An invisible monument to death and despair

The Great Wall of Confinement
September 23, 2005

Always in need of external enemies to deflect attention away from the misery it creates for its own people, the Communist Party of China never tires of portraying their country as a victim of imperialist aggression, Japan being a prime target. Yet even the large number of casualties suffered during the Japanese invasion of 1937-45 pales in comparison to the six to 10 million deaths caused by the communist regime, not including the many millions of deaths in labour camps and the 30 to 40 million deaths during the Great Leap Forward.

The Communist Party of China easily ranks as one of the most murderous regimes in history, but the published work on its labour camps is dwarfed by the vast, detailed and varied scholarship that has become available on the Soviet Union's gulag since 1991. Jean-Luc Domenach's monumental L'Archipel Oublié , published in 1992, remains unsurpassed and untranslated, its title still sadly apt in describing a state of voluntary amnesia among admirers of the so-called economic reforms introduced since Deng Xiaoping came to power - even as China is the only major world power to have entered the 21st century with a huge concentration camp system, that swallows up tens of thousands of its people without any legal recourse.

The Great Wall of Confinement is a welcome addition to a small number of studies on the laogai , as the prison system is known in Chinese. The name deserves to be as familiar outside China as the term gulag is outside Russia. Wisely departing from studies that rely on interviews with camp survivors or official statistics, the authors succeed in giving a human dimension to the laogai by making critical use of a genre that has thrived since the death of Mao, namely prison literature. Many popular memoirs and novels, significant enough by the mid-1980s to be known as "prison wall literature", are specifically written on the post-Mao era, offering illuminating insights into the grim reality of everyday life in the laogai , a place that most visitors to glittering Shanghai would not even suspect existed. The torture of prisoners, for instance, had not abated in the 1990s. Many types of physical punishment go straight back to imperial practice from which communist rhetoric is so keen to distance itself - for instance, "hanging a chicken by its feet", where an inmate's wrists are tied behind his back and support the full weight of the body as he is suspended from the rafters of a building, the arms being pulled out of the shoulder sockets. Modern technology, including the shock baton, is also popular, as most prisoners go through one form of torture or another.

Other continuities between the Mao era and the period of so-called "economic reforms" are also highlighted by pungent laogai novels and prison memoirs, often more tellingly than the uncritically received bureaucratic formulations and official statistics. Physical abuse, inadequate nutrition and rampant disease, the retention of ex-prisoners in the camp's vicinity, an emphasis on the "remoulding" of prisoners, the use of heavy labour without regard for skills that could be used after release: all indicate a stubborn unwillingness to overhaul an outmoded prison system that creates massive and systematic suffering for no reason.

And today, as under Mao, a prisoner can be sentenced to a term of up to three years in a concentration camp without ever appearing before a judge or being given the opportunity to contest the charges against him; this administrative order, which can be mandated even by a local government's civil affairs bureau, can be renewed for up to ten years.

There are nonetheless some differences: death was so common during the Great Leap Forward that Zhang Xianliang, one of the most popular prison writers, was mistaken for a corpse when he slipped into a comatose state caused by a starvation diet. He was thrown on a corpse-laden cart, to be buried in a mass grave, when somebody discovered that he was still breathing.

Famine may also have disappeared since the 1960s, but hunger remains widespread; dissident Liu Qing and his fellow inmates were never given enough of the half-rotten vegetable soup and rancid buns to eat their fill in the 1980s.

Entirely absent from the statistical record is the psychological burden of long confinement that afflicts released inmates, and is often more traumatic than the physical harm many endure. One prisoner, for instance, became a vegetarian because the mere sight of butchered animals reminded him of an encounter with a corpse's frozen arm: he had mistaken it for a cabbage root he might pilfer while working in the laogai . The entire cycle of incarceration from arrest and detention to death and release, with vivid invocations of prison food and clothing, barracks life, sexuality in the camp, forced labour, struggle sessions, prison argot and prison resistance, is examined through the literature produced by ex-inmates.

The Great Wall of Confinement' s strength is the skilful use of testimonial texts, seen as approximate imitations of lived experiences rather than unproblematic reflections of reality.

The last chapter explores the different types of prison literature and examines the motivations that led prisoners to write about their experiences. Placing this chapter in front of the others would have anchored the book more solidly in a field that studies memory and imprisonment, rather than in the discipline of history to which the jacket of the book aspires.

While it may not be the most comprehensive study of China's prison camps to date, as the blurb misleadingly proclaims (Domenach's mammoth study remains unrivalled), the value of this riveting book lies in the wealth of detail that casts light on a sinister reality that the regime and its sympathisers abroad are keen to ignore.

Frank Dikötter is professor of history, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage

Author - Philip F. Williams and Yenna Wu
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 248
Price - £35.95 and £13.95
ISBN - 0 520 9 4 and 24402 8

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