Monday, July 22, 2024

Lao Gao and I

Li Tingting (李婷婷), also known as Maizi (麦子), is a feminist activist and one of the “Feminist Five.” She currently lives in New York City with her partner. In this essay, she tells the story of her decade-long interaction with a police officer named Lao Gao. – The Editors

In the summer of 2011, as a rising senior of college, I went to Beijing to participate in a women’s college student empowerment workshop organized by the Beijing Yirenping Center (益仁平中心). The training took place at a resort in Mentougou, far away from the city center to avoid police attention. After the training, on the eve of a major rainstorm, I left for Hong Kong and later went to Guangzhou, where my fellow feminist activists and I staged the first “occupy men’s restroom” action on Feb. 19, 2012.

Following the “occupy men’s restroom” in Guangzhou, we wanted to replicate it in Beijing, capitalizing on the public attention it garnered. Our preparation was prematurely reported by the Beijing Evening News, which alerted the police. On Feb. 26, the restroom at Jishuitan subway station, the venue we had chosen, was heavily surrounded by police. In the end, we managed to occupy a men’s restroom near Deshengmen.

Following the restroom occupation in Beijing, I had my first police summon. They were quite polite and invited us, including the volunteers who participated in the event, to a meal. During the meal, the officers mainly asked for information about the organizers and participants of the event. One question that stands out in my memory to this day is whether we were communist party members.

I don’t recall if Lao Gao was among the officers who dined with us on that occasion, but later, as I lived in Sihui [a neighborhood in Chaoyang District], I surmised that I fell under the jurisdiction of two young police officers, one of whom was Lao Gao.

These two police officers had quite different temperaments. Lao Gao was very gentle, while the other one was hot-tempered. At the time, the two young officers in plainclothes would come to see me almost every day. They warned me not to engage in any activism and not to accept media interviews, especially from foreign media. But for the most part, I didn’t heed their advice and continued our activism.

On March 7th, 2012, on the eve of International Women’s Day, we planned to carry out an action against mandatory gynecological exams for female civil servants. However, local officers knocked on my door, came into my home, and shouted, “Who is Li Tingting?” They asked me to show my ID and took me to the Gaobeidian Police Station in Chaoyang District, where some officers reprimanded me, while others pretended to be friendly, saying, “Aren’t we friends? You promised you wouldn’t accept media interviews, but you did, how come?” Laogao was there as well.

They used such tactics to try to make me yield. Later, in order to prevent me from continuing my activism in Beijing, the police informed the president of my college, and a deputy dean and our counselor came to Beijing and took me back to Xi’an on a soft sleeper train. My sense was that the police felt that, since I was still a college student in the government’s education system, there was hope for me to change. After this incident, the college arranged a coveted part-time job for me through the university’s work-study program for the last semester in college. When I was about to graduate, my counselor said to me with great joy, “Li Tingting, you’re about to graduate!” I could sense the relief in his tone.

After returning to Beijing once again, I joined the Beijing Yirenping Center. Regular summons by those two police officers resumed too. They would usually come to pick me up in their police car. These kinds of “tea-drinking” sessions continued for many years, and the police would pay the bills. I no longer remember much of the details of these conversations. During the 37-day detention of the “Feminist Five” in 2015, we were held in Haidian District, and Lao Gao actually had little involvement with me.

Let me tell you about my recent interactions with Lao Gao. It’s quite remarkable. One day, I received an invitation from the U.S. Embassy to participate in some events for LGBT Pride Month. I must have filled out a form to indicate my intention to attend, but somehow, the police got hold of the list. Lao Gao called me and said “you can’t go to the events at the U.S. Embassy.” He also asked if I was in Beijing and suggested we meet up. Since I now have my own full-time job and I didn’t want to disrupt my life too much, I didn’t go to the Embassy, but nor did I agree to meet with him.

After a long while, he called me again, saying he had to meet me to discuss something with me. It was the first time I met with him face-to-face after a 10-year interval – during those ten years I occasionally received calls from him but we had not met. It had to do with me studying abroad in the UK, starting my own business that was not related to activism upon returning, and falling in the jurisdiction of Shunyi District where my household registration was, and keeping a low profile for a period. Now that I’ve returned to Beijing for a couple of years and began to participate in some feminist and LGBT activities, including attending events in embassies, Lao Gao resumed his regular contact with me.

The second time we met up was because someone was making a documentary about me. Lao Gao asked me if my friends had any connections with foreign forces and whether I was in contact with a certain foundation (I can’t recall the exact name). On both accounts I said no. In 2017, China passed the Foreign NGO Law to essentially prohibit us from receiving foreign funding. I understood the severity of the matter, and had already made up my mind not to accept any foreign assistance. It was a form of self-censorship, but also a way to ensure my own safety. After that meeting, everything went quiet by and large until one day, in 2022, when my partner and I decided to get married during the National Day holidays.

Same-sex marriage is not recognized in China, so we had to get married abroad. However, due to the pandemic, we couldn’t leave China. Everyone was frustrated by the zero-Covid lockdowns, and our plan was to get married and study abroad. Just when I was feeling stuck, I accidentally found out in our LGBT community that Utah County in the state of Utah allowed remote online marriage registration, without restriction by nationality. So we seized this opportunity and arranged an online Zoom wedding, and we set up a WeChat group for this purpose and invited friends from both within and outside of China.

About a week before the wedding, Lao Gao called again. He said I couldn’t get married, China did not really recognize such a thing, and as far as they were concerned, it was illegal. Answering the phone in the hallway outside the office, I was upset and began to cry. I said to Lao Gao on the other end, sobbing, “Why can’t we get married? Can’t I even enjoy my most basic rights? What law am I breaking? Everyone else takes advantage of the National Day holidays to get married, why not me?” Lao Gao told me not to cry, saying he had no choice because he had to carry out orders from his supervisors. I hung up on him and went back to work.

While I was thinking how to deal with the police, Lao Gao wasn’t giving up either. He called to make a dinner appointment with me.

Speaking of having dinner with the police, it’s kind of interesting. In 2012, when I had dinner with them, they proudly told me that each person’s budget was 600 RMB to order whatever they wanted. I remember they ordered an elaborate feast, including abalone and sea cucumber. Everyone ate their fill, myself included, but there were a lot of leftovers. It was so wasteful. Later, when chatting with my dad, he too had been summoned by police for dinners and the budget was also 600 RMB per person. This shows that in 2012, the government had abundant funds earmarked for “maintaining stability” with the people under their watch, they really indulged themselves with.

But this time, I suggested a nearby grilled fish restaurant. I ordered some basic dishes like stir fry pork liver, and I might have paid the bill too – I can’t remember. In any case, I could tell that their pockets weren’t so deep anymore. Another time we met for coffee at a Starbucks, and I paid for my own coffee. Lao Gao suggested that I change the wedding date, and he would give me a “red packet,” or a gift, which has incidentally never materialized.

On October 5th, 2022, at a home party venue in Beijing, my partner and I held an online Zoom wedding ceremony with 30 offline guests. From my experience, it seems that one of the main concerns for the police is that such gatherings shouldn’t be too large, too conspicuous, or have media presence. If it attracts attention, the internet police would report to their higher-ups, and the latter would exert pressure on the local police, who in turn would have to follow their supervisors’ orders. Moreover, from my chat with Lao Gao, I learned that he also got married and had children. He has to earn a livelihood, so this job is likely quite important to him.

We bypassed all the scrutiny and quietly got married, with everything organized by my partner. She spoke tearfully during the ceremony: “Why shouldn’t I get married? I must get married!” My partner isn’t an activist, but she is determined, principled, and would never have bowed down to unjust stability-maintenance repression.

I thought my frequent interactions with the police might come to an end, as no one wants to be face-to-face with law enforcement every day.

Peng Zaizhou on Sitong Briday, Oct. 13, 2022.

But following Peng Zaizhou’s protest on Sitong Bridge in Beijing in mid-October, my roommate took a stand against the “zero-COVID” policy by distributing similar leaflets at a Beijing subway station. She was arrested by the end of October without me knowing what she had done. My partner and I had only moved into the apartment for a week, and we weren’t very familiar with her. I only learned from the police that they had tracked her for two days and nights, sifting through scores of people, and eventually traced her to our home.

One night around midnight, police came knocking on the door, saying they were conducting a “migrant survey.” When I opened the door, six or seven police officers rushed in and searched her room and took her away.

Around 2:00 am that night, I too was taken to the police station. But after a while they sent me home, saying that their supervisors decided they didn’t need to question me further. Instead, they arranged for Lao Gao to come to see me to confirm whether I was involved in the incident. Lao Gao was roused from sleep around 1 am, and came to my home at 4:00 am to determine whether I had played a role in my roommate’s action. I was not. To honor the wishes of her family, I will not disclose the name of my roommate.

After my roommate’s arrest, I was once again put on the surveillance blacklist. The police began closely monitoring my every move on WeChat. During that period, whenever an embassy or media outlet contacted me with any invitations, Lao Gao would call and ask, “Have any embassies contacted you recently? Which media outlet has reached out to you? Be careful what you say when talking to the media.” He seemed to be warning me not to talk about my roommate’s arrest.

I must say that, on the whole, since I had a full-time job unrelated to activism, my relationship with Lao Gao became less tense compared to 2012, and my strategy had shifted from confrontation to “cooperation.” In 2012, I was like a recalcitrant donkey that resisted pulling by walking backwards. Ten years later when we met again, Lao Gao said, “Tingting, you’ve changed, matured.” Sometimes, I can’t help feeling a sense of absurdity: I really don’t know how to face someone with whom I have starkly opposing views, yet have to maintain an ongoing relationship. With the passing of ten years, you might have lost touch with some of your good friends, yet this person is still in your life.

After my roommate’s arrest, I helped solicit lawyers for her, which brought me to Lao Gao’s attention once again. “Have you contacted lawyers recently?” He asked. I said, “Yes. My roommate was arrested, and I’m definitely going to find a lawyer to help her.” This time, he didn’t try to prevent me; he simply said he understood, and that we were friends. Then he asked, “How much does the lawyer charge?” I said, “100,000 RMB.” He found the lawyer’s fees exorbitant like a scam. In the end, my roommate’s family chose a different lawyer.

Per request of my roommate’s family, I refrained from doing more to try to help, and kept a low profile for a long while. My WeChat was monitored, and I couldn’t participate in any events hosted by foreign embassies.

A few days after I arrived in New York, Lao Gao sent me a message on WeChat asking, “Not in Beijing anymore?” I replied, “Nope,” with a grinning emoji. He hasn’t said a word since.

This article first appeared in China Change.

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Li Tingting
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