The AP had a great story this week about the growing number of self-identified "tea" activists in China. The article describes how activists, dissidents and even ordinary Chinese citizens often have their first encounter with state security when they are invited to "have a cup of tea" with the authorities. Instead of a warm drink and a friendly social chat, however, the "cup of tea" turns out to be an interrogation about the citizen's online political activity that touched on some taboo topic. While this practice has been commonplace for decades, it has increasingly become publicized as the tea drinkers -- particularly young tech-savvy signers of Charter 08 who are experiencing their first harassment by China's extensive security apparatus -- have defied the authorities instructions and posted stories about their outings on the internet. There are now several websites that are devoted to stories about "drinking tea" with the authorities. Some "tea drinkers" have even posted their experiences in real time via their mobile phones.
As a result of the connective power of the Internet, "drinking tea" has now become a widespread euphemism for being interrogated by the authorities for crossing the invisible line into forbidden political activity. One of the most valuable tools in the authoritarian toolkit is social ostracization, and in Asian societies that place a high value on conformity and communitarian values, this is an even more potent threat. Even behind the Great Firewall, the Internet has proven to be a valuable means of weakening the authorities' ability to keep dissidents feeling they are in a lonely, futile battle against an unassailable system. As one activist put it to the AP:
"The way to control dissidents' activities is by creating fear and isolation. Other people don't dare to become your friends. You feel threatened," he said. "But the Internet countered that effort by connecting those people. They have a sense of community, which makes them bolder and stronger."
The indomitable China Digital Times has translated some of the "drinking tea" stories on its website (here and here). The pluck, determination and humor (another great weapon against the singularly humorless authoritarians in Beijing) that these young political activists demonstrate in relating their confrontations with the authorities gives me hope for the future of China.