China

Big Hang And Tiger Bench: Women Expose Brutality Of Chinese Labor Camp

Several women inmates from China's infamous Masanjia reeducation-through-labor camp have decided to come forward to recount the torture they sustained.

There are 350 "reeducation through labor" camps in China
There are 350 "reeducation through labor" camps in China
Brice Pedroletti

BEIJING - Gai Fengzhen, 56, is a tall woman with an emaciated face. She puts her crutch in the corner of the room and stretches her arms backwards to mime the torture she survived.

“We are placed between two iron bunk beds with our hands cuffed to the bars. The most painful position is in diagonal – when one hand is pulled upwards and the other downwards.” She bends to demonstrate the position.

Her body is twisted and her voice rasps. “Your ankles and feet are chained too, it is impossible to bend your legs,” she says softly. The dagua (“big hang”) – a variation of the “five horses splitting the body” torture that widens the tendons and destroys the joints without leaving any visible signs – is one of the punishments inflicted on the prisoners of Masanjia Labor Camp, in Liaoning Province, northeastern China. The camp opened in the late 1950s under the Communist Party's “reeducation-through-labor” policy.

The last time Gai was made to suffer the dagua was in July 2009, during the third of her four stays at Masanjia. The torture lasted six straight hours, causing her to vomit blood. Afterward, she was sent to solitary confinement, also known as the “small room.” The only reason why the dagua didn’t last longer was because her torturer had to deal with another prisoner. This prisoner was on the “tiger bench” – an iron bench where prisoners' ankles and knees are cuffed in a way to cause their legs to bend upward, while their hands are tied behind their backs.

These torture methods were described to us by Gai and a dozen other former female Masanjia inmates. We met them over the past weeks in Beijing, where they are staying with friends and relatives. They are worried about reprisals if they go home to Liaoning Province.

For many years now, these women have been petitioning the Chinese government using the xinfang (“letters and visits”) system. This system allows people to voice complaints to local and national administrations about wrongs that have been done to them: a forced demolition, a crime that has gone unpunished, abuses of the family planning authorities. The system is legal and even officially encouraged.

Because of relentless use of the xinfang system, the women found themselves in the crosshairs of authorities, and were sent to labor camp. Most often they were charged with disturbing the peace, and sent to camp for up to three years, without a trial. Recently, they decided to break their silence and give the first collective and detailed testimony about life in the reeducation-through-labor camps – at the risk of being sent there again.

There are 350 reeducation camps, which were first implemented during Mao Zedong’s 1957 “anti-rightist movement,” campaign to purge “rightists” from the Communist Party. Located all around China, these camps house three kinds of prisoners: “delinquents” (drug-addicts and prostitutes), members of the religious Falun Gong movement, which has been banned in China since 1999, and those who petition the xinfang system too much, according to authorities.

Blurry legal system

This is only just one of the things that petitioners endure. Some of the Masanjia women have also been forcibly committed to psychiatric wards, sent to clandestine prisons, as well as subjected to much brutality at the hands of the government officials sent from their home provinces to Beijing to neutralize them.

But now, for the first time, some of these former prisoners have joined forces to denounce the system. Despite the surveillance, the threatening phone calls and the incredible fear they live in, many of them wear a badge that says Gongmin (“Citizen”), the name of a human rights and pro-democracy group created by Chinese lawyers. The former prisoners can’t create their own organization, because it would be immediately banned.

The goal of Masanjia is to silence and break the women who pose problems. In China’s blurry legal environment – where regulations can be bent at will – the prison guards’ first priority is to discourage xinfang petitions. Some of the plaintiffs end up signing “guarantees” saying their initial case is closed.

In this labor camp, prisoners are tortured to the point of having severe physicial and mental trauma. Forty-five year-old Mei Qiuyu had been petitioning for many years about the forced late-term abortion that she had to endure under the one-child family planning policy. Imprisoned from May 2008 to April 2010, she spent five months of solitary confinement in a 4-m² room with no window. The “small room” torture. From time to time, a small peephole was opened in the iron door. She tried to obtain an administrative revision of her detention. Her petition was blocked until the legal deadline for lodging an appeal was passed.

“In isolation, I was on the floor, I had nothing, no mattress. All the time I was there, I felt like I was suffocating. In July, because of the heat, I lifted the rubber under the door to make a little space, where I would put my mouth to breath a little bit of air,” she recalls. During another punishment (she had written a letter asking for help), she woke up on the sirenchuang (“death bed”) after fainting during a session of the “big hang.”

The sirenchuang is an iron board with a hole in the rear for defecation, where prisoners are bound at the neck, the arms, the waist and the legs by handcuffs and straps. “When I woke up, I realized I could not move,” she says. “As soon as I was feeling a little better, the guard touched the bed with her foot, where there was system that tightened the restraints. I will never forget this pain that ran all the way to my heart.” Her fingers still hurt today, and she struggles with writing.

Wang Yuping, 57, was imprisoned at Masanjia from August 2007 to January 2009, after petitioning in 2002 for higher wages and access to medical insurance at the state-owned store she worked at. Brutalized by the police, she won her court case, but the judgment was never applied. Since then, she has never stopped petitioning.

Wang should have never been admitted to Masanjia, given her health condition. She was suffering from uterine fibroids and heavy bleeding. But the police paid the camp, she says. One of these discreet and discretional give-and-takes that are necessary to “maintain the stability” of the country and are done so often in the capital and the Chinese provinces.

After being humiliated by being denied sanitary napkins, the camp’s hospital refused to treat for ten days until her husband paid a huge amount of money. After that, Wang had just one objective – survival. Once she was free however, her objective changed – and she went on the offensive. “My rights had been violated, and I had seen close-up everything that’s wrong with this system,” she says. A Christian, the daughter of a former “rightist” who was tortured during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Wang had been in contact with human-rights advocates in Beijing since the 2000s and convinced other former Masanjia inmates to give testimony about what they had gone through in the camp.

Making sweaters for Italian brands

Many of these woman had tried to keep diaries about their life in Masanjia, chronicling the excessive work hours, the violation of camp regulations, and of course, the torture and abuse. Many had their diaries confiscated, but others managed to get them out, by hiding them in the hems or linings of their pants – winters are viciously cold in Liaoning Province.

Liu Hua is a 51-year-old robust and slightly gruff woman from the countryside. Her problems began when she and her husband – the elected village chief – condemned the corruption of the Communist Party during an audit. Retaliations led to xinfang petitions, which led to Liu’s first imprisonment at Masanjia, from August 2008 to May 2010. When she got out she wrote a brief report which she sent anonymously to human rights website.

After that, she continued to write petitions, which landed her back in Masanjia. “I trusted that justice would be done,” she said. “But not only we were tortured, we were also forced to work like animals. I told myself that one day, somebody would be held accountable.”

From January 2011 to October 2012, she wrote down everything that was happening in the camp, the violence and the hard labor. She left the prison hiding 35 pages of notes – some of them hidden in a plastic tube inside her vagina, others given to other prisoners who had been freed. She was working in the camp’s garment workshop, and wrote down many details, keeping clothing labels to prove that the prisoners were making jackets for Australia and Italy, shirts for South Korea, and pants for the Chinese Army.

All the survivors of Masanjia describe exhausting workhours – from nine to 15 hours a day. Depending on the number of years they had been in the camp, the women were paid from 5 to 25 Yuan (0.6 to 3 euros) a month. On their winter uniforms that some of them have brought back to Beijing, and which cost around 50 Yuan (6 euros), there are logos for sports brands – including Spanish brand Kelme.

Like many long-term Chinese petitioners, the initial reason why the Masanjia women petitioned the government seems trivial compared to the abuse, torture and injustices that they have been through since then.

The group is starting to show dissentions. For instance, Liu talks to the media about Falun Gong, the religious organization that is banned in China and whose members are routinely sent to reeducation camps to be “transformed.” In fact, Masanjia has been officially rewarded for its success in “transforming” members of the Falun Gong.

The other former prisoners are more reluctant to broach the subject. “We are not against Falun Gong, but this is not about them, this is about us,” explains Wang.

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never.

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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