Unknown numbers of people have been held as slave laborers in China’s “Laogai” (labor reform camps). Since 1999, the Chinese Communist party has executed a campaign of persecution against the spiritual practice of Falun Gong, which is seen as a “threat to social and political stability.” Practitioners have reported being detained and mistreated while in detention, including torture and forced labour. Human rights organizations claim that Falon Gong practitioners are often targeted for arrest, along with ethnic minorities, Catholics, Protestants, and Tibetans. Bin, a journalist for a newspaper that reported on Falun Gong, spent two years in the Laogai. It is estimated that 0.25% of the population of China are living in modern slavery. According to the Global Slavery Index, “China still faces an enormous issue with the trafficking of women and children for forced marriage and the sex trade, both internally and on a transnational level as criminal gangs become more sophisticated.”
I was kept in a gloomy prison cell, about 30 square meters, with over 30 people locked inside. When I was first imprisoned in this cell, I could smell all kinds of foul odors from feces, urine, mold, rotten flesh and materials. After a few months, I could no longer smell anything. The smells permeated everything in the cell all day, and I had gotten accustomed to them. Occasionally, it would be so quiet in the cell that one could hear a pin drop. Everyone took advantage of this brief silence to ponder over his past. Day after day, quite a few people were getting closer and closer to execution day.
During the years of 2000 and 2001, following orders given by Jiang Zemin and Luo Gan, the National Security Division of the Beijing Police Department had arrested a large group of high-ranking intellectuals who practiced Falun Gong, including professors, people with Ph.D. and Master’s degrees. They were detained in the Beijing Police Department until they accepted the education of the “Party and people.” This was proclaimed to the outside world as being done gently as “a breeze and rainfall in spring.” I was one of them.
The prison cell had two doors, the front and the back. The front door was a thick iron door and an iron fence. The iron door was about one inch thick and the fence was made of iron poles, as wide as an adult’s thumb. The back door was also an iron door, as big as the front door. The front door was an entrance-exit where prisoners were escorted in and out, or dragged out for execution. Ten armed-policemen guarded the door against potential runaways. Every time the front door was opened, it could mean someone was going to die soon. Once, a criminal secretly sharpened the handle of a toothbrush. He poked a policeman’s neck with the sharp toothbrush in an attempt to use him as a hostage to gain his release. However, hostages mean nothing to the communist party and without giving it a second thought, another policeman immediately shot the prisoner to death.
The policeman who was held as hostage was terrified to death. Since this incident, the prisoners detained at the No.1 Detention Center of the Beijing Police Department are given only the brush end of the toothbrush, the handle end is cut off.
The “Wind Cage” is connected to the back door of the cell. It was square-shaped and about ten square meters (about 108 square feet) in size. All four sides of the wind cage were thick concrete walls. The top was flat and made of big iron pipes, on which policemen could stand in a line. The police standing on the top of the cage could open the back door to let prisoners out for fresh air and sunshine. The wind cage wasn’t even opened once a week.
“Open the wind cage!” the loud shout came from a policeman standing on the top. It broke into my thinking and the temporary quiet of the cell. The pale, unkempt prisoners started to show a hint of happiness on their faces. One by one, prisoners walked outside of the back door. They nodded and bowed to show their gratitude to the policeman on the top of the wind cage. Then they quickly occupied a place with more sunlight.
The first time I was let out, I was shocked by what I saw. After they secured a place, the first thing the prisoners did was get naked. The scabies, sores and psoriasis on their bodies were fully exposed. I was not too surprised by this. What truly shocked me was that many people quickly flipped their genital organs up into the sunlight. Then, they kept flipping them back and forth. It was such a strange scene.
If they were not sentenced to death, the criminals surviving the detention center would be sent to prisons to complete their sentence and do slave labor. At the same time, they brought sexually transmitted diseases with them to the prisons. There, they are an absolutely cheap work force. An amazing number of products made in China are produced in prisons and forced labor camps.
In May 2002, I was sent to the Beijing Repatriation Division of Provincial Criminals with several others and Shao Ping. Shao Ping earned his Master’s degree from the Chinese Academy of Science. In the repatriation division, we were waiting to be repatriated to other formal prisons to serve a sentence. From this experience we gained a real understanding of the forced labor in prisons.
The strict management system, frequent insults, and degrading treatment were meant to cause fear and mental trauma in the prisoners. The prisoners were expected to labor tirelessly. To labor for 15 or 16 hours a day was routine. If a prisoner had trouble finishing the assigned work, he was punished by having to “sing until the dawn” (that is, he had to work around the clock without sleep). Since the cells were more than full, the prisoners had no time to take care of personal hygiene. They counted the days, with their diseases worsening day by day.
I was arrested for my belief. I had committed no crimes. Nor was I a criminal. I simply considered myself a “correspondent” sent there to seriously observe what was happening around me. I hoped that one day my observations would enable the world to have a better understanding of what is going on in Chinese prisons.
Various jobs of manual labor involved packing women’s underwear, making copies of audio and video materials, attaching trademarks to various products, processing books, binding books, and making for export fishing floats, colored Christmas bulbs, and accessories. I participated in all of the manual labor and had a good understanding of each working procedure. During one hot summer, the prison authorities ordered us to make packages for Gracewell underwear. It was really hot and the prisoners hadn’t showered for a very long time. They scratched all over their bodies, while being engaged in manual labor. Some of the prisoners scratched their private parts every now and again. When they took out their hands, I saw blood on their fingernails. I was not sure if women would really look graceful in that underwear.
Another time, the prisoners processed a kind of packaged food called “Orchid Beans” for self-employed people. This snack was made from broad beans. Self-employed people kept trucking broad beans into the prison. In the prison there were barrels in which the broad beans were soaked in water until they were swollen. To spare themselves some trouble when changing water in the barrels, sometimes the prisoners would dump a whole barrel of beans into a dirty urinal and then pour water into the barrel putting the beans inside. When the beans became swollen in water, the prisoners would start to peel the beans. In front of everyone there was a set of parallel knives. One picked up a bean, rolling it over the knife and removing the bean skin on either side leaving a “golden belt” in the middle. In this way beans look good, though dirty and muddy. Then, the last step was to throw beans back into the basket. At least 10,000 beans had to be peeled in one day to meet the government’s quota. The prisoners bustled around peeling the beans, with their snot and sputum mixed with beans. Then the processed beans were put into a big bag to be taken to the stores of the self-employed people where they would be fried. The fried broad beans looked golden and shiny. The self-employed people packed them in beautiful packages and sold them to customers. The broad beans are in demand in the market and thus of high profit to sellers. Consumers enjoy the beans. In a US supermarket, I saw fried broad beans imported from China. I wondered if our prison had made its contribution to those beans.
Annually, a large number of Christmas items and clothing for western countries are made in Chinese prisons. Once the prison in which I had been detained was assigned to make light bulbs. Every day prisoners were supposed to tie copper wires tightly around a plastic tank in a fixed shape and then connect all the light bulbs together. The prisoners’ hands were usually bleeding. Needless to say, their diseased skin and sexually transmitted diseases were left on the light bulbs.
Once the prison I was in made strings of beads as accessories. The prisoners used needles and thread to string colored beads and then connected the two ends to make a string of beads. The strings of beads looked beautiful. But, I hope that children will not put them in their mouths and women won’t put them around their necks.
Narrative as told to the City Council of Chicago’s Human Relations Committee, October 20, 2005, in Chicago, USA, and revised for publication in November 2005.