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