Focus topics

Qincheng – China’s infamous prison

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

In northern Beijing, about 35 kilometers from the city, hides Qincheng, the country’s notorious special prison. All party leaders from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping have had their political opponents disappear there since 1960. No journalist was allowed to glimpse behind its walls. China’s judiciary is also kept out. Qincheng answers only to the Ministry of State Security. It’s a reminder that in China, too, the revolution eats its children.

In the past, the people of Beijing told a political joke about the secretive detention center for prominent figures: “Why are you here?” one inmate asks another in the courtyard, “Because I was against Jiang Qing (Mao Zedong’s wife). And you?” “Because I supported her.” A woman standing next to them adds, “And I’m here because I’m Jiang Qing.”

There is only one detail wrong with the joke: all prisoners in Qincheng are kept in solitary confinement. They can’t even meet in the yard. US-American Sidney Rittenberg experienced it first hand. As the only foreigner, he was imprisoned by the Cultural Revolutionaries in Qincheng for nine years. He was not released until November 1977. That summer, he overheard a woman in a cell chanting praises to Chairman Mao. He recognized the voice. It was Jiang Qing.

Mao’s widow had been arrested during a Beijing palace coup after the death of her husband in October 1976. While Mao remained untouchable as a figurehead until today, all his crimes were blamed on his wife. In April1977, she was imprisoned in Qincheng and sentenced to death in a show trial in 1981. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment in Qincheng. Jiang Qing took her own life on May 14, 1991.

In 2009, an exposé story about Qincheng, China’s most secretive prison, first appeared as the cover story of the party’s Global People Magazine. The photo in the middle shows the entrance gate.

Rittenberg knew her well. Mao and his wife had used the radical leftist foreign cultural revolutionary as their activist, letting him rise in ranks. His subsequent fall was all the harder. In his biography, “The Man who stayed behind” (Simon & Schuster), he describes how Mao’s henchmen arrested him at midnight. The arrest warrant was “signed by all 16 members of the Proletarian Headquarters, including Mao, Zhou Enlai and Jiang Qing.”

As prisoner number 32 admitted to Qincheng in 1968, Rittenberg became prisoner 6832. Mao’s former Russian interpreter Yan Mingfu had already been placed behind bars for half a year under number 67124 as the 124th prisoner admitted in 1967. Accused of being a spy for Moscow, Yan remained in prison until 1975. Two decades later, I interviewed him in Beijing. Back then, he was a minister. He told me that just a few meters from his cell, his father Yan Baohuang was also imprisoned as prisoner 67100. Yan didn’t know this. Once at night, he heard someone coughing, just like his father always had. Only after his release did Yan learn that it was indeed his father, who died soon after. His ashes were tossed away. The minister cried when he told me about the cruelties in Qincheng.

Surviving incarceration meant not losing your mind

Father and son were inhumanely treated by Mao and Jiang Qing, whom they had served faithfully for decades, as were countless others. At the height of the Cultural Revolutionary chaos, half of the 502 prisoners were companions of Mao, as his former secretary Li Rui recalled. Because of critical words, he made an early enemy of the dictator, who sensed enemies at every corner, and was eventually placed in solitary confinement in Qincheng for eight years. “Nearly 30 died, 20 were crippled, over 60 went insane,” he revealed in the May 2015 issue of Yanhuang Chunjiu magazine. Li Rui survived and remained sane because he secretly wrote 400 poems with a tincture made of iodine. As early as 1955, Mao had demanded for him to build a special prison for his perceived opponents

As a grotesque footnote to Cultural Revolutionary history, Li Rui notes that Feng Qiqing, the former vice-mayor of Beijing who supervised the construction of the prison for Mao, was arrested in 1968 as a “bourgeois reactionary” and also imprisoned in Qincheng until 1975. With the help of Soviet experts, modeled after Stalin’s Sukhanovka Prison, four three-story, alphabetically separated detention buildings were built, each with its own interrogation rooms and a surrounding five-meter high wall. In 1960, the new prison was put into service. In 2009, the Global People Magazine, published by the People’s Daily, first printed a 12-page exposé on Qincheng as its cover story. In fact, the prison should have been number 157 among the 156 aid projects for China in cooperation with Moscow. Because of the secrecy, this did not happen.

Global People has featured inmates incarcerated since 1960. It began with hundreds of high-ranking Kuomintang military officers, war criminals and spies in the 1960s. Then came the losers of power struggles within the party. First, the most prominent victims of Mao’s campaigns such as the 1957 anti-rights movement and his Cultural Revolution ended up in Qincheng. Then, after Mao’s death, the alleged conspirators of the “Lin Biao clique” and the “Gang of Four around Mao’s widow.” In the 1990s, prominent dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng to student leader of June 4th, Wang Dan were also imprisoned, as were Party leaders and Politburo members from Shanghai and Beijing. At the time of the Cultural Revolution, the prison already had to be expanded by six new buildings.

Under Xi, Qincheng becomes a cage for tigers

The first comprehensive report on Qincheng was authored by journalist Yuan Ling, who interviewed some 100 former inmates and spent more than ten years researching for his Chinese book on the prison (袁凌:秦城监狱). Yuan Ling calls Qincheng the result of a “joint birth of the Soviet system with China’s authoritative system of people’s democratic dictatorship.” (它是苏维埃体制与人民民主专政权威的共同产儿.) He found no publisher in mainland China; in Hong Kong, only a small printing house dared to publish it in 2016.

This is because since Xi Jinping took office in late 2012, Qincheng has found a new use. It is widely known as the “cage for tigers” because dozens of once-famous party politicians, provincial governors, People’s Congress leaders, military brass, or CEOs of big corporations and banks from all over the country have a rendezvous behind bars. Xi had them all arrested overnight, ousted, and later formally convicted of horrendous corruption. Afterward, they all ended up in Qincheng. Many illustrious names are found among the inmates, such as Chongqing’s party leader Bo Xilai, ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang, high-ranking generals like Guo Boxiong, or CCP chief advisors like Ling Jihua.

Current reports about the prison are confidential. All that is known is that the fallen ex-elite are now housed in more comfortable, larger single cells and are better cared for than in the past. But Qincheng, to which China’s judiciary has no access, remains a place where revolution eats its own children. Once again, it is as secretive and shrouded as it had been in the past.


    How realistic are China’s semiconductor ambitions?
    With more transparency to more vaccinations
    Rethinking global supply chains
    Fight against downward pressure