Readings — From the August 1990 issue

Inside Qin Cheng Prison

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From “Qin Cheng Prison: A Story,” by a twenty-one-year-old Chinese student. The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, was arrested last summer for his role in the Tiananmen Square protest and detained without charge in Qin Cheng Prison, near Beijing, until his release in April. Most of the students and intellectuals arrested last year were held in Qin Cheng; the Chinese government, however, rarely acknowledges the prison’s existence. Because of Chinese society’s traditional indulgence of student dissent, the students in Qin Cheng have fared better than others detained for their role in the demonstrations last spring. Arrested workers tend to be kept for extended periods in local detention centers, where they are crowded thirty and forty to a cell. Several thousand Chinese citizens are still being held for participating in the prodemocracy movement. The staff of the UPI bureau in Beijing obtained the diary from the author and translated it into English.

No matter how hard you look, you can’t find Qin Cheng Prison on a map of Beijing.

In the Fourteenth Department of the Beijing Public Security Bureau—the office responsible for investigating the student movement—two plainclothes policemen made me sign the investigation papers for detainees. My notice read: “By order of the State Council, you are being detained and put under investigation.” I signed it, and they handcuffed me and walked me out to the prison van.

The van traveled along Chang Ping Road. Looking out the window, I felt dumbfounded. I said to myself, “No matter how long they sentence me for, I must survive and remain strong.” I didn’t know where they were sending me. Suddenly, the car turned onto an asphalt road going east. Then we turned north, and a group of buildings appeared before us. Beyond them, I could see the foothills of Mount Xiaotang.

The car stopped outside the gate. I looked into the compound. It seemed deserted, but very forbidding. There was a big sign hanging on the gate: those who are not workers on this compound are prohibited from entering. When common people pass in front of this, they would never imagine, even in their wildest dreams, that this is the infamous Qin Cheng Prison.

During the Cultural Revolution, many members of the democratic parties and many high-ranking cadres of the Communist Party were imprisoned here. Now the Gang of Four are kept in Qin Cheng. They live in separate housing and occasionally must do small tasks.

Even the guards at Qin Cheng are not sure how big the prison is. The prison cells are enclosed on all sides and the courtyards sealed. The guards stationed in each yard cannot enter any of the other yards. Walking from the front gate to the prison cell, I passed seven gates and two electric fences.

As I entered the building, they took off my handcuffs and confiscated my belt and shoelaces so that I couldn’t hang myself. They took a picture of me from the waist up, as if they were issuing me a residence card. They gave me two bowls, a plastic spoon, a mattress, and a quilt. The iron gate slammed shut and I became a citizen of Qin Cheng.

The first day passed very quickly. I didn’t touch the steamed corn bread, but I ate the winter melon cooked in soy sauce. The second day my stomach felt bad, so late half a piece of steamed corn bread at each meal. The third day my stomach felt worse and I forced myself to eat two pieces of corn bread. Every day we had two meals—one at 9 a.m. and one at 4:30 p.m. Every morning I woke up hungry and waited for the salted cabbage and corn bread.

The living conditions are much better than those at the students’ dormitory at the university. The prison cells are very spacious and there is a toilet in each cell, as well as a loudspeaker. There are also two bathrooms on every floor. Outside, many apple trees grow.

At first we had eight people in our cell. The wooden beds could sleep only six, so we took turns sleeping on the floor. We soon discovered that before we had arrived, the walls of the cell had been hastily whitewashed. By lightly scraping them we were able to uncover words and messages written by former prisoners. From these we saw that in 1985 political prisoners had been kept here, and that since then the cell had been empty.

From the bed to the iron cell door was seven steps; from the door to the bed was also seven steps. Who knows how many steps we paced back and forth every day. When the guards opened the door we could see outside, and we would all rush to look dumbfoundedly at the sky. Dumbfoundedness is the best state to be in while in prison.

Some nights, I woke up from my dreams and felt very lonely and sad. The ceiling light was gloomy, and the sound of the guards’ footsteps echoed in the quiet passageway. Some students went crazy at night. Their miserable cries and shouts would wake me up: “I want to go home!” “Let me go home!” There were definitely prisoners in Qin Cheng who had been arrested by mistake.

Bathing was very interesting at Qin Cheng. It was just like driving pigs to the river. Each prisoner was given only five minutes; when the time was up, you were taken away. Sometimes we were taken away naked because we had no time to put on clothes. Our naked bodies looked so smooth in the bright sunlight that when we got back to the cell we couldn’t help laughing. You couldn’t live in Qin Cheng without laughing. Otherwise, the oppressive atmosphere would kill you.

The happiest things at Qin Cheng were outside exercise and going to the investigation room. Only two people could exercise at once in a small yard. We could look at the blue sky, sunbathe, and take a deep breath of fresh air, but only once a week for half an hour. How valuable this was for us! We also looked forward to our interrogations, because we could ask our interrogators for cigarettes and try to get some news from the outside.

In June and July, women students were brought into the building, which made the male guards feel very uncomfortable. There was a peephole in the bathroom, and according to prison regulations, the guards had to look in every five minutes. On July 1 (Communist Party Day) the women sang the “Internationale,” and it encouraged the men. The “Internationale” echoed in Tiananmen Square in May; two months later, it echoed in the sky over Qin Cheng.

Slowly we became familiar with things inside. We got up the courage to pass news between cells. Every weekend, the guards allowed us to play poker and chess, and we took advantage of this by putting notes in among the cards and in the chessboard. This method was discovered immediately. Then we talked to each other through the ventilation, and soon the ventilation was closed. Then we communicated through the water pipe. The water pipe could not be closed, so the guards and wardens had to turn their heads and pretend not to see.

Actually, once we became familiar with the guards and the wardens, we looked forward to talking with them. They were all very sympathetic toward the students. One time, while he was repairing the heating, a warden told us that he had supported the students at first, “but then you became unreasonable.” There was one doctor who would order several days of special “sick meals” for students if he thought they were losing weight. He warned us: “You children should take care of your health. The road ahead will be long.” The interrogators also seemed to agree in their hearts with the students. They never beat or berated us, or tried to trick us into implicating ourselves. Many interrogators even changed students’ confessions in order to help them.

Inevitably, there were several political meetings every week, designed to brainwash us. “No Communist Party, no new China,” we were told. “Socialism is China’s only road.” They talked of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and they scolded us for our bourgeois liberalism.

The People’s Daily and the Beijing Daily were the only newspapers we were allowed to read. We became very emotional about what was happening outside, especially the events in Eastern Europe. When Ceausescu was killed, our spirits were lifted for some time. When we heard that Nelson Mandela, who had been in prison for twenty-seven years, had been set free, we wondered whether we might also have to stay in prison for twenty-seven years.

Everyone in Qin Cheng had to write a report on their new thoughts. If these reports were not acceptable—even if your original crime was slight—you were unable to get out of Qin Cheng. In China, your attitude is half the crime. I wrote more than fifty pages in my rethinking report, and I was clever: Even if in my heart I didn’t agree with the authorities, I agreed with them with my tongue and with my pen. If they said the student protest movement was turmoil, I said it was turmoil. If they said it was a riot, I said it was a riot. Many people, though, refused to write a rethinking report, and refused to admit that they had broken the law.

There were more than one hundred students in Qin Cheng. Now there are only about forty. Most of them will be sentenced, but only ten have been officially arrested; all of these are from the student headquarters on Tiananmen Square. Students, generally speaking, will not be given capital-punishment or life sentences. The government will be much more stern with the older people in the democratic movement; it is said that they will be sentenced to life in prison.

Every university in Beijing has been given a quota for how many students to punish. It is believed that around fifty students will be sentenced in Beijing. On top of this, about one thousand students will be warned and have a big demerit placed in their files.

It appears that communist China has learned some lessons from the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. They will be merciless in dealing with the appearance of illegal organizations. Even the literary societies in middle schools will be shut down. All posters are regularly destroyed, because the authorities are still afraid of them.

And what will the students do? No one knows when the next student movement will break out. Maybe next time there will be another method, and another result

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