We started from Beijing by train and arrived at a small station Chadian in the North East. We were told to get off the train and gather at the train station square where we were given an instructive speech by a Communist Party leader.
I can remember the first words this leader told us, “You are welcomed to come to the farm to transform your thinking”. But we could see on top of the houses, there were machine guns set up pointing at us. That was to say they were welcoming us with machine guns. This was the greatest irony I had experienced in my life.
At the town of Chadian, there was a Qinghe prison Farm, one of the biggest labour camps under the administration of Beijing Police Bureau. It housed about 10, 000 detainees.
Another large prison farm was in Heilongjiang province, called Xingkaihu prison farm near the border with the Soviet Union. It was also one of the largest.
Under the administration of Qinghe prison farm, there were five other small farms for forced labor. They were named 581, 582, 583, 584, and 585. 581 means the prison farm was built in January of 1958.
We were transported by truck to one of these farms. The Communist party gave them beautiful names, but actually these were standardized concentration camps, same as the Nazi concentration camps.
From the outside, we could see the high walls. When the truck entered the farm, we could see the deep trench circling the walls. Up on the walls, there were power grids and searchlights. The farm was guarded by armed soldiers. This was a standard concentration camp.
On arrival, we saw many prisoners already there. They told when they first arrived, this place was wetland full of reeds with no houses. They were the first to build these houses and the walls.
Forced laborers were organized into army units like squads with a dozen people sharing one room.
We must be clear about the meaning of “labour for re-education”. There were some differences between “labor for re-education” and “reform through labor”. People from outside may not learn about them as the media controlled by the Communist Party never talked about the details.
According to CCP’s notion, people who have committed minor offenses but not crimes can be punished by the use of penal labor without a court hearing or judgement by police. They called it re-education through labor. These offenses may include fights, petty theft, gambling, etc.
But many people who had done nothing wrong were also sent to labor camps for re-education, like people without an officially recognized residency in cities, fortune tellers, people who helped others write letters, and anyone who did not have a proper job.
Anyone with “unreasonable behaviors” might also be sent to the prison farms. What were unreasonable behaviors? For example, if a college graduate refused to accept the job assignment by the Party to remote areas like Xinjiang or Tibet, he could be regarded as a person with “unreasonable behaviors” and might be sent to the prison farms for re-education. Anyone might end up in prison in China without committing any crimes.
I met a Buddhist monk from the Temple of Universal Benevolence. In those days, many people lived in hunger as they were fed with rations. This monk had an argument with the police because the monks were not given enough food. For this reason, he was sent to the prison farm for forced labor.
Among the religious community, the salvationist sect Yiguandao was widely persecuted. The CCP government sent many of their abbots to the camps. One of the abbot said once that “live on earth, Chairman Mao governs me; dead in hell, I will govern Chairman Mao”. For this, he was executed.
When it came to dealing with the captives from the former Nationalist Party government, the CCP treated them with extreme cruelty. Many were executed while the rest sent to labor camps. I met an old Guomintang general who was too old to work. Still, he was forced onto the rice field to pick up rice ears from the ground.
Peng Zhen, former mayor of Beijing, said the government must make the city pure clean as a crystal palace. The CCP leadership said they must force all “rubbish people” out of the capital by sending them all to prison camps for forced labor. Who had the power to send others to re-education camps? Those party secretaries! If they disliked some people, they just easily sent them to those camps. They had the extreme power.
The CCP government had a saying about this re-education practice. They beautifully called it “turning contradictions between enemies into contradictions among the people”. They claimed to be doing a favor for these prisoners by granting them the right to go home for funerals in case their family members died. But if they thought you had behaved badly in prison, they could easily cancel your right to go home.
What was my life like in the re-education camp? After I was detained in the first camp for one year, I had tried to escape. My first months there was in spring. We were forced to work in the paddy rice field, transplanting. In summer when the wheat was ripe, we picked the wheat ears one by one. And we did the weeding. In autumn, we harvested the rice. In winter, we dug the trenches.
That was in Hebei province; it was about twenty degrees below zero in winter. We were forced to dig the water ways and to build the dam. That was really hard work, heavy work.
In those days, prisoners in the Soviet Union were also sent to Siberia for forced labor. I read a book about this. Labor was different there. Soviet prisoners only worked as a kind of exercise. It was not organized labor by the government. In China, forced labor was intentionally organized by the state. It was planned by the CCP with a purpose to create wealth for the state, to exploit the laborers.
By re-education through forced labor, the CCP government planned with the aim to transform the nature as well as transform people’s thinking. It had a slogan of “turning the remoteness of the North East into a warehouse of grains”.
For this purpose of theirs, we were forced to work from spring, summer to autumn and winter. How long did we have to work daily? When we started early morning, we could see the moon in the sky; when we finished in the evening, we could also see the moon in the sky. That meant at least 12 hours a day.
What about the rest of the hours? After a whole day’s work with dirt and sweat of bad smell, we never had the chance for a bath. We only had one basin of water enough to wash our face and body with a torn towel. Some said that if we poured the water back to the river, all fish would be poisoned to death.
After work, we were never allowed a good rest. We were even worse than the cows and horses. They could have some rest at night but we could not. Two corn buns and a vegetable soup made up the whole meal for us every evening, each the size as my fist, a little salt, no meat, no table oil, no nothing.
On the most miserable days, there was even the disappearance of corn buns. I did not know what they had given us for meal. In our bowels were kind of dark paste of bad taste. I asked the local farmers who told me that was a kind of herbs. That was also in very small amount and we all felt very hungry. Many people died of hunger.
After meal, we were not allowed for sleep. Instead, we were gathered for political study. We could not lie down to take a rest. We were told to sit still. Our work performance of the whole day was reviewed and assessed with marks of one to ten.
How was that assessed? The CCP called it a democratic assessment. Every laborer firstly reported his own assessment with marks from one to ten. Then all the other attendees voiced their agreements or disagreements. The result must be a consensus. For example, if I assessed my own work performance as 6 but someone expressed a disagreement by giving me 5. If others raised their hands for 5, then my performance was 5.
That looked democratic, but it created mutual resentment and hatred. Mutual retaliation would come the following days. So within the re-education camp, class struggle was encouraged and enemies were created. This was the evil strategy of the Communist Party.
After the performance review, we were told to rest immediately. There was totally no time for personal affairs.
One day, I was taken out. I had an illusion that my family had come to see me. But I was wrong. My family never knew about where I was. We were allowed to write letters but every single word of our letters must be checked and approved before they could be mailed out.
In our family letters, we were never allowed to tell about the truth of our case and our life. I could only tell that I had committed a crime, acting against the Party and socialism, and the Party was giving me a chance for re-education. I must said about my gratitude to the CCP. If you did not praise the Communist Party, your letter would never be delivered.When your words were checked and approved, you could add your final message, “Please send me some necessities.”
In my case, I never wrote a letter as I had always refused to praise the Communist Party. I would rather starve to death than say a word flattering the CCP. And I never admitted any guilt. So for twenty years, I never wrote a family letter.
Twenty years later when I was released, I was told that my mother often cried in great sorrow thinking of me. I felt great sorry for her. If I had learned about the suffering of my mother, I must have been submissive to the CCP.
I was moved to another prison in Beijing. That was a so-called model prison that welcomed foreign visitors. The purpose of moving me to this prison was to investigate my relationships with foreign students.
In those days, every foreign student was assigned a political instructor. It sounded a good idea to send them a helping hand. But as a matter of fact, every movement of a foreign student was noted by the political instructor, including having a meal at a restaurant with somebody at a certain time. The political instructor was actually a spy monitoring the movements of the foreign student. He or she was watched every moment; and surely they would never like it. I knew that former President Hu Jintao was one of the political instructors at Tsinghua University.
In the Beijing prison, I started another term of forced labor.
(To be continued)
By Feng Guojiang
Translated by staff from an interview by Inty with the 91-year-old man. Mr. Feng was born in Indonesia in 1928, studied in Tsinghua University in 1952-1956, served in prison farms for 20 years and was released in 1976 when Chairman Mao died. He has lived in the United States since 1995.