OTTAWA—Crammed into a cell with 13 other sleep-deprived inmates, strong-armed into singing the Chinese national anthem and forced by shouting guards to watch state television—a Canadian man detained in China last fall is offering a glimpse of what he says life was like for him on the inside.
Jason Cigana, a 39-year-old originally from the Montreal area, had been living and working in China’s southern city of Shenzhen for six years when he was arrested by Chinese police in October. He was locked up for three weeks and eventually deported.
Cigana wanted to share his experience with the Chinese legal system after two Canadians—Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor—were arrested there in December.
Beijing has said both Kovrig and Spavor were arrested on national-security grounds. Their detentions appear to be in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States.
Although his case is different from Kovrig’s and Spavor’s, Cigana’s experience offers a rare look at how China handles people, including foreigners, while they are in custody.
“It’s something pretty rough, to be honest—and I was small potatoes compared to these guys,” Cigana said in an interview, referring to Kovrig and Spavor. “These guys are going to have it a lot, lot worse.”
A Canadian government source, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, confirmed Cigana was detained in China last fall.
Cigana said his arrest came a few days after he made what he describes as “racially charged” comments on an online chat group made up of mostly expatriates. He admits he also made a “very insensitive” remark about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, in which Japanese troops killed many thousands of Chinese people.
He says he regrets both and he never thought his comments would reach an audience outside the 88-member group on the WeChat platform. He said screenshots of the conversation were shared widely on social media in China—and reached tens of millions of people.
The remarks were translated from English to Chinese, but he says his words were twisted to sound a “hell of a lot worse.”
As his comments spread, they stirred up a lot of public outrage, to the point his conversation made national news in China.
Cigana, who’s married to a Chinese national with whom he has a four-year-old son, learned that making such statements also violated local laws.
Fearing a backlash, he holed up at home for days. Then, Chinese police came knocking at his door.
He was detained, interrogated for several hours and released, several times over four days.
Police eventually locked him up for three consecutive weeks.
Cigana described the conditions he faced inside the detention centre as “terrible.” Fourteen people packed into one cell and a shower that consisted of a cup and a bucket, he said.
He recalled the lights being left on for 24 hours a day, and cranked up at night. Barking dogs, slamming doors and shouts from guards made it almost impossible for detainees to ever get any shuteye, he said.
“The rooms are monitored, so let’s say if you’re sleeping and you cover your eyes they’ll start screaming through the intercom to not cover your eyes,” Cigana said.
The guards also forced him to sing the anthem, vow loyalty to China and absorb propaganda on state TV, he said.
“If you turn away from the television during this time you are yelled at and berated,” he said. “It’s something straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
Months after his detention and deportation, Cigana’s case continues to haunt him.
A website in his name has appeared online and he said it’s designed to ruin his reputation. Purportedly created by his family to seek forgiveness on his behalf, it’s a mix of English and Chinese and talks about what a mess his life has become since “saying horrible disrespectful and insentience (sic) comments about China,” taking “photos of perverted nature” and “saying many pro-Hitler and anti African American culture.”
Cigana said his reputation has been further damaged by other postings on online chat rooms made in his name. Some of the postings are sex-related requests that he had nothing to do with.
“None of it is true,” Cigana said.
When police took him in for questioning, Cigana said his name had yet to appear in any Chinese news stories. But shortly after he left the police station the first day, he said, a photo of him taken during his interrogation as well as his passport information were already circulating on social media.
Cigana has consulted lawyers in an effort to get the website and the postings removed from the internet but he’s been told the process will be difficult and expensive.
As he hunts for work that will help him sponsor his family’s immigration to Canada, Cigana fears he will have difficulty finding any if potential employers Google his name. He’s considered changing it.
He says he “messed up.”
“Not that there’s an excuse—my wife is Chinese, my son is Chinese,” Cigana said. “I don’t hate Chinese people. I guess it was just a case of sometimes we go a little bit hard on the internet without realizing it’s not a game. You can be punished for it. It’s something that essentially ruined my life.”
Last week, a federal government official speaking on background said 200 Canadians are detained in China for a variety of alleged infractions.
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, said in an interview that crowded cells with poor sanitary conditions and 24-hour lights have been reported in other cases, including by Canadians Julia and Kevin Garratt. The two were Christian aid workers who ran a coffee shop in northeastern China, near the North Korean border.
China arrested the Garratts in 2014 and accused them of spying and stealing military secrets. It took two years before both were freed.
Saint-Jacques said Canadians facing more minor charges in China, such as visa issues, don’t usually face tough conditions like those described by Cigana.
“It sounds familiar, although maybe a bit harsher,” said Saint-Jacques, comparing Cigana’s recollection to other cases he was aware of.