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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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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