3 December 2018

The Dark System

Li never truly left the prison camp. He returns to it regularly in his sleep. Two dreams in particular keep coming back. In the first one, Li Yiwen is squatting on the floor. In his left hand, he holds a bowl of rice, in his right, a pair of chopsticks. His eyes are locked on the floor as a guard stands behind him counting down from 10. Once he reaches zero, he'll tear the food out of Li's hands.

Li inhales as much hot rice as he possibly can. He can feel his esophagus burning, but he keeps shoveling.

A foggy reservoir is nestled between rice terraces and bamboo forests in the hills of central China, not far from Chongqing, one of the world's largest metropolises. This is where Li's hometown was once located. During their relocation, he and 52 of his neighbors felt they had been treated unfairly. When they objected to their local government, they were thrown into a prison camp.

Forty-one-years old, Li was himself once an employee of the state - a patriot, even. But then he was forced to leave the land of his ancestors, and all the illusions about China he had spent a lifetime cultivating collapsed instantly.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, an estimated 50 million people have been interned in prison camps, making it the largest system of forced labor, torture and brainwashing the world has ever known. At the height of the system, more than 1,000 facilities were alleged to have stretched across the entire country.

In November 2013, almost exactly five years ago, China's Communist Party officially abandoned the sinister sites. But in truth many of the old facilities still exist, often under a new name. It is believed that up to 1 million people are currently being interned in prison camps in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

The facilities have one goal in particular: to break the will of the people who dare to imperil the almighty power of the state. In addition to criminals and drug addicts, dissidents of all stripes are also locked away in Chinese prison camps.

These include members of oppressed minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs, members of the Falun Gong school of meditation, members of underground Christian churches, civil rights advocates and activists. And then there are the simple citizens who stand up for themselves in the face of injustice.

This is the story of three of those people.

Li Yiwen, Xie Sunming and Sun Jongdae were imprisoned concurrently between 2009 and 2010 in the Xishanping prison camp, a so-called laojiao suo. Until recently, that was the name for the around 350 prison camps into which a person could suddenly be remanded - without trial and without a legally binding verdict. According to human rights organizations, the conditions in the laojiao were very similar to those in Xinjiang's prison camps.

We have been in regular contact with Li, Xie and Sun over the past six years, via text messages, telephone, Skype and multiple face-to-face conversations. Through them, we have tried to learn as much as possible about the conditions in Chinese prison camps and to observe what imprisonment does to people. How have their personalities changed? How have their families come to terms with everything that happened?

Each of our three main witnesses collected comprehensive documents about their time spent in the prison camp, allowing us to corroborate their statements with thousands of photos, documents and videos. In order to get as objective an impression as possible, we also interviewed the ex-prisoners' family members and friends in addition to personally visiting most of the places described in this story - including the Xishanping prison camp.

Many of the people in this story insisted that their real names be published. It was their explicit wish that their story be made public, even though such a thing can carry a strict penalty in China. Those who wanted to remain anonymous have an asterisk after their name. In order to protect their identity, we have altered some of their personal details. The management of Xishanping was approached for comment but never replied.

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