Chinese journalist Wang Jing in an October 2020 photo in Belgrade, Serbia, where she stopped on her way to the United States. She is seeking asylum after her imprisonment in China. (Wang Jing)

‘I had escaped death’: 64 Tianwang journalist Wang Jing recounts her traumatic imprisonment in China

Most journalists jailed in China are afraid to speak out after their release. In a rare interview, Wang Jing, who is now in the United States seeking asylum, has recounted her imprisonment and alleged torture in China. 

Wang was arrested in 2014 when she was reporting on a protest for the now-defunct news outlet 64 Tianwang. In 2016, she was sentenced to four years and 10 months in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in her writing on human rights, as CPJ documented at the time

Wang was released from Jilin Women’s Prison in Jilin province in 2019 after serving a full sentence. She found her world turned upside down. After losing direct contact with her family for nearly five years, she said her husband was unwilling to reunite and her daughter barely acknowledged her. The two live in Japan; CPJ called a number for Wang’s husband and someone picked up the phone but did not respond to questions.

Thinking she could be rearrested, and that it would be nearly impossible to see her daughter again if she stayed in China, Wang fled the country, stopping in Switzerland, Serbia, and Turkey before landing in the United States.

Now in Seattle, she now aims to revive 64 Tianwang, a human rights news website founded by publisher Huang Qi, who has been imprisoned since 2016. According to CPJ’s review of the site’s archive64 Tianwang has not published new material since 2017. 

In a telephone interview, Wang told CPJ in unsparing and graphic detail about the mistreatment she experienced, and her advice for journalists who continue to work in China amid state repression. It is not possible for CPJ to independently verify Wang’s account, but it is in line with details of prison abuse in China documented by Human Rights Watch

CPJ called the Jilin Prison Management Bureau and emailed the Chinese State Council for comment but did not receive replies. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you begin reporting for 64 Tianwang?

In 2013, I visited Huang Qi and the Tianwang Human Rights Center in Chengdu [Huang’s human rights organization, which also ran 64 Tianwang]. Previous to my visit, Huang Qi had posted an account of my family’s grievances on 64 Tianwang. My sister was murdered on the job at a national oil corporation in 1993. Law enforcement and prosecutors never took action and buried her case. She was only 19. I was grateful to him for paying attention to the disadvantaged and I admired his courage to speak up for them.  

I saw the hardship Huang Qi endured for speaking out for the disadvantaged in China and felt the desire to share some of the burden. I asked what I could do to help and Huang asked me to edit articles and interview people — protesters whose lands and houses were forcibly taken over by the state, people who faced local corruption or wrongful imprisonment, or people who dealt with other social issues. That’s how I started working for 64 Tianwang. As a citizen journalist, I photographed and reported news on the ground and sent [my material] back to Huang immediately.  

When I began to protest against the injustice [my family experienced] I discovered a corrupt and dark side of the Chinese government extending across the public security and justice departments. I was searching for a way out of this unrelenting anger. Through being a citizen journalist and a “Tianwang volunteer,” I found emotional and spiritual comfort in speaking out for the disadvantaged. My life became busy and fulfilling, and my depression was gone.

You were arrested the year after you began reporting for 64 Tianwang and you said you were tortured in custody. What are you able to share from that period? 

I was tortured and mistreated at the police unit, the detention center, and the prison.

When I was taken to the police unit, I pretended to be unconscious. The police put me on the concrete floor and then dragged me by my legs into a tiger stool [a device used for restraint and torture]. I felt my bones on the spine roll onto the tiger stool one by one. It was unbearably painful and my hip bones were damaged because of it. Then, the officers used shoe insoles to slam and gag me for an entire day and night. In the end, four male policemen grabbed the handcuffs on my hands and shackles on my feet to carry me into the detention center’s cell without checking my physical condition. My wrists and ankles were blue and swollen. 

That night, I got up and tried to commit suicide by slamming myself against the glass window [in the prison cell]. [Guards] put full-body handcuffs and shackles on me. When the morning came, the director of the correctional team came into the cell and slapped me in the face with flip flops. I was beaten, scolded, and slapped many times by the same director during my time at the detention center for resisting forced labor. 

One time I was attacked by two female correctional directors. They took me into a room with no cameras and kicked me violently with their high-heeled shoes for fighting back. They took turns beating me and I tried to fight back. They didn’t care if it was my head or spine. My already-injured hip bones and spine were damaged further. Then they directed other prisoners to drag me on the floor. The bruises I got from this attack lasted two months. I couldn’t feel one of my legs or walk for a while. I still suffer from these injuries today. 

For more than half a year in the detention center, I wore shackles and handcuffs that were connected by a steel wire. There was a mixture of excrement, urine, and rice on the handcuffs and shackles. I couldn’t stretch my arms and legs even while sleeping. This was the most torturous thing. 

I went on a hunger strike for six months after the day I was arrested. My weight plummeted to 20 or 30 kilograms (44 or 66 pounds) from 64 kilograms (141.1 pounds). I was extremely skinny and had severe anemia. I lost most of my hair. I couldn’t do simple addition and subtraction using figures under one hundred. I would forget what I wanted to say in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes I couldn’t move while sleeping because my body and heart were in so much pain. It felt like I was dying when that happened. I had attempted suicide many times, but I never succeeded. So I tried to kill myself slowly through hunger strikes.

You had a brain tumor before you were imprisoned. Did you try to seek treatment?

Since entering the detention center, I felt that my brain tumor was getting worse day by day. I always wanted to get it checked and receive surgery.

I knew I met the requirements for medical parole, so I applied with the prison guards’ guidance. When I checked into the hospital, the hospital added insulin to the nutrition bag which caused me to have allergic reactions such as breathing difficulties. Fortunately, I quickly turned off the drip. When I discovered that the hospital did not have a neurosurgery department at all and did not have the facilities to perform the operation on me, I promptly refused the operation arrangement and asked to go back to prison.

At the hospital, I developed gallstones. The hospital told me if I didn’t remove the gallstones it would be life-threatening. They tried to force me to undergo surgery and would not let me return to prison. I cried and pleaded with the doctors to let me be discharged from the hospital. The prison guards came to pick me up. 

When I returned to prison, I heard from other prisoners that the hospital had many unprofessional medical accidents. It made me feel like I was wise to refuse the surgery. I felt like I had escaped death again. 

When I returned to the prison after 21 days, my 50,000 yuan (US$7,673) deposit for medical treatment on parole was fully deducted. The prison did not give me any itemized details or medical records, nor did it grant me medical treatment on parole. I was scared and angry at the same time, and I began to refuse to show up for roll calls and write letters asking the prison to show me these records. After a period of protest, I finally saw my medical materials. I was shocked to find that there were many forgeries and irregularities in these medical materials. I did not expect the prison guards and doctors to be this bold. Through collective corruption, they were risking the lives of prisoners. I started writing reports to the prosecutors and the warden. 

You were also placed in solitary confinement. 

Later, I was retaliated against by the prison director. The director beat and scolded me on the grounds of not responding to the roll calls and asked the inmates of the anti-riot team to carry me into solitary confinement for 38 days. The solitary confinement gave me another test of life and death. As soon as I went in, I refused to be tied to the “bed of the dead” [a bed in which a prisoner is chained down, in Wang’s description]. About five or six guards besieged me and attacked me. I was exhausted from resisting desperately. I cried loudly and asked them what I did wrong and why they would try to kill a good person. They still tied me up. The torture in solitary confinement seemed endless. I was not allowed to move. I would be beaten and scolded harshly by the guards if I did. 

When I first entered solitary confinement, I went on a hunger strike for five days, banged my head on the wall to commit suicide, and swallowed a large plastic bag, but I couldn’t die. Later, after I met with my lawyer, he told me that there was a lot of pressure on Internet speech outside. Huang Qi was also detained in a detention center, facing imprisonment, which made me understand the reality and understand that China does not care about the rule of law at all. 

Even though it promises to govern the country in accordance with the constitution, the Chinese Communist Party’s arrest of us is political persecution. I began to think about getting out of prison alive, and that exposing the inside story of the CCP prisons to the world is what I should do. 

I couldn’t shower and had to use my unwashed hands to eat every day. I would be given a few mouthfuls of corn batter in the morning, a moldy rice cake, and some smelly salted vegetables for lunch and dinner if I “behaved.” In prison, the prisoners were given 120 milliliters (a half cup) of tap water a day. This was far from enough and some prisoners would drink the water in the toilet. 

During the day, if you didn’t want to be tied to the bed, you would have to sit in a small square on the ground without moving. This made my body numb and I couldn’t get up to use the bathroom. [At that time] I probably wouldn’t have felt anything if I get shot by a bullet. 

As I sat in the little square all day, the speaker in the room would be playing a recording of Di Zi Gui [a Qing Dynasty text on proper behavior] non-stop. I’d get a headache from it. 

I was not allowed to sleep until 9 o’clock in the evening. The mattress and quilt were very dirty with footprints and bloodstains on them. But if I could lie down and straighten my waist, I was happy. When I slept, the guard would knock on the door every hour and asked me to sit up and report back. If I didn’t get up to report, they would snatch my bedding and leave me in the cold. In the winter, the solitary confinement cell was extremely dark and cold.

The physical punishment in solitary confinement was a challenge and torment that tested the limits of the human body. It was especially devastating to a woman’s body and mind. It was an abusive practice at the Women’s Prison in Jilin province.

Finally, when the distress and the punishment [of solitary confinement] was about to end, the guards forced me to confess my wrongs and repent. I said that I was not guilty of any crime, and I would not confess even if I died. They then backed down and asked me to apologize to the guards, saying that I shouldn’t have refused to respond to roll calls and talked back to them. I agreed to that and I wrote [a statement] saying whether I was wrong or not, whether I was to blame or not, [my behavior in the prison] was all my fault. In the end, I signed “Wang Jing, a victim of an unjust, wrongful conviction.” 

The 38-day torment of solitary confinement had caused more damage to my body and mind. When I came out of the cell, my neck was crooked, and I couldn’t turn my head. My lips were dry and peeling, and there were a few white spots on my throat. My stomach hurt, my back hurt, and my head hurt. In the prison hospital, I was diagnosed with severe hypertension, cervical spondylosis, lumbar protrusion, pelvic effusion, and pharyngitis. 

What was the final part of your imprisonment like? 

Two months before I was about to be released from prison, the guards and the inmates intended to frame me for assault, saying that I was anti-[Chinese Communist] Party and anti-social, and that I would be given more punishment. In the afternoon before the guards framed me for attacking the officers, I started to lose control of my nerves. I asked the doctor for the sleeping medicine. She refused. I stayed up all night and kept talking. I had to say whatever I was thinking. I tried my best to control myself and stay calm. I now suspect that they drugged me, intended to make me hallucinate, and then use it as an excuse to frame me. The next morning the prison guards verbally and physically insulted and intimidated me, trying to force me to react and fight back. I pressed the emergency alarm, but it didn’t go off. Later the guards handcuffed me to the bed for half a month until the scars on my body faded. During this period, my blood pressure was high, and I was not given treatment for it. [I suspected] they wanted me to die of a brain hemorrhage. 

The prison wouldn’t allow friends to visit me. I felt that my life was threatened. I desperately drank water every day to try to reduce blood pressure and detoxify myself. After I was uncuffed, the guards were afraid that I would expose their inside corruption and began to harass me every day. They took away the evidence of medical expense fraud I had on them, threatened to put me into solitary confinement again, and asked other prisoners to intimidate me. The prison guards also deliberately confiscated my letters and the pictures of my husband and daughter and tried to shut me up by threatening the lives of my family. 

After you were released, what changed in your life and mindset? 

After the release, I returned home. It looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for years. My mother laid on her bed all day with an oxygen tank, my husband changed, and my child didn’t acknowledge me as her mother. Everything was different and I was the only person whose memory was stuck [on the previous life of] five years ago. It felt like I was abandoned by the entire world, like I was from another planet, like nobody expected me to come back alive, and like they all thought I should die in prison. The distance between me and my family was hard to adjust to. I had to catch up with societal developments and keep learning. On the other hand, I also had to beware of surveillance, intimidation, and harassment from police and national security officials. But the most difficult of all was my husband’s coldness and losing contact with my daughter. It was beyond my capability to handle. At one point I even felt like it was easier in the prison. I became suicidal again and often cried in the middle of the night. I went to the hospital and was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder and depression.

Given all that you endured, what advice would you give to journalists and journalism students reporting in China?

I admire the bravery and passion of Chinese journalists and journalism students who try to report news truthfully and hope that they can persevere. The social responsibility of journalists cannot be ignored. It may not be easy to bravely face and expose the dark side of society and sometimes it may cost lives. But the responsibility of journalists is to let people understand the real world. People can only make correct judgments and choices when the information [they receive] is real. And the world will not be obscured by darkness.

Editor’s note: The time frame of Wang Jing’s sister’s death and her age at the time of her death have been corrected in the ninth paragraph. Wang’s weight before she was arrested has been corrected in the 18th paragraph. Wang’s hospital diagnosis after her release has been corrected in the 40th paragraph.