The Dark System

Part 4: Traumas


Huang Guoyu wrings out her long black hair over a small bowl. There are some lettuce leaves next to her on a sideboard. Behind her is a squat toilet and the family's laundry hangs above her on a nylon clothesline. Huang dries herself and then begins preparing dinner in this provisional kitchen/washroom.

In the hallway of the electronics store, Li has built a plywood platform under the ceiling with a ladder that leads up to the small, cramped sleeping area covered in mattresses and blankets. One of the blankets is adorned with comic book heroes, while a pillow is decorated with pigs. It reeks of urine and sweat.

Li and Huang have been sharing this stuffy space for months with their children, while Li's father sleeps on a cot in the front of the store. The children frequently ask when they will have their own rooms again, but it's a question to which Li has no answer.

The compensation for their old house was not nearly enough to buy a new apartment and since his release from the prison camp, Li has appealed to the courts for more money. So far, though, his efforts have been unsuccessful.

The family eats dinner in Li's workshop. They grab a few plastic chairs and sit in a circle among cables, circuit boards and cathode ray tubes from broken TVs. They share rice, roasted vegetables and a few mandarins.

Li immediately reopened his shop the day after he was released, eager to begin earning money for his family again as quickly as possible. But some of his old customers avoided his shop. They wanted nothing to do with a former prisoner.

In one corner of the workshop stands a lockable metal cabinet where Li keeps all of his court documents. His case file is around 30 centimeters thick and weighs over five kilograms.

In addition to demanding greater compensation for his house, Li is also pursuing a confirmation that he was imprisoned unjustly. He even wrote a letter to then-President Hu Jintao. He never received a response.

Li's old police hat sits on a desk in his workshop. A metal emblem adorns the front, with four small golden stars creating a semicircle around a much larger fifth star. The large star symbolizes the leadership of the Communist Party while the four smaller stars represent the workers, farmers, the petit bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie. It's an old symbol hailing from the era of Mao Zedong.

During his tenure as an elite policeman, Li wore the hat with pride. Today, it reminds him of how uncomplicated his life was before he knew China's dark side.

In 2014, when we meet Li for another time, the last appellate court has dismissed his complaints, the High People's Court in Chongqing. For the first time in his life, Li had lost an important battle.

Only now, he understood that it was a fight he could never win because he was playing by the wrong rules. Li had thought he lived in a country where petitions meant something and the courts were fair.

He believed in a China that no longer exists, one that may never have existed. Once he understood that, something changed for Li Yiwen.


It's late in the evening, but Xie Sunming's factory is still operating at full capacity. Around 30 itinerant laborers are sitting at their sewing machines and churning out loads of semi-transparent, purple dresses for the spring collection.

The room is roughly as big as a gymnasium and is illuminated by bright overhead lights. The floor is partly covered by a sea of colorful scraps of fabric and a radio is playing music. The workers chat with one another; one woman carries her sleeping baby on her back.

Xie wanders through the rows and talks to the workers before getting a report from his foreman on how things are going.

In September 2013, Xie and his wife started over. They rented a new factory in a small, far-off industrial sector of Chongqing and have once again begun selling their products across China through wholesalers or online. Xie is back to traveling frequently across the country to introduce his collection to potential buyers.

Xie seems calm and relaxed when he talks about his company. The debts he accrued when he was locked away in the prison camp have long since been paid off and profits are rising again.

He could just forget about Xishanping. But he can't.

"From the outside, people assume I'm just a regular guy," Xie says. "But on the inside, I'm abnormal." He was treated like an animal in the prison camp, he says. "I feel like a tree with its branches cut off."

Xie began to research China's system of prison camps after his release and soon discovered a group of around a dozen former prisoners who had been, like him, incarcerated because of seemingly harmless internet postings.

The former inmates had a chat group, it was infiltrated by the police, but they didn't seem to care. Some sent money or food to relatives of prison camp prisoners. One forum participant explained that he was studying law, so he could defend Chinese people who had been unfairly thrown into prison camps. Another told Xie about the yanda, one of the biggest political scandals in recent Chinese history.

Shortly before Xie's arrest, Bo Xilai, the party chief of Chongqing, had tried to scale the ladder into the senior-most levels of the Communist Party by presenting himself as a hardline law-and-order type. Bo had directed Chongqing's chief of police, Wang Lijun, to carry out an anti-mafia campaign, which had allegedly ensnared as many as 6,000 criminals.

The "Washington Post" and other newspapers reported Bo and Wang had made the campaign seem more successful than it was by sending innocent people to prison camps. During that period, even the slightest transgression was enough to get someone in trouble. Including posting critical comments online like Xie did.


Through the chat group, Xie was introduced to the prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. Pu focused his efforts on former prison camp prisoners, often working on their defense pro bono. He was hoping to kick-start a grassroots revolution against the laojiao system.

Pu interviewed numerous ex-prisoners who had been thrown into prison camps for minor offenses and published full-length videos of those sometimes very personal interviews online. His hope was that the videos would encourage others to step forward and tell their stories, thus triggering a flood of firsthand accounts and increasing public pressure to dismantle the prison camps.

Xie liked the idea. He met with Pu and let his interview be recorded.

Once his video was published online, Xie received notification from the state security apparatus. "You may now file an appeal for your case," he was told.

Three days later, Xie received an official letter. "Your punishment was not appropriate," the letter read.

Shortly thereafter, Xie talked to the head of the police station that had arrested him back in 2009 for the comment he had posted on the internet. Xie asked if he had been innocent at the time. The policeman answered: "You were 90 percent innocent." The officer then said there had been considerable pressure to supply the laojiao with a steady stream of new prisoners. He had been afraid of landing in prison himself if he didn't follow orders.

Xie now had the answers he was looking for. He had a new factory and had regained control over his life. He could have left it at that. But he couldn't. Xishanping still wouldn't leave him in peace.


On Nov. 15, 2013, it briefly seemed as if things in China would improve. The third plenary session of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China had moved to close the laojiao. But Li, Xie, Sun and Pu weren't in the mood to celebrate. After all, evidence quickly mounted that rampant torture, forced labor and brainwashing would remain a feature of modern-day China.

According to Chinese state media, the laojiao have been converted one-by-one into drug rehab clinics (qiangzhi geli jiedusuo). Even Xishanping presents itself as one such center online. According to China's anti-drug law, inmates at such facilities must perform forced labor.

Reporting by the news agency Reuters has revealed that these so-called rehab clinics are guilty of the same human rights violations as the old laojiao. "Nothing has really changed," says Hubert Körper from the International Society for Human Rights. The Chinese government is trying to "fool the global public."

In addition to supposed drug rehab clinics, there are other facilities in which disagreeable citizens are imprisoned and forced into submission. Many of them are even less transparent than the laojiao used to be.

One example is China's so-called "black prisons" (hei jianyu) which are no longer located in one specific building. According to Amnesty International, spaces like offices and hotel rooms are often used to hold political activists or unruly citizens for months at a time. China's state-run "Global Times" has reported that provincial politicians sometimes cooperate with such illegal facilities to get rid of inconvenient critics.

The human rights organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has published secretly filmed videos and photos of these locations. In one study from October 2014, CHRD cited several witnesses who gave detailed accounts of how some people had allegedly been tortured to death in black prisons.


The magazine "Caijing" has reported that unruly citizens are also held in facilities for so-called legal training classes (fazhi jiaoyu xuexiban) and coerced to refrain from complaining to the central government in Beijing about abuses in their provinces by way of sleep deprivation or physical violence.

According to Amnesty International, some legal education classes are also used to force members of the Falun Gong sect to denounce their religion. Some former inmates described them to Reuters as "brainwashing classes."

There are even facilities for party members who have fallen out of favor. Multiple newspapers have reported on unofficial detention centers called shuanggui.

Some dissidents have been thrown into psychiatric facilities and drugged with psychopharmaceuticals to keep them quiet, according to Amnesty International. Others have been sentenced to up to 13 years in jail for relatively insignificant offenses. Chinese state media has also reported the existence of so-called correction centers in which inmates are taught to be obedient citizens through forced labor and political indoctrination.

Indeed, instead of eliminating the practice, China's system of oppression seems to have gotten bigger, more flexible and more efficient in recent years. The state, it would seem, possesses the ability to break the will of whomever it chooses, even that of its bitter enemy, Pu Zhiqiang.

Pu was arrested in May 2014 under the pretext of disturbing the peace and held for more than a year. At times, Pu, who is diabetic, would be prevented from receiving insulin. In December 2015, Pu was sentenced to three years of probation. He was also disbarred.

The man who had once been considered China's foremost defender of freedom of speech and who had given Xie Sunming so much hope did not appeal. He accepted the verdict.


When we meet Sun in Beijing again, his neck bears traces of chemical burns. According to his medical papers, he has only 25 percent visibility in his right eye. Sun's mobile phone rings at regular intervals and it's always a policeman calling him. In fact, one will soon arrive at the cafe where we are sitting. Because Sun doesn't want the officer to see us together, we will end our conversation shortly before he gets here.

Not long after his release from Xishanping, Sun picked his son up from school. He says he was astonished by how much the boy had grown up and how much he understood when Sun told him about Xishanping. His son said he would soon be joining the army. Sun was relieved. He knew the two of them could reconcile their differences and that he hadn't lost his son.

A few months later, Sun's father died. He was 80 and gravely ill. But Sun felt guilty nonetheless, believing he had broken the old man's heart. He had never told his father that he had been in a prison camp, he says, and his father had never asked him about it - but Sun believes he must have known or at least suspected it.

Sun believed he had disgraced his family and was ashamed. But then China's history was changed - and with it, Sun's was too.

In 2012, Bo Xilai, the once up-and-coming party head of Chongqing, fell out of the Communist Party's good graces. The party stripped Bo of all offices, including his membership in the party, and he was accused of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of authority. Even Bo's once-touted anti-mafia campaign was discredited.

On July 24, 2013, shortly before Bo was sentenced to life in prison by the intermediate court of the city of Jinan, a police commission ruled that Sun's prison camp sentence had been inappropriate. After more legal battles, Sun was awarded 30,087 yuan - around 3,750 euros - in compensation for his wrongful incarceration.

Sun was stunned. His arrest back in 2009 had served Bo's career. Now his pardon was serving to dismantle Bo's political legacy.

His dead father didn't know about that. And He Gang and his gang of thugs had destroyed Sun's hips. Xishanping was like a dark stain that could not be washed away.

Then, on Dec. 16, 2013, Sun got into another fight and he was arrested and brought to the police station. Sun resisted. He says the police tied him to a chair and sprayed pepper spray into his face seven or eight times.

The medical papers state that the spray corroded Sun's right eye and his throat. Sun knew that he couldn't fight back but he didn't want to capitulate either. He egged the police on.

"Maybe I should be psychologically evaluated," Sun says of himself. "I hardly feel anything anymore. I'm totally numb."

After the incident with the pepper spray, the police kept him in a group cell for an extended period, Sun says. His eyes and mouth were so swollen he could barely open them. He would moisten his lips with water in the morning and at night, but he couldn't eat anything. No one at the station treated his wounds.

Sun surreptitiously took photos of his injuries and once he was released, on Dec. 30, he published the images of his torture on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. More than 300,000 people clicked on the photos, left comments expressing their shock and dismay and shared the images on their own profiles. The next day all the entries had been deleted.

Ever since, Sun says, the police have been following his every move. Officials compensated him for his injuries, but Sun wants more money. He threatened to file a petition in Beijing outlining the abuse. Since then, he has received regular phone calls from officials just checking in.

Before getting up and putting on his oversized leather jacket, Sun shares that he was recently baptized. He is now an evangelical Christian. He hopes that God will show him the way and that he may finally find peace. "If I ever run into He Gang again," he says, "I'm going to invite him to share a meal."


Xie received many subsequent visits from the police. On one occasion, the officials tried to buy his silence, he says, promising that he would soon be a very successful businessman if only he would stop talking about his time in the prison camp.

Another time, they threatened him, Xie says, telling him they would find him no matter where he went.

A third time, someone rang the bell to Xie's apartment.

Outside the door stood a man who said he was there to repair Xie's broadband internet connection. Xie told the man he didn't have broadband, but when he later left his apartment, Xie discovered that the tires on his car had been slashed.

During our last meeting, Xie seemes agitated. He keeps his mobile phone mostly off, convinced as he is that the state is monitoring it. And he generally can't shake the feeling that someone is watching him.

Yet he still stays in touch with the other ex-prisoners and gives interviews about his time in the prison camp to newspapers, magazines and TV stations.

Xie is bitterly disappointed in the ostensible abolishment of the laojiao, saying that it is a far cry from the real reform that is necessary. The government should bolster the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press in addition to introducing an independent judiciary. The goal should be that of establishing a democratic country, he says, but that remains little more than a fantasy.

One time when Xie was taking a walk, he heard the call of a cuckoo. Suddenly, everything came rushing back to him. The searing thirst. The loneliness of those sleepless nights. The fear of the humiliation and beatings. The hatred of the group leaders.

Xie turned around and went home. He realized that he will never again be completely free.


The true abolishment of China's system of forced labor, torture and brainwashing would require comprehensive reforms. To better protect Chinese citizens, police and other security and judiciary officials must be strictly punished when they imprison people for months at a time without due process, convict people on the basis of dubious evidence or force false confessions through torture.

It's unlikely that such a reform is in the cards. For one thing, it would require the organs of the Communist Party to relinquish some of their power. The Ministry of Public Security, which controls the country's police forces, and the provincial governments, which enjoy broad freedoms when it comes to directing local security apparatuses, would lose some of their influence if far-reaching changes were made to the prison camp system.

Secondly, the power dynamics in the Chinese justice system would have to completely change. According to analyses by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, higher courts in China have considerable power over lower ones, which means they can exert influence over local jurisprudence. Furthermore, the security apparatus stands above the courts in the judicial hierarchy, meaning the police often have a privileged position when it comes to court rulings.

Chinese society has changed rapidly in the past three decades. The central government in Beijing has prioritized economic growth above all else, including the welfare of rural communities, the preservation of cultural treasures and the protection of the environment - but not its own power. On the contrary: The more social friction there is, the more differentiated and efficient the tools of oppression and control of the population become.

There may be only one reason why facilities for torture and forced labor may one day lose their significance: Someday, the state may no longer need them.

The Chinese central government is aiming to install a so-called social credit system by 2020. Citizens who don't adjust their behavior to the norms and maxims of the Communist Party can expect serious social disadvantages. If someone's credit score falls below a certain level, they will no longer be able to buy a train ticket or be promoted at work, for example. Even people whose friends are considered critical of the government can have points deducted.

The social credit system is already the norm in several regions of China. In the eastern Chinese town of Fulushan, for example, there is a large scoreboard that displays the names of those with the highest social scores, according to a report by the German public radio station Deutschlandfunk. "Whatever we do," one Fulushan resident told Deutschlandfunk in December, "we think about our credit points."


Li never truly left the prison camp. It still haunts him in his sleep, with two dreams in particular frequently coming back.

The first involves the boiling hot rice. In the second, Li is back in Xishanping's brightly lit factory and is soldering, repeating the same movements over and over again until he wakes up.

It's a sunny day in February 2014 and Li is sitting in his new apartment in Rongchang. It has four rooms, measures 107 square meters and has two balconies with views of a large plaza. The floors are of beige marble and the walls are covered with rose wallpaper. Everything is new and modern except for the small, red plastic stools from Li's old workshop in the dining room.

The family paid nearly 450,000 yuan for the apartment, or roughly 56,300 euros, taking out a loan for most of it. The 120,000 yuan Li received as compensation for his time in the prison camp didn't even come close to covering the cost of the new apartment.

Li tells us all this begrudgingly. He seems annoyed, tired, worn-out by fighting. He says he's suddenly hesitant about talking to other people. He has withdrawn from the world to a certain extent.

When we meet with Li one last time in February 2018, he is working extra shifts in a fitness studio to pay for his expensive mortgage. He has given up hope that the state will ever pay him a fair compensation.

Sometimes, Li returns to his old farmhouse. He visits it like other people visit cemeteries, to feel close to dead relatives. For Li, it's like a visit to his old life - to a time when he knew what he wanted and who he was.

On only a single occasion has Li taken his children along on one of these visits. They stood on the shore of the foggy reservoir and looked at the half-sunken ruins. It was a long time before Li said anything, and when he did, it was only a single sentence.

"Never forget," he said, "what the state did to us."


Stefan Schultz

Edward Lee
Jannika Schultz
Stefan Schultz

Stefan Schultz

Jannika Schultz

Edward Lee
Stefan Schultz
Jannika Schultz
Bernhard Zand

Birk Reddehase

Mona Eing
Michael Meißner

Frank Gustavus

Edward Lee

Yasmin El-Sharif
Olaf Kanter
Birger Menke
Jens Radü

Fact checking
Mara Küpper
Rainer Szimm

Sascha Sajuntz

Copy editing
Christine Sommerschuh
Sebastian Hofer

Photo editing
Nasser Manouchehri
Stephanie Meyer-Stolten

Video production
Roman Höfner
Aida Marquéz
Stefan Schultz

Tobias Lauer
Michael Niestedt
Marcel Pauly
Hanz Sayami
Patrick Stotz

Motion Design
Ferdinand Kuchlmayr
Michael Niestedt

Caroline Dale
Ilan Eshkeri
Stephen Mclaughlin
Risto Miettinen
Andrew Raiher
Debbie Wiseman

Birk Reddehase
Stefan Schultz

Chris Kurt

Technical backend
Axel Bolz

Test Group
Matthias Kaufmann
Timo Sauer
Stefan Schütt

Translation into English
Chris Cottrell
Charles Hawley
Daryl Lindsey

Translations from Chinese
Sebastien Armand
Maximilian Kalkhof
Edward Lee

Additional picture material
Getty Images
Julie Keith
Xie Sunming

Additional video material
Li Yiwen
Pu Zhiqiang
Xie Sunming


In Part 2, read what happens to Li, Xie und Sun in the prison camp.

In Part 3, read how life in the prison camp changes Li, Xie and Sun.

In Part 4, read how Li, Xie und Sun seek to overcome the trauma of Xishanping.

Part 1: Arrested
Part 2: Torture and Forced Labor
Part 3: The Metamorphosis
Part 4: Traumas


The electrician Li Yiwen is an ardent supporter of the Chinese Communist Party. When the provincial government wants to tear down his house, Li demands a higher compensation and suddenly gets arrested. The hot-blooded truck driver Sun Yongda is detained, too, after a brawl with some corrupt security guards. The textile manufacturer Xie Sunming is also discharged from his appartment after posting a dissident commentary online. The three men are brought to the prison camp Xishan Ping without legal process.

The patriotic Yi Yiwen, hot-blooded Sun Yongda and business-minded Xie Sunming have been detained in the prison camp Xishanping for petty offences. They get to know each other and federalise against their guards who are torturing them with beatings, psychological coercion and depriviation of water. The inmates have to solder LAN ports for six days a week, up to 16 hours a day. Police officers also drill the rules oft he Communist Party into them. When Sun and the aggressive guard He Gang start to bicker, the situation escalates.

The three Chinese men Yi Yiwen, Sun Yongda and Xie Sunming have been enduring torture, forced labor and brainwashing in the Xishanping prison camp for months. The traumatic experience starts to change their personalities: The hot-blooded Sun dissociates from his feelings, after spending 30 days in solitary confinement. The rather apolitical Xie grows a bottomless hate against the government. The patriotic Li loses his belief in the Communist Party. When the three men are finally released from the prison camp, they realise that their old lives are gone.