’re going to have an activity, you should go to the Civil Affairs Bureau and register it.
If ordinary public-minded citizens aren’t allowed to do [this sort of thing], then it must be even harder for legal agencies that are controlled more tightly.…
- We agree to move house and discontinue the activity. Can we stay in Guangzhou?
It’s in Domestic Security’s interest to help us plan our life. They’ve decided to make us move from Guangzhou. In their view:
- We’re going to move anyway, so as long as it’s out of their jurisdiction, it makes no difference where we move.
- Unlike them, we don’t to go to work every day, so it makes no difference where we move – provided it’s out of their jurisdiction.
- Foshan is wonderful, nearby and practically the same as Guangzhou. In fact, it’s better than Guangzhou! But they wouldn’t move there themselves.
XSY: When your rent is up, you’ll move as far away as possible from Guangzhou and in the second half of the year you’ll avoid activities in Guangzhou.
S: You have to move now anyway…
XSY: You’re taking the IELTS exam, I think you shouldn’t delay that. If you really want to come to Guangzhou, we can meet up and have a chat, even get something to eat, eat shui zhu yu [a Sichuanese dish—since Xiao is from Sichuan] or something. We can chat and everyone can fill their bellies. (Since the money is coming from taxpayers in any case, right?) We’ll get together and chat about how to resolve issues.
S: Your lease is till the end of May. Try and find a place to live in Foshan, ok, or in Zhongshan, or Shenzhen.
ZL: So we can’t stay in Guangzhou even if we discontinue the activity?
S: No, not for the time being. The second half of the year we really have… there are some major political events (政治任务比较重), and Foshan also has a metro anyway. Qiandeng Lake is nearby.
XSY: It’s not like you have to go to work [in Guangzhou].
S: You can go to the lake and rent is cheap.
Me: Then why don’t you live there?
XSY: We have to go to work every day.
S: You haven’t been to Qiandeng Lake? The environment is great!
Me: We really don’t want to move.
S: We’ll help you to find a place and pay the first month’s rent.
Me: Including the real estate agency fee?
ZL: Why don’t you just keep an eye on us [here]? We won’t cause any trouble.
XSY: Every person is a free individual. (Chilling)
S: If we had any authority, then you could stay in Guangzhou, but the thing is we don’t really have that authority. We can only convey information. I’m not afraid to tell you, everyone knows that fame has its price. You’re too well known.
XSY: Both well-known and high profile.
ZL: C’mon, I’m not that well known.
They repeat their two requests again and again
S: So then, two things, alright: in a few days you’ll go over Qiandeng Lake way.
Me: We’ll look around for a place to move.
ZL: Maybe we’ll move into a village, like Xiaozhou.
S: Not Xiaozhou Village! That’s the last place you should go.
XSY: You absolutely should not go to Xiaozhou Village.
Me: Why not?
S: Xiaozhou Village is full of well-known people.
XSY: Even more famous than you.
S: If you went there it would be even harder for you to get away. Those people are all extremely well known, all clumped together there.
Me: So how come you didn’t ask them to go to Qiandeng Lake?
S: All the people have to go, a bunch have to go. Because the Guangzhou Fortune Forum is on in the second half of the year. Like the G20 in Hangzhou, the same.
XSY: We all know that this is a lot to ask of you.
ZL: When does this [sensitive] period end?
S: End? Next year.
XSY: Next year, maybe next year, really we have to understand each other. (Meaning: ‘you’ have to listen).
ZL: Half a year, huh? What am I going to do in Foshan for half a year?
S: Qiandeng Lake is very close, I’ll drive you there right now to show you how nice it is. (You have a car?)
Me: Ok, ok, ok, we’ll think about it.
S: This issue of yours, now the whole country is following you. Really, now the Ministry of Public Security is making an enormous deal out of this.
Me: What is the MPS saying?
W: They say your public image is excellent (形象很好).
Me: Really? What else do they say?
W: That the MPS is happy.
Me: Really, so happy that they sent you to make us move away?
W: Isn’t your lease about to end anyway? We’re not making you move away!
Me: Didn’t you just say we have to leave Guangzhou?
W: You’re going to have to look for a new place anyway.
Me: The landlord said we can stay.
W: Then stay.
Me: Then why did you tell us to move away?
W: We didn’t tell you to move away, your lease is expiring.
Me: Then what was the point of coming here today?
W: Stay here if you want, by all means, stay!
Later, our poor landlord said the police approached him, and that after all he can’t continue to rent to us. If he put the flat up for rent to other people, there would still be trouble for him, so he even thought about leaving the flat empty.
Then, in June, they applied pressure to our friends by harassing their landlord. Our friends came to be considered complicit because of us. In the end, they didn’t have to move, but they say that we do.
- Can we say (to the public) that you’re telling us to move and forbidding us from continuing activities?
W: You can say on Weibo that you couldn’t do this project and that you instead you’re doing something else.
ZL: Can I say that it’s you who won’t let us do it?
S: Fine, no problem. As long as you don’t put my handsome face on the Internet, then that’s fine.
S: When you move you should also say that on Weibo. Say ‘we’ve moved away from Guangzhou.’ Make sure and say that on Weibo. We want the leaders to know.
ZL: OK, I’ll send it right to you.
S: You should announce, ‘Today we were forced to move again (又给逼迁了). Forced to leave Guangzhou.’ Write that on Weibo.
ZL: That I can do, no problem.
S: But on the Internet, don’t mention the police. Be a little vague about it.
ZL: Didn’t you just say that I could say that?
S: Just say that someone came and harassed (骚扰) you. Don’t mention the police, be vague about it, don’t put every detail in there. Just say someone forced you to leave Guangzhou, but don’t say it was the police.
Me: Who else would it be then? The mafia?
S: Just be vague about it. Leave some room for the imagination, hehehehe.
Last time we cooperated, ceasing our activities and moving house. We didn’t post any photos, leaving everyone “room for the imagination.” These people who claim to be police are not to be trusted.
W: End that nationwide activity of yours and donate that money.
S: You actually did a good job making this this placard. I like it, to tell the truth.
ZL: I’ll give you a T-shirt.
S: If you write ‘feminist’ on it I wouldn’t dare to wear it, being a man. But if you write something about sexual harassment (咸猪手) I’ll wear it.
XSY: On your T-shirt you write ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ (shaking his head)…. In what respect do you think women’s rights are lacking in China?
Afterword by Peng X
Two significant political events are flagged in the interview as a part of the reason why the feminist activists must leave Guangzhou, and why these officers have been tasked with ensuring that they do. The Forbes Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou is to be held on December 6 to 8, and the 19th Party Congress is scheduled in Beijing for some time in the second half of the year. As with all large political and economic events in China, these events cast a shadow over dissident political activity. There is a heightened degree of sensitivity and security in the lead up to and during these periods. This is part of the absurd context (or perhaps pretext) for requiring the activists to leave Guangzhou.
As the police emphasise how threatening feminist organising is, it also emerges that it is not only feminist activists that the police have in their sights but also artists and neighbourhoods where subversive activities, likely to be organised outside of official channels, might take shape. What other attempts to erase, disrupt and reshape major cities might be happening under the pretext of performing business as usual?
Throughout the interview various departments of the Chinese police are referred to, and indeed there is confusion throughout as to which department the officers involved belong to. Policing and law enforcement in China is composed of various ministries, departments and sub-departments. Policing is organised primarily through the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The MPS covers domestic policing activities, including internal political security, and is composed of numerous sub-departments. Given the comments in the interview and the secrecy of the police in their answers, it seems that these officers belong to the Domestic Security Department (DSD), a department of the MPS tasked with domestic political issues—albeit at a low-ranking level. While it is commonly thought that in authoritarian states policing is monolithic, well integrated and efficient, the interview above challenges some of these assumptions.
China is often characterised as an authoritarian state, in near total control of the population. Central to the image of the authoritarian state is an idea of the police as a powerful, largely all-knowing, and well-organised institution. Coupled with this, and as Xiao says in her introduction to the interview, the police are often secretive about their identities, departments and activities. This secrecy is a form of intimidation and power in itself. It is definitely clear that the police know quite a lot about Xiao and Zhang, as well as about their friends, such as where they live, what they do and what their plans are, as illustrated by their awareness that one of the women is studying for the IELTS exam. The practical operations of the police upon those they target, involving both this knowledge and secrecy, and its potential to demobilise struggle, is not insignificant.
However, and without wanting to underestimate the challenges and threats that those involved in social struggle in China face, it is also telling that there are various weaknesses in the internal functioning of the state and its police wings. We catch glimpses of these in this interview. Rather than a monolithic and efficient machine, there are dysfunctional relations between police departments expressed here. This is evident in the lack of continuity and discipline between different levels of the police. For example, Xiao points out that this particular branch is looked down upon by other departments. The officers even mention their own lack of power. Their lack of power is evident within the police institutions (they are “just a mouthpiece”), they get ‘done over’ and so on. It is also evident in their capacity to control those they are targeting, such that the police are pleading with them to leave, and complaining that when they get an assignment like this, it often results in failure and thus their own punishment. The reality of failure here is significant in that it exposes the real limitations and scope of power at the disposal of individual officers, their offices, and even entire departments. The comments in this interview expose a part of this failure as well as the internal contradictions within the police institutions, most evident in the inability to force the outcome they are looking for.
We also see a common tendency — a regional, “not in my back yard“ dynamic. Labour NGOs and other activists (like the Wickedonna bloggers), become familiar with the experience of moving shop from one municipality to the next, where they become the problem of another administrative region of the security state. This does not give them immunity from national-level monitoring or targeting, of course. But it does further demonstrate that that the state is not monolithic and that, instead, each state agency has a definite scope and capacity, which means it also has limits, overlaps, and gaps in power.
The (outside) image of the feminists and other activists is also important. They are “famous”, inside and outside of China. People are often warned not to give interviews to foreign media or have any relationship to “outside forces”. This does not, however, stop them from publicising their campaigns in and outside of the county, sharing their personal experiences, or receiving foreign attention whether sought or unsought. The effects of outside actions, like international solidarity campaigns, for example, can have both positive and negative effects on those involved. It is arguable that there have been cases, where prisoners have received better treatment, or even an early release in the context of external pressure and solidarity. We see time and again that local authorities are worried and affected by the image that repression creates. Some are not afraid of causing a ruckus, while others are afraid of the fallout.
 The title is a double play on words. First, ‘being invited to drink tea’ (被请喝茶) colloquially refers to interrogation by police or other agents of the party-state. Second, the Domestic Security Department (国内安全保卫局 or simply 国保) of the Ministry of Public Security sounds the same as ‘national treasure’ guobao (国宝). In the translation below, we’ve used ellipses to indicate sentences omitted for the sake of brevity.
 The officers’ names are probably pseudonyms. In a screenshot included in the original post, someone tells Xiao that all Domestic Security officers go by pseudonyms, and that Officer Shen in this dialogue used to go by “Officer Lin.”
 The Domestic Security Department (DSD) is at a higher level separate from subdistrict-level police stations (派出所) in the Ministry of Public Security (公安部) system. While both DSD officers and police station officers could both be called “police,” there is a distinction in their ranking and functions.
 Xiao highlights this because there is actually a difference between DSD officers and those who work for police stations. Police stations do not have DSD officers.
 Zheng Churan, also known as Datu, is one of the Feminist Five who were detained as criminal suspects for planning actions to raise awareness about sexual harassment on mass transit in March 2015.
 The officers’ confusion about their own names may stem from their use of pseudonyms (see note 2 above).
 Literally ‘to get dust on your nose’ (碰了一鼻子灰), meaning that one expected to get something good from something, but actually got a slap in the face. In this case the police had hoped for praise or promotion.
 Literally ‘leave without getting anything to eat’ (吃不了兜着走), meaning you get nothing out of it, or here, to be assigned a task that’s impossible to fulfill, implying the certainty of punishment.
 “Rule of law” is one of the 12 “Core Socialist Values” announced at the start of Xi Jinping’s term as head of the party-state in 2012.
 The implication is that persecution turns activists into saints and attracts media attention, and that this is their only real goal.
 Literally ‘we’re just a mouthpiece’ (我们也是传声筒来着).
 Literally ‘People fear becoming famous like pigs fear becoming fat [for slaughter]’ (人怕出名猪怕壮).