On writing "Letter from Masanjia"

Last week, Leon Lee and I won a Leo Award for screenwriting on our documentary Letter from Masanjia. I was unable to attend the awards ceremony, but have been so heartened to see the continuing success of the film. One day, when circumstances permit, I hope that the China-based crew is able to share in the recognition for the project.

I began work on Letter from Masanjia about three years ago, when I pitched director Leon Lee on the idea of a film about China’s notorious Masanjia reeducation-through-labour camp. Over the years I had interviewed a number of refugees who experienced torture at Masanjia, and read the testimonies and accounts of dozens more. The initial idea was to conduct on-camera interviews with as many former Masanjia inmates and guards as could be found living abroad, and piece together the history of the camp through their testimonies. In the mean time, we set about trying to locate the former inmate who smuggled SOS notes out of the camp, setting off a chain of events that culminated with the abolition of the reeducation-through-labour system.

Finding Sun Yi wasn’t easy. He was interviewed by CNN and the New York Times in 2013, but he’d concealed his identity. By the time I approached Leon about this project, he had already been looking for Sun Yi for a couple years without success. There were probably no more than a half dozen people in the world who knew his real identity or where to find him. But we did, and the rest was history. The expansive narrative I initially set out to tell about Masanjia couldn’t compare to the story and the character of this one, remarkable man.

As I’ve written before, Sun Yi's is a hero's legacy: his risked his life repeatedly to tell the world about human rights abuses. The film he helped make lays bare not only the horrors of the labour camps, but of China's Orwellian surveillance state. He was a living example of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s rejoinder to “live not by lies.”

But Sun Yi's greatest triumph was in never losing his humanity in an inhumane system. Despite being hated and vilified in his own country, Sun Yi never gave in to hating. He befriended his torturers, and maintained through it all a deep gentleness and an almost unreal faith in the goodness of his fellow man.

His story reminds us that resistance to totalitarianism does not always require dramatic feats of courage. In a system pervaded by lies and violence, small acts of decency and grace are the ultimate form of rebellion.

It was an incredible honour to work on this film, and I’m so glad that we told the story that we did. Someone once told me that you can judge a project by the quality of stuff that doesn’t make it in—all that material that gets left on the cutting room floor. By that measure, we must have been telling the best story in the world.

When I was writing this blog post, I pulled up my initial pitch to the broadcaster on the history of Masanjia. We actually did conduct all these interviews (and more), and these stories also deserve to be told and to be understood. So here it is: the original treatment for Letter from Masanjia.


In 2012, a woman in Oregon opened a box of Halloween decorations purchased from K-Mart. Inside, between the styrofoam tombstones, she found a note from a man claiming to be imprisoned in China’s Masanjia labor camp, calling for aid:

Sir, if you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persicution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever. This product produced by Unit 8, Department 2, Mashanjia Labour Camp, Shen Young, Liaoning, China….

At first Julie Keith thought the letter was a hoax. But something about its tone—the halting English, the details, the desperation—prompted her to dig deeper. Although the camp was virtually unknown to the Western press, an online search revealed that Masanjia was a place of infamy, where torture, forced labor, sexual abuse and were routine.

In corners of the Internet to which most people never venture, Chinese refugees and former inmates relay stories of their time at Masanjia, a sprawling complex near the Northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang.  The accounts come mainly from practitioners of Falun Gong, and describe scenes of routine torture, beatings, forced labor, and horrific sexual abuse. One website contains no fewer than 3,500 articles and first-person accounts about Masanjia. And yet not a single Western journalist had ever told their stories. Julie Keith was determined to change that.

The Camp

Masanjia is part of a network of hundreds of Reeducation-Through-Labor Camps (RTL) scattered across China. The system, known as RTL, dates to the Maoist era. Prisoners can be held in the camps for up to four years without ever facing trial or being charged with a crime.

The system is premised on the Communist Party’s idea that its opponents do not need always be physically eradicated; they can be reformed and remade, though a combination of work, indoctrination, self-criticism and torture.

Over its history, the RTL system has been used to detain a variety of the Party’s enemies, from landlords and reactionaries to intellectuals and suspected rightists, as well as petty thieves, prostitutes and drug addicts.

In 1999, a new class of prisoner began flooding into the camps: practitioners of Falun Gong, a meditation and spiritual practice centred on the tenets of truth, compassion, and tolerance.  Once embraced by Chinese officialdom, by the late 1990s Falun Gong had grown too popular for the liking of Communist Party leaders, who came to view its size, independence, and moral teachings as a source of competition to the official ideology.

In July 1999, Communist Party a nationwide campaign to “eradicate” the practice. In a single night, thousands of practitioners were taken from their homes by security agents. Within weeks, the number of detainees swelled to the tens of thousands, overwhelming the capacity of police detention centres.

In the face of an unexpected resistance from Falun Gong, authorities mandated that the RTL system be expanded to accommodate the influx of detainees.  One of the camps that underwent an expansion in the fall of 1999 was Masanjia.  Soon it would be the most notorious labor camp in all of China.  


Yang Xiuqin was one of the early arrivals at the newly expanded women’s division of Masanjia. By the time she was transferred there in March 2000, the 1st and 2nd women’s divisions of the camp already held close to a thousand Falun Gong practitioners. 

Immediately upon her arrival, Yang was stripped naked and searched. For the next two weeks, she was made to sit on a small stool. If she moved, she was beaten. After proving her obedience, she was then sent to the workshops, spending 16 hours a day making handmade goods for export.  Nights were spent in a cramped cell with 36 other women.

One of the young women who arrived at the camp with Yang was hung upside down for three days and nights before having her legs broken. The female guards were jealous of the girl’s good looks, recalls Yang.   

Liu Guiying was another March arrival at the camp.  The abuse began immediately as guards attempted to force her into submission and make her sign documents denouncing Falun Gong. She spent every day and night being beaten and tortured. She held out for two months before breaking down, and only then was sent to the workshops to perform forced labor. “They didn’t let you think your own thoughts. They didn’t let you speak,” she says. 

One of Liu’s cellmates was caught doing Falun Gong meditation in her cell at night. As punishment, she was tied to a rack for days and left to lie in her own excrement as her limbs were stretched apart.  “After a few months, every practitioner was ‘transformed,’” says Liu, using the official term for renouncing their beliefs and swearing loyalty to the Party.

A Model Camp

Labor camp officials across China were given quotas stipulating how many inmates they needed to successfully transform, and were granted near total impunity in how they achieved the targets. Many prisoners were beaten until they either recanted their beliefs or died.

Masanjia was at the cutting edge of the transformation efforts, boasting a 90% success rate. Former detainees recall that they would frequently receive visits from the directors of other camps in the region, who were enjoined to learn from Masanjia’s methods. 

Han Guangsheng was one of them.  From 1999 until 2001, Han was the director of the Longshan Labor Camp, located less than 100km from Masanjia.  Now living in Canada, Han says he tried to enforce rules against torture in his camp, but the pressure to increase transformation rates was unrelenting. As the RTL system overflowed, Longshan needed to increase prisoner turnover, and that meant increasing the transformation rate. Returning from their tours at Masanjia, his deputies said that the key to success was simple: the electric baton.

Adapting Masanjia’s methods, Longshan Labor Camp officials routinely electrocuted Falun Gong practitioners who refused to be transformed, applying cattle prods to their faces, necks, breasts, and genitals. In 2001, a 15-year-old girl was tortured in this manner for four consecutive hours. 

It was too much for Han, and he defected to Canada soon thereafter. “If one has a conscience or a human heart, it’s impossible to carry out such work for a prolonged period,” he says now. “In the beginning, many people are like me – they have good intentions, they want to be an honest and upright official, they want to do their best for the people. But once they become officials? It’s like jumping into a river…you can’t go against it. You can go only go with it.”

A Potemkin showcase

Not all who were detained at Masanjia were transformed. Zhao Suguan arrived at the camp in late 2000. Because she never renounced Falun Gong, she never did forced labor. Her days were spent being tortured, interrogated, and subject to “thought work.” Although she doesn’t like to discuss it, Zhao says that the ones doing the beatings were often the “transformed” practitioners.  Their descent into violence was not voluntary, but coerced: it was the only way they could avoid being tortured themselves.

In April 2001, Zhao and several others were transferred to another camp. She was told an important visit was coming up, and authorities couldn’t risk keeping her around.

The following month, a group of Western reporters was taken on a tour of Masanjia. In the midst of its bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing was eager to refute reports of torture and deaths in custody, and selected Masanjia as the venue to demonstrate its benign “re-education” methods.  

The reporters witnessed prisoners laughing and playing basketball on pristine asphalt courts. The walls smelled of fresh paint, and the women wore crisp blue and white jumpsuits with their names embroidered in English. When journalists were permitted to ask questions, the inmates responded that they were being well treated, and that there was no abuse in the camp. 

The reporters know it was a charade. For one, they counted fewer than 200 prisoners—a fraction of the 1,000 Falun Gong practitioners supposedly being held in the women’s barracks. Authorities refused to answer questions about the whereabouts of the other prisoners, yet none of the reporters investigated further.

By the end of 2001, Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Olympics, and the international news media all but abandoned the story of Falun Gong in China.  

Meanwhile, the death toll in custody continued to climb.

The Disappeared

37-year-old Gao Rongrong arrived at Masanjia in March 2005. She had been on the run from police for the last five months, having escaped from hospital after being tortured and disfigured at Longshan Labor Camp. 

The guards at Longshan had not given up their proclivity for the electric baton; if anything, they grew even bolder after the departure of director Han Guangsheng.  In May of 2004, they spent seven hours shocking Gao’s face until it was charred black. After her escape and recapture, authorities at Masanjia tortured Gao further.  Within three months, she was dead.

Sometimes the prisoners at Masanjia knew the fates of those who were tortured to death.  But sometimes prisoners—often young, healthy prisoners—simply disappeared.

It would take years before researchers connected the dots between the disappearances and the medical tests.

One woman who was detained in the camp in 2005 recalls that the prisoners were subject to targeted medical exams, cataloguing their blood type and assessing the health of their vital organs. The prisoners did not know the purpose of the exams, but they knew it wasn’t being done out of a concern for their health. Only young, healthy detainees were given comprehensive exams. The old and infirm were ignored.

After the tests, some prisoners were never seen or heard from again—presumed victims of a booming and lucrative trade in human organs.

The Olympics

In the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, thousands of petitioners, dissidents, and Falun Gong adherents were rounded up pre-emptively by security forces, lest their protests embarrass China on the world stage.

Jia Yahui was one of them. A former journalist, Jia was sent to Masanjia in April 2008. She was tied to a bed and electrocuted on the arms, breasts, and inner thighs.  Unable to withstand the torture, she renounced Falun Gong and was sent to work.  Even then, if the prisoners refused to sing the Olympic anthem “Beijing Welcomes You,” they would be electrocuted.

Yahui recalls a 60-year-old peasant woman who was detained with her. The woman was illiterate, but would recite Falun Gong’s scriptures by heart. She refused to wear the prison uniform, so guards wouldn’t let her wear any clothes at all. Guards took turns beating her face with their shoes, but she refused to give in to their demands.

On the other side of the camp, in the men’s ward, was another non-transformable practitioner.  Sun Yi was a 40-something engineer from Beijing.  Fellow prisoners remember him for his tenacity, describing him “a beam of light in the darkness.” He suffered some of the worst torment from the guards, but never relented.

On top of the torture, the men worked 15 hours days making products for export. The English lettering on some of the packages gave Sun Yi an idea.  

At night, under the flickering light of a single fluorescent bulb, he wrote letter after letter pleading for help from the outside world. The camp did not allow pens and paper, but Sun Yi managed to keep a secret supply. As his monitors slept, he wrote his notes, rolled them up and hid them in the hollow bars of his bunk bed. Over the course of 29 months, he wrote 20 of these letters, and would sometimes wait weeks for the right opportunity to slip them into a box destined for export. It wasn't until 2012 that Julie Keith, a mother living in Oregon, finally found one of them.

Closing the Camp

Masanjia provides the rare example of a minor victory in the quest for human rights in China. After news agencies around the world picked up the story Julia Keith’s mysterious letter, international and domestic pressure mounted.

A ground-breaking story about Masanjia appeared in a China’s Lens magazine just a few months later, detailing horrendous scenes of torture. New York Times photojournalist Du Bin then released a series of video interviews with former inmates, and then a book, about Masanjia. Though all were promptly censored, the exposés galvanized the Chinese public in opposition to the RTL system.

Shockwaves from the exposure went all the way to the top levels of Beijing government, and in 2013, Masanjia was ordered to be closed. The entire re-education-through-labor system was dissolved, and hundreds of thousands of detainees were set free.

The closure of the RTL system is a testament to impact of public exposure and international pressure. But it’s no cause for complicity. Today, a new sign hangs over the gates at Masanjia, just as they do at scores of other camps all across China. Now renamed the Masanjia Ward of Liaoning Women’s Prison network, the camp is slowly filling again.