The Gulag

Shen Shanqing, a fifty-four-year-old man working on a collective farm in Shanghai, made a fatal mistake on a summer’s day in 1958. Rather than adding water to manure to reduce the solids, he poured the undiluted fertiliser directly over a row of carrots. The leaves wilted. Shen was obviously more interested in collecting work points than in selfless devotion to the Great Leap Forward in agriculture. And he was brazen as well. Rather than show contrition after his arrest, he defiantly claimed that food was scarce and prison would at least provide him with bed and board. Closer scrutiny revealed that he had also slandered the party two years earlier. He was promptly packed off to a labour camp for ten years in the windswept plains of Qinghai, 2,000 kilometres to the north-east of Shanghai. His file shows that he was released in September 1968, a sick and broken man willing to write the most demeaning confessions, from his ‘deliberate act of sabotage’ ten years earlier to what appeared to be his biggest infraction during a decade of forced labour, namely the accidental breaking of ‘government property’ in the form of a pane of glass.1

His sentence was severe, but many ordinary people faced a spell of one to five years in a camp for the slightest misdemeanour. Most of the evidence is securely locked away in the closed archives belonging to the public security bureaus, but reports on crime and punishment were occasionally copied to other party organs, for instance a document detailing that even petty thieves in Nanjing were sentenced to terms ranging from five to ten years in the summer of 1959.2 In Beijing an internal prison registry with details of 400 male prisoners shows that a sentence of five to ten years for a minor offence was nothing out of the ordinary. Ding Baozhen, a farmer who had joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1945 and was demobilised a decade later, pilfered two pairs of trousers worth a grand total of seventeen yuan. He was jailed for twelve years on 11 February 1958. Chen Zhiwen, an illiterate villager who stole from travellers at the Qianmen bus station in the capital, was given fifteen years. Another pauper who eked out a living as a cowherd before making his way to the capital in 1957 was found thieving in front of the Beijing Department Store: he too was locked away for fifteen years.3

But fewer people were shot than in the previous years – at least after 1958. The policy was to ‘arrest fewer, kill fewer, and supervise fewer’, Xie Fuzhi, minister of public security, explained to his staff in April 1960. Death by execution, like everything else in the planned economy, was a figure, a target to be fulfilled, a table of statistics in which the numbers had to add up: 4,000 should be killed in 1960, he announced. This was lower than the previous year. In 1959 some 4,500 people were killed (the term was always kill, sha, for communist regimes rarely felt the need to disguise judicial killing with euphemisms such as ‘death penalty’ or ‘capital punishment’), while 213,000 people were arrested and a further 677,000 were humiliated in public.4

None of these sensitive data are easy to come by, but a public security document from Hebei shows how this worked out at the provincial level. In the province surrounding the capital some 16,000 ‘counter-revolutionaries’ were arrested in 1958, three times more than in the preceding two years, as well as 20,000 common criminals, the highest figure since 1949 with the exception of 1955. These numbers dropped drastically in 1959, which saw the authorities apprehend 1,900 ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and 5,000 common criminals. Little changed in 1960 and 1961, except that the number of common criminals went down to just over 1,000.5 About 800 were shot in 1959.6

Few may have been killed, but even a short stint in a labour camp could spell disease and death. A constellation of labour camps stretched across the country’s most inhospitable regions, from the ‘great northern wilderness’, as the vast swampy expanses of Heilongjiang were called, to the arid mountains and deserts of Qinghai and Gansu in the north-west. Life was miserable if not tenuous outside the gulag system, but inside the salt and uranium mines, the brick factories, the state farms and labour camps a brutal regime combined with widespread starvation to bury one out of every four or five inmates. In Huangshui, Sichuan, more than a third of all inmates starved to death.7 In Jiabiangou, a sand dune area near the Gobi Desert in Gansu, the first batch of 2,300 prisoners arrived in December 1957. By the time the inmates were moved to another farm in September 1960, a thousand had died in abject conditions. This was followed by a further 640 deaths in November and December, when the camp was finally closed down in the wake of Zhang Zhongliang’s fall from power.8Overall, in the entire province, some 82,000 prisoners worked in a hundred reform-through-labour camps in June 1960.9 By December 1960 only 72,000 prisoners remained, close to 4,000 having died that month alone.10 The lowest annual death rates in labour camps recorded in the archives consulted for this book were 4 to 8 per cent a year from 1959 to 1961 in Hebei, which held only a few thousand prisoners.11

How large was the population in the laogai, or reform-through-labour camps? Xie Fuzhi put the total – excluding Tibet – at 1.8 million in 1960. Prisoners worked in 1,077 factories, mines and quarries, as well as on 440 farms.12 A rough death rate of 5 per cent in 1958 and 1962 and 10 per cent a year from 1959 to 1961 would amount to 700,000 deaths from disease and starvation. No wonder some wished to escape. But overall surveillance was tight, if only because the labour camps made a crucial contribution to the national economy – estimated by Xie Fuzhi in 1960 at 3 billion yuan per annum, not counting the 750,000 tonnes of produce from farms.13

Reform-through-labour camps were only one part of a much larger gulag system. People who were subjected to struggle sessions or put under formal surveillance – just under a million in 1959 – were all too often dispatched to a local prison.14 And, more importantly, from 1957 to 1962 formal justice was curtailed. This started, as always, at the top, in the person of Mao Zedong. In August 1958 he pronounced that ‘Every one of our party resolutions is a law. When we have a conference it becomes the law . . . The great majority of rules and regulations (90 per cent) are drafted by the judicial administration. We should not rely on these, we should rely mainly on resolutions and conferences, four [conferences] a year instead of common law and criminal law to keep order.’15

The Chairman’s word was law indeed, as party committees – ‘with the help of the masses’ – took charge of judicial matters. It was this political pressure that brought about the abolition of the Ministry of Justice in 1959. In the countryside this meant that power shifted from the judicial authorities towards the local militias. In the entire county of Ningjin, Hebei, with a population of 830,000 people, a mere eighty cadres were in charge of the police, the inspectorate and the courts. This was half as many as in the days prior to the advent of the people’s communes.16

The local militia relied on a whole new dimension added to the world of incarceration from August 1957, namely re-education-through-labour camps, called laojiao. Common criminals like Shen Shanqing were handed a sentence by a people’s tribunal, but prisoners in re-education camps were not subject to any judicial procedures and could be kept indefinitely – until fully ‘re-educated’. In contrast to the reform-through-labour camps, they were organised not by the Ministry of Public Security, but by provinces, cities, counties, people’s communes and even villages. Anybody suspected of pilfering, vagrancy, slandering the party, daubing reactionary slogans on walls, obstructing labour or committing an act regarded as against the spirit of the Great Leap Forward could be locked away in a re-education camp. These were just as harsh as the more formal labour camps, and they sprouted up everywhere after 1957. Xie Fuzhi mentioned 440,000 prisoners in re-education camps in 1960, but what he saw from the distance of his office in Beijing was no more than the tip of an iceberg.17

It was not until work teams were sent into the countryside from late 1960 onwards to supervise a purge of local cadres that the dimensions of local incarceration finally come to light. There was hardly a collective that did not run its own private gulag, backed up by the powerful militia created in the summer of 1958. Report after report mentioned how this or that unit – local police offices, village teams, people’s communes – had established a ‘private punishment camp’ (sili xingchang). For every criminal like Shen Shanqing formally handed over to the courts, several bypassed the judicial system and ended up in a local prison. The size of this shadow world will never be known. In the model commune of Xushui, as we have seen, Zhang Guozhong built an elaborate gulag system, extending from the county down to every brigade. It held 1.5 per cent of the local population.18 In Fengxian, near Shanghai, villagers were routinely carried off to special labour camps, one of them set up specifically to lock up recalcitrant children.19 In Kaiping county, one brigade alone boasted no fewer than four camps, as hundreds of people were sent away for a couple of days or longer stretches of up to 150 days. Once inside the camps many were beaten and tortured; some were crippled for life.20 Sometimes people were not even locked up in a formal prison. To set an example, a cadre in Kaiping chained up a grandmother accused of theft for ten days in the canteen using 4.5-kilo fetters. A young militiaman struck matches to burn her feet.21

Special camps and special sanctions were devised throughout the country, as local justice was allowed to run rampant. In Yinjiang county, Guizhou, the inmates of one camp had the character for ‘thief’ imprinted on their forehead in red ink. Throughout the province, people’s communes set up ‘training centres’ (jixundui) where those who expressed critical views or refused to attend meetings were sent for ‘re-education’ and compelled to undertake hard labour.22 Several ‘training camps’ were also established by the Public Security Bureau in Liuzhou in 1959, to take care of subversive elements who objected to collectivisation.23 In Yanqing county, north of Beijing, the merest suspicion of slacking resulted in detention: a sixty-two-year-old man spent a month in confinement for not having caught enough sparrows.24

If for every criminal handed over to the formal justice system some three or four people were locked away in a local re-education camp, the total prisoner population would have reached 8 to 9 million in any one year during the Great Leap Forward (1.8 to 2 million in labour camps, 6 to 8 million in re-education camps). The total number of deaths due to disease and starvation, conservatively estimated earlier at about a million in formal labour camps, would have to be multiplied by three or four, meaning that at least 3 million died in the gulag during the famine.25 The death rate was high, but compared to the Soviet Union in the 1930s the incarceration rate was relatively low. This is because comparatively few people actually did time for crime. They were beaten and starved instead.

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