When a long news article is published in China explaining in detail how torture implements with names like the “Tiger Bench” and the “Death Bed” are used against prisoners in a labor camp, you can bet that it wasn’t by accident.
But whatever the thoughts were of those in the Chinese Communist Party who authorized an April 6 article in Lens Magazine, known for its photography, about the Masanjia Labor Camp, it’s unlikely they could have predicted the reaction: an online outpouring by hundreds of thousands, furious at the authorities for what the article depicted. The piece was quickly deleted from web portals.
The roughly 20,000 word article landed amidst discussion about reform or abolishment of the labor camp system in China, and relates the personal experiences of a number of former Masanjia detainees, describing some of the extraordinary torture they were subjected to.
These include how prisoners were shocked with electric batons, starved, hung up by handcuffs, forced to squat in small spaces, clubbed by guards, and tied onto tiger benches and death beds for further torture.
The publication of the piece is surprising because of the clutch of significant and sensitive issues it touches on: most prominently, the persecution of Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline that has been targeted since 1999, and which constitutes the primary population at the Masanjia camp, in northeastern China. It also highlights the ongoing struggle between the old guard of Jiang Zemin, the former Party head responsible for the persecution, and the new leadership of Xi Jinping. And it appears to give powerful ammunition to those in China who would argue for the abolishment of all labor camps.
The details of the torture depicted in the article make clear why.
A number of the vivid and gruesome depictions in the article came from diaries that were written by the female captives while at Masanjia, and smuggled out through bodily cavities.
Liu Hua was one of the women who wrote a “Diary of Re-Education Through Labor,” and got it out.
She describes one incident when she was stripped naked and shocked on the tongue with electric batons. According to a translation by Minghui, a Falun Gong website, she said: “It was one shock after another. The electricity ran through me. My heart pounded so hard, so unsteady. Electricity was applied to the tip of the tongue, like needles piercing into it. I could not stand steadily, and I couldn’t even try to.”
She was also made to work, matching nearly thousands of collars and cuffs every day.
Other accounts in the article described inmates being hung up on bunk beds by their arms and legs, and being left for sometimes a week.
Food for the prisoners was abysmal, consisting of only a meager serving of vegetables and rice.
The Unnamed Victims
The article made one oblique mention of the identity of the victims: it says that a victim “confirmed with a Lens reporter that the ‘Tiger Bench’ and the ‘Death Bed’ are both implements used in the labor camp. The former was originally used for a special group, and later was used on regular inmates. The latter is equipment used on inmates that hunger strike.”
It’s an open secret that Masanjia is most well known for its persecution of practitioners of Falun Gong, who are specifically targeted by the camp, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center. The “special group” referred to is almost certainly Falun Gong, analysts say.
Minghui, one of the main Falun Gong websites, noted the publication of the article. “This is quite a remarkable occurrence because none of these horrific stories of torture, brainwashing and forced labor have ever before been admitted, much less reported, in mainland Chinese media.”
Minghui has registered thousands of cases of torture in Masanjia alone.
Levi Browde, executive director of the Falun Dafa Information Center, noted that the treatment described in the Lens report “is stuff we’ve been talking about for more than 12 years.”
He added that, given that the Lens article validates the Information Center’s work, “we hope that people will pay attention to the things they didn’t cover, like the show tours, throwing women into male jail cells, and Masanjia being a groundbreaking entity for training and leading the way for torture.”
In interviews with victims from Masanjia, the Information Center found that the facility was unusual for a number of reasons: It is one of the few camps where guards and Party agents do most of the hands-on torture themselves, rather than coercing or incentivizing other prisoners to do so.
It is also “literally a training ground,” Browde said. “They fly other labor camp officials to Masanjia to learn ways to break Falun Gong practitioners.”
The treatment of the article by Chinese Internet censors has been sometimes contradictory. Searches for “Masanjia” on Sina Weibo, a major Twitter-like microblogging service, were at first allowed, and then restricted, and then free.
A hash-tag topic about the article was created — but later it disappeared. As of 1 a.m. Beijing time on April 10, it was available, aggregating the thousands of comments and forwards the news has received. Previously, a search for Masanjia only yielded a few hundred hits, indicating that censorship was loosened.
After publication, the article was immediately posted on a number of Chinese web portals — but soon after disappeared. The 70,000 comments on Sohu were still active, however, even though the article had been deleted.
Even People’s Daily Online, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, included the story in its “hot topics” news list on April 8. The news was ranked first, with a total of over 500,000 comments. That too later disappeared.
Lens continued to carry its chilling double-page spread, a photograph of the monolithic labor camp, on its website, on April 10 local time.
“It seems as though the Propaganda Department only reacted after the fact, but the news was already out,” said Wen Zhao, an analyst of contemporary Chinese affairs with NTD Television, an independent broadcaster.
He noted the fact that under the immense pressure of the news, Liaoning Province authorities gave a terse announcement that they would launch an investigation. “This kind of internal investigation will no doubt gather a lot of evidence, but whether or not it’ll be published, or how far they will take it — we can only watch and wait.”
Wen Zhao added: “There are hundreds of labor camps in China, all doing things along the same lines as Masanjia.”
“This is a blow to those in the Party trying to stop labor camp reform,” said independent political analyst Tang Jingyuan, in an interview with Epoch Times.
He said that the appearance of the article on People’s Daily Online “to a certain degree” reflects the thinking of top Party leaders.
But the fact that it was soon deleted “also shows that the Party has not reached a consensus, and that the resistance to abolishing the labor camp system is still terribly ferocious.”
Browde said that now is the time for the West to start publicly discussing the persecution of Falun Gong. “There are clearly people in China that want to get the truth out about Masanjia, and perhaps the persecution more broadly,” he said. “Now it’s critically important that journalists and others take that momentum they’ve created, at great risk to themselves, and don’t let their efforts sputter out.”
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