A foreigner’s life in a Beijing jail in 2009

Society & Culture

A foreign man who had spent seven months in jail in Beijing sent me the following description of his daily life at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center shortly after his release.

Illustration for The China Project by Alex Santafé

This was originally published on Danwei.org in 2009, and is republished here with permission. A foreign man who had spent seven months in jail in Beijing sent me the the following description of his daily life at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center shortly after his release. Want to hear more about Beijing behind bars from the author of this diary? Listen to this Sinica Podcast: An American’s 7 months in a Chinese jail.

If I were a Chinese person and not a foreigner, a crime like mine would have been dealt with on the “city district” level, as opposed to the “municipal” level which is much tougher.

The other people incarcerated at Beijing No. 1 Detention Center were all facing life sentences or death sentences, at least as a possibility, so it’s not a place where detainees are given a lot of slack. It’s the site of Beijing’s newly constructed hi‐tech lethal injection chamber.

It was boring as anything, and the rules were strict.

Thankfully, foreigners are housed in a section where we were mixed with big-time white collar Chinese criminals, who are a better sort than the murderers and cannibals and rapists housed in other parts of the facility. Many of the Chinese people I was in close contact with were college educated, and many had been in positions of high responsibility. The CFO of Gome was in my cell; Huang Guangyu the CEO — formerly the richest man in China — was down the hall. I often saw him walking in the hallway heading downstairs for investigation.

The room, or “cell” if you like, was about 25 feet x 15 feet in dimension, and housed between 12 and 14 detainees. About half the room was filled with what we called “the board”, a raised platform stretching from wall to wall on which we sat during the day and slept at night. The bathroom in the cell consisted of a squat toilet, a faucet (no sink), and another faucet up high for showers at night. The wall between the bathroom and the room was transparent, so everybody could see everybody else all the time doing their business. You get used to it. Boiled drinking water was available twice a day in the room through a special tap.

Daily life was a drag during the week. Here’s the schedule:

06:30 Wake up. Eat breakfast (watered-down milk powder, a piece of bread, an egg every two days).

07:00 Clean the room. I was assigned to the bathroom from Day 1, and even though I had many chances to “move up” to the floor or other assignments, I decided to stick with what had become familiar. Two of us were responsible for the bathroom, so I cleaned it every other day, thrice a day. I stayed on that duty for so long that I became know as the “boss of the bathroom”, or “Toilet Control Officer”. (Something for my resume…and yes, I scrubbed the squat toilet with a toothbrush, but not mine.)

07:30 Sit on “the board”. This is the main activity in any Chinese jail, familiar to fans of Chinese soap operas and movies. The board runs the length of the room, and we were required to sit on the edge of it for most of the day.

Leaning too far forward, leaning too far back, and even crossing your legs was forbidden (especially if the officer on duty was an asshole or having a bad day). One person at a time was allowed to get up and move around to use the bathroom, fetch water, get a book, etc. So, mostly I chatted with other people or read a book. Sitting so much hurt my back at first, but then I got used to it, or stronger.

10:30 Time for lunch! For the last three months of my incarceration it was boiled potatoes every day. A single boiled vegetable was the template for most all meals, with beef chunks included once a month. Every meal also included steamed bread, which I generally avoided, and rice came with lunch every two days. After lunch we had about an hour of free time to lie around.

12:00 Siesta time, a Chinese tradition.

13:30 Wake up from naptime. Sit on the board for another three hours. Also, during the afternoon sitting period we were let out into our “porch” area for about 15 minutes, where we stored our extra food and clothing. This was known as “going out” for “exercise”, but in reality it was just another small room with a big hole up high for a window with no glass… that is, you could see the sky and sometimes the sun, but I wouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination call it going outside. Also, the exercise was walking around in a circle with too many people in a small space, at probably about 2 or 3 mph.

16:30 Dinner time! Mmmmm…. oily boiled cabbage. Or oily boiled turnips.

Mondays and Fridays we got to have a kind of tomato soup with egg in it, a very popular meal, but we only got a small bowlful. I generally skipped dinner as part of my weight loss plan, and as soon as things were cleaned up I got down to my work out. After dinner we had 2 hours of free time for showering (which I also used to exercise). This generally involved about 75 pushups (not all at once), some crunches, 1000 jumping jacks, some bicep and shoulder lifting, and some squats to keep my legs from atrophying. I did this about 5 times per week. For weightlifting we used a pair of pants filled with water bottles. It was very prison‐y.

19:00 Time to watch the official state news broadcast, Xinwen Lianbo, which was much worse even compared to the official state news agency that I used to work for. “Worse” meaning that the top 9 stories were usually about what the top 9 leaders in the central government did that day, followed by 2 minutes of international news. As for other sources of news, we got about 3 or 4 random sheets from the China Daily newspaper (in English) every week. I found out that Michael Jackson died from an article that began, “Since the death of pop icon Michael Jackson last Thursday…” I was like, are they talking about the real Michael Jackson?

After the news, we were forced to sit and watch 2 more hours of the most incredibly mindless Chinese TV you could ever imagine. Usually the station was set on CCTV‐3, which is mostly family variety shows, cross‐talk comedians that I can’t follow at all, lip‐synched Mando-pop concerts, and nationalist sing-alongs. Uggggh.

21:30 We can finally move around again! Time to brush your teeth, get ready for bed, stretch, etc.

22:00 Time for bed. I was going to say, “lights out”, but then I remembered that they never, ever, ever, never shut off the lights in the detention center. Ever. Super‐bright exposed fluorescent curly bulbs 24 hours a day, so I ended up sleeping with a blindfold on. I made it from a t-shirt sleeve. One of the special things about life in the detention center was that two people in each room have to be “on duty” during any time when people are sleeping, including during the afternoon nap. The night was divided into four shifts of 2 hours each, while the last shift was an additional 30 minutes. We rotated through the last three duties and then had a night off after three nights of duty. So, on Monday I might sleep from 10pm to 4am followed by duty until 6:30am; the next night I’d sleep from 10 to 2, do duty until 4, and then sleep till 6:30; on Wednesday I’d sleep from 10 to midnight, do duty until 2am, and then sleep until 6:30; Thursday night I would not have to do duty, but I sometimes would have to do duty during the afternoon nap. It was a very tough system to get used to at first.

Finally, there was no torture, no rape in the shower. Just the good ol’ psychological torture of close confinement and isolation from everyone and everything I ever had known one millisecond before I was taken into custody. But I was always glad that at least there were a bunch of us in one room. Being alone would have been much worse.

Want to hear more about Beijing behind bars from the author of this diary? Listen to this Sinica Podcast: An American’s 7 months in a Chinese jail.