BEIJING – China's privileged remain privileged even in prison.
When Gu Kailai, wife of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai, is sent to prison following her conviction for the murder of a British businessman, she's 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 Communist Party rivals, corrupt politicians, newspaper editors critical of the government, leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, Chairman Mao's power-hungry widow.
"The prison is known because it has locked up China's most famous political prisoners," said Dai Qing, 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 20 square meters, or 215 square feet, 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 (pronounced CHIN-CHUNG) is no 'Club Fed' — the nickname for the comfortable minimum security federal prisons for white-collar criminals in the U.S. 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, a former high-level party official who spent seven years in Qincheng for opposing the crackdown that ended the Tiananmen protests.
The Public Security Ministry, which oversees Qincheng, denied a written AP 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.
But 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.
When Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed waves of purges in his radical Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, Qincheng was overwhelmed. The prison was expanded to accommodate the influx, and conditions became more uneven. Torture became common.
Wu Faxian, an air force general purged ostensibly for plotting a coup, was kept in a cell 3 feet (one meter) by 10 feet (three meters). "There was no desk or chair. My clothes and eating utensils were on the floor, and the bugs crawled into them," he wrote in his memoir.
Once a month he received a haircut and a shave and shared one dull nail clipper with other inmates. A diet of coarse cornbread and boiled cabbage left him malnourished.
"Black dots kept appearing in front of my eyes, and sometime they were raining down," Wu wrote.
When the political tide turned a decade later, Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, was sent to Qincheng. Harry Wu, a U.S.-based human rights activist who recently published a book on Qincheng, said Jiang was placed in a two-room suite with a private bathroom, possibly the best Qincheng could provide.
Conditions improved. Dai, the journalist, said gradually she was given newspapers and books from the jail library — William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," popular martial arts novels by Louis Cha and the Chinese classic "The Dream of the Red Chamber."
Dai was allowed a two-hour break every day, though she was disappointed to find herself alone in a walled courtyard, watched over by guards. "Like caged lions and tigers, most of us walked back and forth impatiently," she wrote.
Bao recalled the walls dividing the courtyards were so thick that guards could patrol on top of them. "They wore an ammunition belt, but I didn't know if they were armed," Bao said.
An egg was added to his breakfast of bread and porridge after his wife complained to Jiang Zemin, then the party's secretary general, Bao said. His family also got him a mosquito net, and sent him books, which he received after they were checked page by page to make sure they contained no unauthorized correspondence, Bao said.
Qincheng got a remodeling in the mid-'90s to make way for a new breed of prisoners: senior officials who had grown used to lavish liftestyles and were being ostensibly purged for untrammeled graft. In 1996, when Bao returned to a Qincheng prison cell after spending time in a prison-affiliated hospital, his accommodations were much grander.
His cell had a sofa, and the plank bed propped up by wooden benches was replaced with a mattress bed. The beddings were no longer white.
"They were really pretty — as if they were for weddings," Bao said. "It was like someone just got rich overnight."
Among Qincheng's inmates in recent years were Chen Xitong, the party secretary of Beijing, and Chen Liangyu, who held a similar position in Shanghai. Not related, the two Chens were purged in separate embezzlement scandals a decade apart, though political analysts say their real crimes were political — losing out in power struggles.
Chen Xitong, deposed in 1995, went on a hunger strike to protest the poor food, according to a recent book by Yao Jianfu, a retired scholar who interviewed Chen. Yao said Chen was given a radio to listen to Voice of America and keep up with the outside world.
Chen Liangyu, removed in 2006, kept a daily routine inside the prison, practicing tai chi in addition to reading newspapers, books and watching TV, Hong Kong-based media have reported. The reports said he wore a Western-style suit in prison.
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