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How Peter Humphrey played a 'waiting game' in a Chinese prison

In a punishment centre that was once one of China’s notorious “education through labour” prisons for miscreants, former Reuters journalist Peter Humphrey (photo) had plenty of time to contemplate his predicament.

“Untried prisoners are condemned from day one, starting with the dire conditions they face when they arrive. The aim is to isolate, crush the spirit, break the will. Many crumble quickly,” he wrote in the Financial Times in a 4,500-word personal account of his incarceration for 23 months.

Humphrey was with Reuters in the 1980s and 1990s. He later established a corporate risk advisory firm.

He and his Chinese-born American wife and business partner Yu Yingzeng were detained after helping GlaxoSmithKline, the Anglo-American pharmaceutical company, to identify the source of a secretly filmed sex tape of its then top executive in China in bed with his girlfriend.

GSK was fined for funnelling billions of renminbi to hospitals, doctors and officials in an attempt to boost sales in one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing drug markets.

Humphrey and Yu were accused of “illegally acquiring personal information” of Chinese nationals and selling the information to clients including GSK.

They were sentenced to 30 and 24 months in jail respectively and held separately.

Humphrey was released from prison under diplomatic pressure in June 2015 amid reports of ill health, and he and Yu were deported.

Excerpts from Humphrey’s article:

  • During the 23 months I spent imprisoned in China, on false charges that were never proven in court, I consumed about 140 books, including jailbird classics such as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Dumas’ Man in the Iron Mask, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and modern equivalents such as Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran. Mental fodder to help me endure my own predicament. This “detention centre” was once one of China’s notorious - and supposedly now abolished “education through labour” prisons for miscreants in the Communist party-ruled dictatorship. Today, they pretend to be custody centres but they are still punishment centres. Untried prisoners are condemned from day one, starting with the dire conditions they face when they arrive. The aim is to isolate, crush the spirit, break the will. Many crumble quickly.
  • My journey here began at the offices of my corporate investigation company in Shanghai on July 10 2013. I had living quarters there with my wife, Ying, and we were getting ready for our day. At 7am the Public Security Bureau (PSB) police flooded in, kicking our bedroom door into my face and injuring my neck. From that moment on, things moved ruthlessly fast: they ransacked the office, dismissed my staff, separated my wife and me from each other, and both of us from our teenage son Harvey. It would be two years before we were reunited.
  • Men in plain clothes drove us in unmarked black cars into the bowels of a hulking concrete building known as 803, a feared headquarters of the Shanghai PSB. I was taken along underground corridors lined by dank interrogation cells, and through the gaps in doors saw prisoners slumped in metal chairs. When we reached my room, I sat in an interrogation chair with a lockable crossbar. PSB men came and went, asking questions about items found on our laptops. On a podium my confiscated mobile phone rang relentlessly but our son’s frantic calls to us went unanswered.
  • At about 3am I was tossed into a sweltering cell. It was, I learnt, a ritual - new prisoners were always delivered at night. It reinforced the shock. Made them weaker. Easier to break, to extract confessions from. The warder shut the door with a clang and uncuffed me through the bars. “What’s up?” mumbled a sleepy voice in Chinese from under a mound of pink bedclothes. “A new guy,” said another. A man in boxer shorts came to the door. “Sleep there,” he said, dumping a dirty quilt on a narrow spot beside the toilet. My head was bursting hot. Stunned and exhausted, I wept. Around the cell, shaved heads popped up like chicks from a nest to glimpse the commotion, then went back to sleep nonchalantly. A dozen or so bodies lay in rows on the rough boards, like sardines in cans with pink lids. A ceiling light burned brightly - in fact, it was never off. I felt winded. How could I sleep? Then suddenly it was light outside too. It must have crept up slowly but the new day came as a shock. My horror movie rolled to the next scene.
  • A low-pitched horn broke the silence. I hear it every day still. Bodies sat up. Warders on the corridor in pale-blue shirts banged on the bars. “Qilai, qilai” - Get up! At breakfast the gritty rice and the briny smell of pickle made me retch. Some men had sachets of “cereal” powder that they mixed with boiled water from an urn perched outside the bars. “Have one of my cereals,” said one inmate. Two men cleared the dishes and took them to the sink. Their actions were chores rostered to each detainee by the warder. Cleaning the floor, washing the dishes, scrubbing the toilet, stacking the boxes and quilts, emptying the urn twice a day for refilling, washing and folding the cloths. These jobs rotated each week. The men exercised by circling the cell for 10 minutes like Tibetan pilgrims at a temple, minus the Buddhist chants. But this was no temple, just a floor five by three metres. The entrance and toilet added another two square metres. The toilet was a hole in the floor with a rusty flushing lever on the wall behind it. The sink was a heavy, cracked ceramic affair with a cold tap. Above it was a piece of shiny plastic, supposedly a mirror, warped so you couldn’t see a clear image.
  • During 14 months here, I did not see my own face. After the “stroll” came the toilet ritual. Orange vests sat on designated spots beside the wall. Red vests - new boys - faced the grille studying a brown rule book. We went to the toilet in turns, red vests last. Squatting over the hole I almost toppled as I reached for the flusher behind me. “To shit, face forward; to piss, face the wall,” barked Li, the cell boss. “That way, it falls the right way without a mess. You did it the wrong way.” Over the next 10 days, like a dog yapping at my ankles, Li ordered me to do this and do that. To learn the rules.
  • Whatever the cell, the rituals were the same. During exercises, which were aired on a closed circuit overhead TV, we imitated jumps and stretches performed by three PE coaches, one male, two female - the closest my cellmates ever got to a woman. Then a white-coated patrol doctor came by our grille. Inmates raised health issues but they would be lucky to get a dollop of ointment for a sore foot, or an aspirin.
  • Next came “study time”. We sat cross-legged on red spots on the floor while the TV relayed “lessons” from the detention centre “propaganda department”. Sometimes it was the “propaganda director” preaching about good behaviour and analysing recent statistics: how many detainees had quarrelled or fought; how many inmates had argued with the guards or broken other rules, and been punished by isolation or prolonged squatting. Inmates sat quietly. Some would try sneak-reading a book. Others plotted how to handle their case, or dreamed. Nobody took “study” seriously, though sometimes we had to write a commentary on the session.
  • That was our life. A waiting game. No family visits. No letters home. Just brief messages to lawyers. No chance to orchestrate a real defence. Foreign prisoners could receive consular visits, to the envy of Chinese cellmates. Usha, the vice-consul who visited me regularly, and her assistant Susie, relayed messages to and from my family, brought books and magazines, and lobbied over my health. They were my angels. In the detention centre I developed symptoms of prostate cancer, a long hernia, skin rashes, anal infections and constant diarrhoea, and endured an injury to my spine inflicted during the raid. None was treated. There were frequent interrogations. For these I was locked in an iron chair inside a steel cage facing a podium where three PSB men questioned me and, once or twice, men from “a different department”. Most of it was smoke. I had to thumb-print statements in red seal ink, and specimen documents from my project files. The PSB men did not want to hear any mitigating explanations. They tried to make it look as though Ying and I earned millions from trading in data, which we never did. Twice, the “other department” men tried to stitch me up for spying. They tried to accuse me of spying in the restive Muslim region of Xinjiang. They tried to tie me to a US intelligence entity spying on North Korea. 
  • After seven months, Ying and I were finally allowed to exchange jailbird love letters. They took a month to travel 30 metres through the concrete and three layers of police censorship. We were not allowed to discuss our case. Some of our letters were blocked without telling us. But I reminded myself that the Chinese men had no such privilege.
  • Every encounter was an education. I had spent 15 years helping to prosecute fraudsters. Now, in prison, I met many people who might easily have been my investigation targets, but who I came to believe did not deserve such harsh sentences. I came away from my captivity with sympathy for both the innocent and the guilty.

After deportation to the UK in 2015, Humphrey was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, and spent 18 months in cancer treatment and one year in PTSD treatment. 

His damaged health has prevented his return to business and he has reverted to his journalistic and academic roots as a sinologist and writer. He was banned from China for 10 years but does not rule out a return when conditions are favourable.

PHOTO: Yu Yingzeng and Peter Humphrey stand on the Great Wall of China. ■