Excerpts from Qincheng: A Twentieth Century Bastille published in Exploration, March 1979.

by Wei Jingsheng

Qincheng is strictly isolated from the outside world. Only former prisoners, their families, and close friends know about it. The prison is administered by the Fifth Section of the Ministry of Public Security, whose members are solely responsible for it. Regular policemen do not know the nature of Qincheng. The guards are carefully selected. One criterion is age; prisoners report never seeing guards over twenty. They are replaced at regular intervals.

Prisoners are divided into four classes according to whether their food costs eight, fifteen, twenty-five, or forty yuan [per month]. Actually, corruption on the part of both personnel and the institution prevents the prisoners from receiving what they are officially allotted. For example, if the official monthly ration is 17.5 kilograms, a person who never exercises actually cannot even eat half of that. The entire amount is nonetheless purchased, even though what is left over cannot be stored. It is said that the guards feed it to the pigs, which are then sold to supplement the guards' own diet.

When it comes to dispensing food, the Qincheng guards are reported to be quite ingenious. Food is withheld as a means of punishment. One of the lightest and most common punishments is first to starve the prisoner and then give him or her a bowl of very greasy noodles as "compensation." Most, of course, become ill as a result and have to miss the next few meals as well.

Each inmate occupies a separate one-by-three-meter cell containing a basin of water, a chamber pot, and a plank bunk with a thin bed cover. The black prison uniform is replaced every six months.

Certain prisoners are granted special privileges, such as the right to read Marxist Leninist works or People's Daily. Ordinary prisoners whose attitude is deemed "cooperative" may engage in a number of unpaid activities such as making rope or hats out of straw, or exercising to keep the body from becoming stiff. But those who make a bad impression on the prison staff are subjected to all sorts of punitive or restrictive measures, including being denied the right to exercise. They may not take walks or even engage in movement within the cell. These restrictions are imposed for as long as half a year. A former deputy director of the People's Liberation Army Institute, who had been deputy chief of staff during the Korean War, was kept immobile here for six months, after which he was no longer able to walk.

Quite separate from the cubicles is an exercise area of approximately one hundred meters square. It is laid out in rows of connected squares like rice paddies in southern China. The endless walking and running by the prisoners destroyed much of the grass, leaving a bare circular dirt path. The exercise area use to be divided by bamboo partitions. Then, during the late 1960s, this arrangement was replaced, and now a high brick wall separates two rows of connected exercise cubicles.

The inmates' lives are governed by all sorts of irrational regulations. They have to sleep facing the door. To turn one's back to the doorway is not permitted, and if one happens to do so while sleeping, he is awakened, over and over if necessary, until the prisoner learns to face the glass pane. There was a Tibetan who, after sleeping on one side of his face for more than ten years, developed a swollen ear that became infected and numb. He tried sleeping on the other side, but was repeatedly awakened and scolded by the guards until, driven beyond endurance, he went berserk and tried to strangle them. Only then was he granted special dispensation to roll over in his sleep.

Sanitary conditions are poor. Soap is not provided, and bathing is permitted only once a month, regardless of the season. A few privileged prisoners are given semi-annual physical examinations.

All of this is filled with irony. These prisoners are gifted individuals who had joined the Communist Party to fight for the freedom and well-being of China and of mankind; they devoted the better part of their lives to obtaining and maintaining the Party's political dominance. But Qincheng is enough to strangle one's will. The place could almost be called a dungeon, or a psychiatric institute. In Qincheng, even those who were once imprisoned by the enemies of the Communists are victims of modern techniques to destroy body and mind.

The torments of daily life alone would not suffice to break the will of these stalwart people. Indeed, Qincheng is said to be equipped with modem instruments of torture. For example, former prisoners recall that they had been subjected to a strange instrument which caused terrible pain in the head. When the pain became unbearable, the torture suddenly ceased, but then it would resume again until either a confession was extracted or they concluded that the procedure would not be effective. There are other less modem but still effective methods of torture. For example, a prisoner may be exposed night and day to a strong light; after a while he feels that he is going crazy.

The most common form of torture is simple beating. The prisoner is summoned and surrounded by a group of men who slug and kick until he is bruised, bloody, and completely breathless. Even more common is for prisoners to be so heavily drugged that they become mentally unstable. The justification for administering these drugs is to cure "mental illness." Sometimes people are sent to the hospital for further "treatment." One person who had received the treatment recalls that after taking the medicine he had talked to himself constantly for days on end. Naturally, such monologues were recorded for use during the next interrogation. Among the hospitals that participate in such practices are the Fuxing Hospital, Hospital 301, and Anding Hospital. Officials are kept in what are called "high-echelon cadre treatment centers." Anding's center is located in the suburban town of Desheng-men and is called Zone Five. A visitor there once saw a stocky middle-aged man with a blank expression on his face and many scars on his head walking aimlessly in a straight line. He had to be intercepted by a guard or he would have bumped into the wall. These prisoners, who had since youth fought against dictatorship and dedicated themselves to the cause of freedom and righteousness, have now been tortured to the point where they have lost some of their sense of reality. Torture at Qincheng has been even worse than that which used to be carried out by the Nationalists in the 1940s.

In the movie Zhuipu the villain gets punished in the end. But in Qincheng the scenario is very different. The evil deeds there are committed under the direction of the government. The institution is more real than any movie. Even high government officials are ever under threat of being "invited" there for a "visit." Nearby, carefree foreigners are enchanted as they visit the Great Wall. There is nothing carefree about an official who is going to visit Qincheng. On the contrary, he will tremble with fear.

Wardens will not accommodate prisoner's requests. Some inmates, unable to endure such conditions, attempt suicide. Others go on hunger strikes. For example, the Panchen Lama [from Tibet] once refused food. He declared that he did not wish to live any longer and that his remains should be "delivered to the Central Committee of the Party." But usually after a prisoner has been on a hunger strike for a week he is given a severe beating, often damaging his teeth. Prisoners are also forced into a tight rubberized suit, which is inflated with air to restrict body movement and prevent breathing. The rubber suit is so effective that it is called a "pacifying jumpsuit." And if these methods are not effective, prisoners are force-fed large quantities of liquid.

Prison terms at Qincheng have generally run more that ten years. Indeed, hardly anyone was ever released before the 1970s, which is why one never heard of the place. Before the end of the Cultural Revolution it was extremely rare for anyone to be permitted to visit there. Relatives did not know where the inmates were or what their condition was. (Even wardens have been ignorant of the true identity of prisoners, who are identified by number rather than name.) A family, when unable to obtain information from the Ministry of Public Security, normally considers that the person has permanently disappeared. Likewise, prisoners are not given any information about their families, though they can assume that the families are encountering political difficulties. The state of mind of a political prisoner can only be comprehended by those who have had the same experience.

A human being is more that just flesh and bones. Even atheistic materialists must recognize the existence of man's spiritual side. What does Qincheng do for its prisoners to provide for the well-being of the mind? Some former inmates recall not being allowed to converse with anyone. Sometimes, even at the risk of being punished as a "troublemaker," an inmate would curse a warden just to spark some conversation. Only during the interrogation sessions did inmates have an opportunity to talk. One man, after ten years of confinement, was so overwhelmed when he finally heard his name called out that he was literally unable to speak. Even those who have not actually been subjected to prolonged physical and mental torture still show hidden signs of disorder after their release. Some, including those of strong character, could not speak fluently for two years after a decade of solitary confinement.

But even when denied any external stimulation, the human mind continues to function. Whoever invented this "mental therapy" understood quite well that a prisoner, for example, is bound to be concerned about his family and friends. In particular he worries about his wife and children. The most effective way to break a prisoner's will is to keep him in an unbalanced state of mind. Unable to obtain any information about his family and friends, a prisoner worries that they are being discriminated against and is frustrated by his inability to assist them. He realizes that their suffering is a result of his own "offenses" against the authorities.

The proverb "psychology works better than force is born out by reports from many released prisoners, who had been told such things as: Your wife has remarried and is well adjusted in her new home. Your son has violated socialist order; he was not convicted, but was simply sent to a labor camp for reeducation. Your attractive daughter has had many suitors. Your son has been ill, but the government is doing everything possible to treat him. Etc. etc., It has been common for prisoners to eventually discover that the stories were untrue. Why had the stories been told? The answer is to be understood in the context of the anguish which such stories cause... In short, Qincheng officials have utilized every conceivable means of squeezing "the last drop of surplus" value out of these hapless souls.

Through a hundred years of bloody struggle, the proletariat obtained freedoms of expression, press, assembly, organization, religion, and the right to strike. Why did these freedoms disappear after the so-called proletarian Community Party gained power? Why do all "Proletarian" governments dictate to their masses and repress those who really speak for the masses? It is because their basic approach to government is incorrect. If the majority benefits from democracy and freedom, why do we go to such extremes to maintain dictatorship? Why is it necessary to arrest people who simply express their opinions? Qincheng proves that our government is not the people's government, because it has deprived the people of free speech. Those who have been tortured are usually the masses' friends, whereas the prosecutors are the enemies of the people. Only those who lack the support of the people have resort to making false charges and torturing their opponents in order to perpetuate their dictatorship.

We must get rid of Qincheng forever. We must be permanently rid of all political persecution and imprisonment. At stake are not simply a few unfortunate victims, but rather the basic political and personal rights of an entire people. Do you believe that every individual has the right to express his or her opinion on national policy? If you do, then you must oppose the arrest of those who have expressed their political views. If you do not believe others have the right to express their opinion then how can you argue that you have any rights? After all, your opinion might be absolutely correct, but having the right express it is another matter.

We might ask the former officials emerging from Qincheng: When you used to suppress the rights of others, what did that do to help secure your own rights? When you engaged in political persecution yourself, did you foresee yourselves being subjected to the same kind of persecution? The masses realize now that freedom of speech can only be secured through the abolition of political imprisonment and oppression. People's rights cannot be protected by a dictatorship which strips people of their rights. They can only be secured by the mutual protection of everyone's rights.