China’s privileged remain privileged even in prison.
When Gu Kailai (谷開來), wife of disgraced former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai (薄熙來), is sent to prison following her conviction for the murder of a British businessman, she is likely to end up in an exclusive jail that has cells with sofas and private bathrooms.
Tucked in the hills an hour’s drive north of Beijing and hidden behind several guarded, unmarked gates, Qincheng Prison has for a half-century housed miscreants from the political elite: purged Chinese Communist Party rivals, corrupt politicians, newspaper editors critical of the government, leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) power-hungry widow.
“The prison is known because it has locked up China’s most famous political prisoners,” said Dai Qing (戴晴), a journalist and the adopted daughter of a revolutionary general who spent about six months in Qincheng after taking part in the 1989 Tiananmen movement, though she was never formally charged.
When the metal-wrapped door opened to her cell, Dai was “pleasantly surprised,” she recalled in an essay written in the 1990s.
“My cell room was quite sizeable,” at about 20m2, Dai wrote. The cell was freshly painted and had a separate washroom, and while the bed was a wooden plank on two low benches, it was padded with two thin military quilts and covered in new bedding, she wrote.
Qincheng is no “Club Fed” — the nickname for the comfortable minimum security federal prisons for white-collar criminals in the US. Previous inmates have described being mistreated and watched at all times. They have complained about the food and the isolation. Still, it is plush by the standards of Chinese prisons, where cells are filled with a dozen or so inmates, long hours of physical labor are required and beatings by inmates and guards routine.
The better conditions in Qincheng underscore how the Chinese elite take care of their own, even in disgrace. So many higher-level officials are being felled in crackdowns on endemic corruption these days that China recently opened a new model prison, Yancheng, with a wing for the elite. The cells there are similar to hotel rooms, though with glass walls between bed and bath, and have balconies for exercise or clothes-drying, according to state media reports. Still, nothing says “politically connected” like Qincheng.
“This is a special prison,” said Bao Tong (鮑彤), a former high-level party official who spent seven years in Qincheng for opposing the crackdown that ended the Tiananmen protests.
The Chinese Public Security Ministry, which oversees Qincheng, denied a written Associated Press request to visit the prison and declined any interview about it.
Dubbed Project No. 157 and built with the help of the Soviet Union, Qincheng opened in 1960 to replace a dilapidated jail holding political prisoners and military commanders from the Nationalist government ousted by the communists in the civil war between 1945 and 1949.
To shine a positive light on the new regime, Qincheng was designed with amenities such as flush toilets, medical clinics and fitness facilities that were out of reach for most Chinese at the time. However, conditions inside the four U-shaped, three-story brick buildings varied. One known as Section 204 was the best, outfitted with carpeted floors, sofa beds and hot-water thermoses. Section 204 inmates received meals comparable to those provided to Cabinet ministers. They could drop a sugar cube or two into their lemon tea.