I flew to Beijing from Hong Kong on February 26, 2003 to make final preparations for a visit to Lhasa to see Ngawang Sangdrol, a young Tibetan nun who had been incarcerated in Drapchi Prison as a counterrevolutionary. I was the guest of the Ministry of Justice, but the visit to Lhasa had also been approved by senior leaders of the State Council, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Communist Party.
Before going to Lhasa to meet Ngawang Sangdrol, I was invited to tour a Chinese prison in the vicinity of Beijing, Yancheng Prison in Yanjiao Township, Hebei Province, about an hour’s drive from Beijing. The visit was to take place on February 27, a cold and dreary day. I was picked up at my hotel at 9 AM, arriving at the prison before 10 AM. The visit lasted two hours.
Yancheng Prison is the only prison in China under the direct control of the Ministry of Justice. All other prisons in China are under the control of provincial prison bureaus, with the exception of Qincheng Prison in Beijing, which is under the control of the Ministry of Public Security. Yancheng was opened in October 2002, less than six months before my visit. I was told that I was the second foreigner to visit the prison. The first foreign visitor was the Minister of Justice of Zimbabwe. I thanked the Vice Minister of Justice who accompanied me on the visit for this high honor.
A High Honor
At the time of my visit, the first phase of construction had been completed and the first batch of 100 prisoners had been admitted. Eventually, 1,000 prisoners would be housed in the half-square-kilometer facility until the second phase of construction was completed at the end of 2004, at which time the facility would house 1,600 prisoners.
At full capacity, the prison would hold as many as 400 foreign prisoners. I was told that many of the foreign prisoners would have been convicted by courts in other parts of China but would be held in Yancheng for the convenience of family members who wished to make monthly visits, standard practice in the Beijing Hebei region. Guards speaking foreign languages would supervise the foreign prisoners.
Yancheng Prison was described as a “teaching prison,” a facility where wardens and guards from around the country would learn the most advanced techniques for running prisons. The plan was for there to be a prisoner to guard ratio of 4:1. Prisoners would be organized into groups of 100, each group representing a specific crime (e.g. assault, theft). The administration would experiment with different reform techniques to ascertain which ones are most effective for which crimes.
The prison (known, for its distinctive architecture, as the “White House”) was originally meant to house inmates from Beijing and Hebei serving sentences of 5-10 years, but as time went by it was used to house prisoners who had committed crimes in other parts of China, as well as prisoners serving longer sentences. Such prisoners were often senior government and party officials, including family members, many of whom had been convicted of corruption.
They lived a privileged life. Chinese social media was ablaze with indignant tales of profligate living, including free internet, banquets, heavy drinking, and hosting of sex workers in the former officials’ palatial cells.
One of the most famous prisoners sent to Yancheng was Gu Kailai, wife of Bo Xilai, former Chongqing party chief and member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. Bo was in line to join the Standing Committee of the Politburo when he was removed from his posts in 2012. He was convicted of corruption in 2013. He was one of the first “big tigers” felled by General Secretary Xi Jinping. Bo is serving his life sentence in Qincheng Prison.
In August 2012, Gu Kailai was convicted of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood and given a suspended death sentence, later commuted in late December 2015 to life in prison. She is incarcerated in Yancheng’s female prisoner wing. Unlike almost all other prisons in China, Yancheng has cell blocks for both male and female prisoners.
Other notorious tigers serving long sentences in Yancheng are Nan Yong and Yang Yimin, former vice chairmen of the China Football Association (sentenced to 10 and ½ years for corruption) and Zhang Shuguang, a senior official of the Ministry of Railways (life in prison for taking bribes).
On February 27, 2003, the date of my visit, I was taken to the warden’s office where I was given a brief introduction, including on how the sentence reduction and parole system worked.
I then toured a cell block, the well-equipped infirmary, work spaces, classrooms, and the kitchen offering bountiful dishes, including ethnic food. Each cell held up to eight prisoners. The prisoners slept on bunk beds made of wood with no sharp edges, to prevent suicides. I was also shown the solitary confinement cells. They had yet to be used, I was told. The prison was situated in well-tended grounds with flowers and trees. I was told that soccer pitches and a gym would be provided.
Appeal for a Transfer
Not long after my visit I sent a letter to the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Judicial Assistance and Foreign Affairs, thanking it for the visit. I had been asked by the family to help a foreign prisoner who had been convicted of an economic crime and was incarcerated in a Beijing prison. In my letter to the ministry I asked that he be transferred to Yancheng Prison. My request was eventually granted.
After several sentence reductions, the man was released from Yancheng several years early, around five years after my visit to the prison.
He thanked me for my efforts on his behalf. He knew I had visited Yancheng, but he remarked that the inmates hated visits by foreign dignitaries. “They make us do lots of work to make the prison spic and span.” he remarked. “We are given toothbrushes to clean the stairs and if any dirt remains we are punished.”
After my visit, I returned to Beijing. The following day I flew to Lhasa via Chengdu to see Ngawang Sangdrol.
Yancheng’s reputation as a luxury prison for high level corrupt officials finally caught up to it. A widely-viewed WeChat posting of life at the prison in 2016 — replete with pictures of abundant food, manicured gardens, and soccer pitches — fueled widespread indignation. The photos appeared shortly before Minister of Justice Wu Aiying was toppled for corruption in early 2017.
In December 2018, a high-level inspection team made up of central party and government officials reported on their investigation into what was going on in Yancheng Prison. It concluded that prison management lacked “in depth study and implementation of Xi Jinping’s socialist ideology with Chinese characteristics.”
The prison also came under fire for lacking an “unswerving spirit to implement the instructions of central leading comrades, including General Secretary Xi Jinping,” and for “serious violations of law and discipline by guards.” It is not known if the findings of the MOJ inspection impacted inmates serving sentences at Yancheng. At least one prisoner who had refused to admit guilt and who was serving a long sentence was transferred to another prison with far worse conditions.