"We Felt We Had Been Buried Alive"

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The living hell that I would know as home for 18 years was set up in 1950. Camp No. 8, part of the Xingkai Lake Prison Farm in the vast swampy wasteland along the Ke'ercha River in Heilongjiang province, was initially stocked with 80,000 Nationalist prisoners of war plus countless Chinese who had collaborated with Japan's occupation of Manchuria. A few years later, 300,000 rightists and counterrevolutionaries were sent to refill slots at the camp vacated by the dead. In August 1962 cavalry troops escorted 8,000 of us to the camp. To get there, we had to march through 400 km of wilderness. The camp's 12-sq-m prison cells were squalid dens, set 6 m into the ground. The ceilings, just 2 m above the floor, were made from a mixture of wood, grass and mud. From a distance, the compound looked like a cemetery. On each grave mound stood a pole bearing just a number. We felt as if we had been buried alive. My relatives, landholders in Sichuan province, were accustomed to suffering. Soon after the communists prevailed in 1949, 27 of my family were persecuted in the Land Reform Movement. Fifteen were sent to labor camps, while eight died of starvation in the natural disaster caused by Mao's misguided economic policies. In 1949 my mother was forced to perform supervised labor. She died in 1984, one year after she was freed from that task. I was arrested in 1955. While serving as an officer in China's army, I was accused of being a counterrevolutionary and correctly unmasked as an intelligence officer for the kmt. I was interrogated at a detention house outside Beijing's Desheng Gate and thrown in jail. On June 23, 1958, I was taken to an execution ground with others condemned to death. Twenty-seven were shot dead, while three of us were spared. The goal: to intimidate us into confessing. I was then sent to a series of labor camps, spending most of my time at Camp No. 8. During Mao's era, Chinese life was shrouded in the shadow of the nation's vast network of labor camps. Leaked official documents from the Cultural Revolution show that in 1958 China maintained 2,248 prisons and reform-through-labor camps, in which 24.7 million people were held--73% of them for political crimes. Since the communist takeover in 1949, nearly 90 million people are thought to have been sentenced to work in such camps. In Qinghai province alone, there are 103 labor camps, with an estimated 2.8 million prisoners--equal to a quarter of the province's population. Hundreds of thousands of these prisoners participated during the early 1950s in building the country's national highways and railways. Later they were sent to salt and uranium mines and to reclaim wasteland. At Camp No. 8, spring was the season for death. More than 100,000 prisoners spread out in the vast corn and soybean fields. With no beasts of burden, six people had to draw each plow as two others held it. The superintendents walked ahead of the laborers with a red flag while troops, whips in hand, brought up the rear. They were quick to lash those who were slow or weak. Once, when I heard a cracking sound, I turned to see a white-haired former professor falling down, a long bleeding whip-mark visible on his back through his torn shirt. He never stood up again. At the end of the day, with tears in our eyes, we carried his body to Coyote Hills, the prisoners' graveyard. The burial was hasty, and we knew the body would be devoured by animals before daybreak. After 18 years of hard labor, I was released. Sent back to Sichuan in 1980, I wandered around as a panhandler and later found work as a coolie on a harbor dock. In 1983, I passed an examination and became a high school math teacher. I retired in 1991 and moved to Taiwan. Only in Taiwan do I have the freedom to tell this story. Yu Shan is the pseudonym of Jiang Fang, author of The Crying Great Northern Wilderness