A Letter from Hell: Tortured in a Sichuan Jail for Asking for More Drinking Water

Human rights activist Xie Junbiao continued to do in jail what he did outside: holding signs to protest injustice. This is not what you do in a Chinese prison, he was told.

by Deng Bohai

Xie Junbiao holding one of its protest signs. From X.

What does a human rights activist jailed for publicly holding signs do when he is not given enough drinking water? He manages to find a sheet of paper and holds a sign, “I Want to Drink Water.” But holding signs is not what you are supposed to do in a Chinese prison, Xie Junbiao did get his water but he was also beaten and tortured to teach him that holding signs is not allowed.

Xie Junbiao, like other human rights activists, started protesting forced demolitions of houses without due compensation given to the owners between 2013 and 2015. A 42-year-old native of Chengdu, in Sichuan province, his protest escalated to a broader advocacy for democracy and human rights. He started holding signs when Xi Jinping came to Chengdu, in 2018, and even went to Beijing to protest, for which he was arrested four times.

In August 2022, Shuangliu District Court sentenced him to two years and six months in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a frequent charge against dissidents, and he was transferred to Shuangliu Detention Center, Chengdu, Sichuan.

Last month, he managed to smuggle from jail a note about the drinking water incident, which his friends forwarded to human rights organizations and tried to post on social media.

“I don’t know if I was the first to hold up a sign in the detention center,” Xie wrote. “I was detained in cell B11. The policeman in charge of the cell was named He Bo. He was the most notorious police officer in Shuangliu Detention Center. He had always been arrogant and domineering. He often insulted and beat detainees, or spit in their faces to humiliate them.”

“According to relevant regulations, detention centers should ensure that detainees have enough drinking water. However, the water was often not enough. I reported this to the Director several times, and the Director asked the police who came to the cell to give us water. However, He Bo would not only refuse to give us water but would also curse us. Then I wrote the words ‘I Want to Drink Water’ on A4 paper and bolded it, and held up the sign under the camera in the ventilation room. The cameras are connected to the monitoring center in the prison and are also networked with municipal, provincial and central regulatory authorities.”

“At that time, Deputy Director Yan, who was on duty at the monitoring center of the detention center, saw me holding up the sign and said that it was shameful for me to do this. (If the superior department that checks the surveillance cameras saw it, it would be embarrassing for the prison authorities.) I guess Deputy Director Yan asked He Bo to give us water, but He Bo didn’t. Deputy Director Yan asked another policeman to bring water to the cell. This policeman had an angry look on his face, probably because he was thinking that I was not the inmate in charge of the cell, so why should he let me get the water, but he dared not contradict the Deputy Director.”

Xie Junbiao. From X via Rights Protection Network.

“From then on, He Bo always gave us water. There was no shortage of water in the cell where I was located, and I could not even finish it. However, He Bo held a grudge against me as somebody who would report mistreatments to the Director and Deputy Director.”

“Later, He Bo and his friends found an opportunity to take me to a ‘black box’ [a secret cell used for torture]. They tortured me with a pair of handcuffs on my hands and a pair of shackles weighing several dozen kilograms on my feet. Then they used two pairs of handcuffs to connect my hands and feet together while compelling me to walk. My ankles were bruised, my hands were handcuffed, and I could not straighten my back 24 hours a day. I slept with my body curled up. My body was bumped everywhere by the handcuffs and shackles. I could not sleep at all, and it was difficult to take care of myself, such as eating, drinking, urinating, washing my face, and brushing my teeth. I was handcuffed in total thirteen days and thirteen nights. It was unbelievably painful! I learned that the pain of being tortured is far greater than the pain of being just beaten.”

All this happened just because Xie asked for the usual ration of drinking water. This is how Chinese jails work, and how political and religious dissidents are singled out for mistreatment and torture.