Rounded up into torture camps: the 'undesirables' China doesn't want you to see
By Andrew Malone
Last updated at 2:28 AM on 16th August 2008
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The bleak concrete walls topped with razor wire and the sentries in towers at the gates are a chilling reminder of a different era.
On the nearby roads, heavily armed guards patrol relentlessly, checking both drivers and pedestrians, constantly alert.
Meanwhile, less than 30 miles away, the world's attention is focused on the world-famous 'Bird's Nest' Olympic stadium and the other venues where a global audience of two billion is watching the Games and enjoying the spectacle of the 'new' China.
Out in force: Security on patrol before the Olympic opening ceremony
The Beijing regime has deployed an army of 500,000 smiling volunteers to help foreigners find their way around the teeming capital city.
Blades of grass have been individually combed. Signs have been erected in English.
Spitting has been banned and taxi drivers have been told to wear ties.
But there's none of that here in the suburb of Daxing, where the only 'venues' are the five camps into which thousands of China's 'undesirables' have been swept from the streets of Beijing and locked up.
Here, down bumpy, unlit roads, is where old habits die hard for China's brutal totalitarian communist regime.
These camps are being used to imprison - without trial or legal representation - people that the regime wants the world to believe do not exist amid the miracle of modern China.
From street children, hawkers, the homeless and prostitutes, to the mentally ill, black migrants, drug dealers and gays caught in public bathhouses, the camps on the outskirts of the city started filling up with Beijing's 'undesirables' last year as part of the Chinese regime's determination to present what it sees as an acceptable face to the world.
It is all eerily reminiscent of the build-up to the 1936 Games in Berlin, when the government cleared similar 'undesirables' from the streets.
Under Hitler's regime many of the Nazi concentration camps bore the slogan Arbeit macht frei (Work makes you free) at their gates.
In China, the camps bear the slogan 'Re-education Through Labour'. (It's a peculiar irony that Beijing has been so determined to use the English language to welcome the world, that street signs even bear the chilling words.)
The camps themselves are festooned with banners in Mandarin Chinese stating that 'you must be punished according to the laws of the Olympics', and reveal the extraordinary lengths to which the Chinese are prepared to go to in order to convince the world of the country's success.
Working up to 16 hours a day and held in cramped, unsanitary cells with only one toilet bucket for dozens of inmates, the existence of the jailed 'undesirables' is something China has done its best to hide.
The policy of 'people clearances' began last year and those taken in were moved to the camps on the outskirts of Beijing, which were built in the 1960s for the purposes of 'cleansing' the minds of dissidents opposed to the state.
By using torture, brainwashing techniques and the use of heavy labour, Chairman Mao was determined to convince opponents of the error of their ways.
The camps have been used in more recent times to hold dissidents, lawyers and followers of religions banned by the government.
But sweeps of the city ahead of the influx of foreign visitors have meant these dissidents have been joined by a new list of victims, who have until now been allowed to work freely in the capital.
deploying thousands of undercover police, as well as uniformed groups of youths wearing red shirts and armbands, strenuous efforts have been made to ensure the city has been purged of all 'anti-social' elements.
African immigrants to Beijing have been rounded up from popular tourist areas such as San li Tun, Beijing's equivalent of Soho.
The patrols of the red- shirted groups are constant. Even now, with the Games under way, some residents are not safe from arrest and incarceration.
'Tony', a Nigerian entrepreneur who has lived in China for the past three years, watched as dozens of his African friends were arrested last month. He hasn't seen them since.
'I started running when I saw what was happening,' he told me. 'I've heard they are in the camps. I'm just keeping my head down until you lot [foreigners] go and hoping it all returns to normal.'
With the few remaining black people and some gay men banned from entire areas, along with instructions from the authorities that they should not be served in bars or restaurants, witnesses say thousands of others have been bundled into unmarked vans and taken to the camps on the outskirts of the city.
According to prison camp sources, who risk incarceration and torture for simply speaking about what happens inside the camps, the 'undesirables' are separated into male and female groups.
They are then put to work in vast hangar-like sheds, where they are forced to make chopsticks and soft toys - the very goods that are being peddled on the streets of Beijing to tourists visiting the Olympics.
Inmates are forced to work through the night.
In some of the other camps - all located in the Tuan He district in the Daxing suburb of Beijing, less than an hour's drive from the Bird's Nest stadium - the ' undesirables' are forced to clean beans and other Chinese foods - which are then sold by the communist authorities to private businesses serving the influx of foreigners.
Punishment is brutal for those who try to resist. According to my camp informant, women who do not work hard enough are stripped naked for days on end - something regarded as particularly shaming in Chinese society.
Another favoured method of punishment is called the Tiger Bench - where 'undesirables' are forced to sit upright on a long bench with their hands tied behind their backs. Their thighs are also tied to the bench - and bricks placed under the feet to raise them off the floor.
Human rights groups say some victims are forced to remain in this position for days on end, causing excruciating pain.
Those who complain or refuse to eat in protest at their detention are force-fed - with guards holding their mouths open and tipping food down their victims' gullets, making them choke and vomit. There are more than 1,000 of these camps located around this country of more than 1.3 billion people.
In 2005, the authorities opened one Re-education Through Labour Camp to United Nations investigators investigating claims that inmates were being killed and their organs 'harvested' and sold to wealthy Chinese desperate for transplants.
Nothing untoward was found. The camp had even been painted ahead of the UN visit.
Dissidents claimed later that victims are transferred from camp to camp whenever any brutality is discovered by outside bodies.
The sweep of the city is good news for the prison camp guards, who are making extra money from the Olympics.
Sources say they are getting as much overtime as they want a result of the thousands of 'undesirables' rounded up.
Phelim Kine, a spokesman for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: 'The purge of migrants, sex workers and beggars during the Olympics is a reflection of the obsessive concern that nothing can remain on the streets that clashes with the government's carefully applied veneer of "stability" and "harmony".
'Beijing is unique for the unprecedented scale of the campaign to sterilise the city ahead of the Games of elements embarrassing to the Chinese government's status as a rising power.'
The existence of the camps - and the admission by Chinese officials that people can be locked up without trial there for up to four years - will add to the growing sense that Beijing is trying to hoodwink the world; with the complicity of the International Olympic Committee.
After British journalists were roughed-up and detained in Tiananmen Square this week, and a relative of the U.S. volleyball coach was murdered by an unemployed Chinese man protesting about government policies, Olympic officials stressed they were 'very proud' about how Beijing 2008 is progressing.
When China won the rights to the Olympics, IOC president Jacques Rogge boasted that hosting the Games would improve China's human rights record.
Tellingly, Wei Wang, a Chinese official, yesterday denied that his country had made any such promises to improve human rights.
'After 30 years of reform, China has developed greatly. People enjoy more freedom. People are living a good life. Everyone is happy. That's a fact.,' he said.
'Of course, there are exceptions. But they need to take the legal process and procedures to resolve any issues.'
Much the same could have been said in Germany in 1936 - and it would have had just as hollow a ring to it.
As Susan Bachrach, a historian and expert on the Berlin Games, says: 'Hosting the Olympics presented the Nazi leadership with an extraordinary opportunity to project the illusion of a peaceful, tolerant Germany under the guise of the Games' spirit of international co-operation.
'That effort was largely successful, and the regime scored a major propaganda victory.'
Beijing must hope that its propaganda effort will be every bit as effective.
The Chinese believe that at the end of the Games, the world will be left with happy memories of a spectacular event.
But for those who were deemed 'undesirable' and dumped into prison camps without trial, the memories of the 2008 Olympics will be very different indeed.