- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010

BEIJING | Like the United States, China is having its own “tea party” movement, but this one has a very different agenda. Police have long tried to shush and isolate potential activists, usually starting with a low-key warning, perhaps over a meal or a cup of tea. Now the country’s troublemakers are openly blogging and tweeting their stories about “drinking tea” with the cops, allowing the targeted citizens to bond and diluting the intimidation they feel.

The movement is an embarrassment for officials, who are suspicious of anything that looks like an organized challenge to their authority. It can’t help that “drinking tea” stories seem to be spreading among ordinary Chinese, including ones who signed a recent online call for political reform.

The country’s top political event of the year, the National People’s Congress, has given the stories another bump. More than 200 people said they were invited by police to “drink tea” in the week after the congress began last month, said independent political blogger Ran Yunfei.

“That’s according to what I gathered from the Internet,” he said. “And that doesn’t include the people who didn’t identify themselves.”

There was no way to verify the number independently.

Twitter is blocked in China, but that hasn’t stopped people from getting around Internet controls and posting sometimes hour-by-hour diaries of their police encounters on the social networking Web site. Some give advice to nervous newcomers facing their first invitation to “chat.” Some, tongue in cheek, suggest restaurants for the usually uncomfortable meal.

Writer Yu Jie tweeted last week about going to the movies with police, who drove him there and followed him inside. “They bought tickets, but maybe they get reimbursed,” he wrote.

Mr. Yu spoke by phone Wednesday while shopping at a branch of the French supermarket Carrefour with two officers following him a few steps away.

“More and more people have conquered their fears and written about what happened to them,” Mr. Yu said.

Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley, is excited about the potential of the “drinking tea” movement. He used to translate people’s stories, but now there are too many.

“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.”

A new Web site, the Drinking Tea Chronicles, appeared in China on Feb. 27, a few days before the political meetings began in Beijing. It encourages people to share their own stories by e-mailing them to the site.

The Drinking Tea Chronicles and a similar blog, Invited to Drink Tea Chronicles, remained unblocked Wednesday.

The “tea party” movement in the United States, an entirely different phenomenon, emerged as anti-tax protests partly in response to the government’s stimulus package of early 2009. It takes its name from the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when activists in the then-British Colony of Massachusetts dumped shipments of tea into Boston Harbor to protest a new tea tax.

In China, the “drinking tea” stories started appearing in 2008 but took off in recent months as authorities cracked down on the signers of Charter 08, a daring call for political reform in China that was signed by hundreds of people, including some of the country’s top intellectuals. Co-author Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

“Many of the people who signed are students, lawyers, businesspeople,” Mr. Liu said. For some, signing the petition brought their first visit from police. Their stories, some startled, some angry, have appeared on “drinking tea” sites and other blogs.

Mr. Liu has a name for the newcomers, who had no political background until now: “They’re what I call the conversions,” he said”

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