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The Great Wall of Confinement

The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage

Philip F. Williams
Yenna Wu
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    The Great Wall of Confinement
    Book Description:

    China is the only major world power to have entered the twenty-first century with a thriving prison camp network—a frightening, mostly hidden realm known since 1951 as the laogai system. This book, the most comprehensive study of China's prison camps to date, draws from a wide range of primary sources, including many compelling literary documents, to illuminate life inside China's prison camps. Focusing mainly on the second half of the twentieth century, Philip F. Williams and Yenna Wu outline the evolution of the laogai system, construct a vivid picture of prisoners' lives from arrest and interrogation to release, and provide a troubling new perspective on the human rights issues plaguing China.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93855-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Claims that the twentieth century was “the American century” or that the twenty-first century is “the Chinese century” smack of great-power chauvinism and cultural provincialism. Rather than advancing the absurd notion that any one country in the modern world can dominate an entire century, Alain Besançon has aptly characterized the twentieth century as the “century of concentration camps.”¹ This phenomenon of massive government restrictions and control over “undesirable” but legally innocent citizens has spanned the globe. It includes turn-of-the-century British camps to intern Boer women and children in South Africa; Japanese camps to imprison enemy civilians in its World War...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Cultural Foundations of China’s Prison Camp System
    (pp. 17-34)

    Several conditions have contributed to the endurance of the PRC’s prison camp system. For approximately two and a half millennia, traditional Chinese political and legal culture has countenanced and institutionalized forced labor for both public works civilian conscripts (corvée labor) and prisoners. Of particularly ancient provenance, conscript labor[yi, yaoyi]has a history of over three millennia in China. On the other hand, no solid evidence points to Chinese convict labor[tuxing or tuyi]earlier than the Spring and Autumn period (722–468 b.c.e.) of the mid- to late Zhou dynasty.¹

    China’s traditional political culture also placed very little in...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Development of the Chinese Communist Prison Camp
    (pp. 35-61)

    The Russian Bolshevik theory championing revolutionary urban putsches turned out to be a disaster when put into practice during the late 1920s and 1930s by Chinese Communists in several cities, including Guangzhou, Changsha, and Nanchang. Regrouping in various upland rural redoubts that bordered on two or more southern provinces, many of the chastened CCP revolutionaries decided to build up their strength among the huge population of disaffected villagers rather than to continue clinging dogmatically to China’s tiny urban proletariat.¹ The first Chinese Communist governments thereby arose in southeastern rural guerrilla strongholds that lay at a relatively safe distance from the...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The PRC Prison Camp (I): From Arrest to Forced Labor
    (pp. 62-106)

    Although PRC prison camp conditions have varied along with the specific historical setting and physical location of a camp, a number of shared general patterns or phases can be discerned from memoirs, fiction, and other retrospective writings on confinement in the camps. This chapter traces these widely shared patterns of the prison camp regime from arrest through forced labor, while Chapter 4 ranges from party-state strategies of control over prisoners and struggle sessions to the final release from prison. Of course, few prisoners would have experienced all of these aspects of prison existence; the terminal phases of execution and death...

  9. CHAPTER 4 The PRC Prison Camp (II): From Struggle Sessions to Release or Death
    (pp. 107-153)

    Routine actions of the laogai authorities have often served to erode the inmate’s sense of identity, especially the capacity for independent moral judgment. By replacing an inmate’s name with a three- or four-digit number, prison authorities have diminished their captives from decision-making subjects to the objects of the authorities’ commands and punishment. When ordered to pin a paper strip with his number, 273, to his chest, Cong Weixi feels as though he were “a death-row inmate awaiting the executioner’s bullet, and had already bid mankind a final farewell. The only difference is that the condemned inmates on their way to...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Prison Writings
    (pp. 154-188)

    During the Mao Era, prison writings set in the contemporary PRC amounted to a kind of “forbidden zone”[jinqu]that local authors gave a wide berth. Even foreigners who dared flout this unwritten rule were likely to encounter retaliation in their dealings with the highly image-conscious party-state.¹ Merely for having written a book review of Jean Pasqualini’s laogai memoirPrisoner of Maoin 1973, Harvard historian John Fairbank was denied a visa for a long-awaited trip to the PRC. Fairbank was disappointed but appropriately unapologetic, and a decade and a half later wrote a book review of Zhang Xianliang’s prison...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 189-196)

    Since the early 1990s, many Chinese ultra-nationalists, both inside and outside the PRC government, have developed an increasingly heated and one-sided discourse of Chinese victimization at the hands of various foreign powers, who in the state-controlled press become easy scapegoats for predominantly internal Chinese problems. To be sure, there is an inglorious history of Western and Japanese imperialist acts in China that span from the 1830s to the 1940s. Still, to react to international criticism of China’s human rights record by focusing almost exclusively on the negative aspects of foreign powers’ interactions with China since the 1830s may betray an...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-220)
  13. Chinese Character Glossary
    (pp. 221-230)
  14. Index
    (pp. 231-248)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 249-249)