Here is an excerpt:
A Love Story
Deep waters cannot quench love, nor floods drown it.
– Canticle of Canticles 8:7 –
Joseph Ho stooped over his anesthetized patient lying on the operating table, belly up, a crimson-colored abdomen crimped open with hemostats dangling from pinched flesh.
On staff at Regional Administrative Hospital in China’s Guizhou province, Joseph, a surgeon at the age of 26, had been on call the night of July 4, 1960, when he had to perform the emergency surgery. That was to be his final night at the hospital, but he didn’t know it, yet.
Just as he located the acute intestinal obstruction in his patient and prepared to slice away the life-threatening section, Joseph heard the doors of the second-floor operating room slam open behind him.
“Stop the operation!” yelled the hospital superintendent as he entered, followed by two plainclothes officers from the Public Security Bureau.
Joseph, with scalpel in hand and a bit stunned from the sudden intrusion, looked up and stood back from his patient.
“Take off your gown, and follow these two men to the Public Security Bureau,” the hospital superintendent ordered.
Joseph had no choice. He had to surrender his patient, mid-surgery, to his first and second assistants, who scrambled to take care of the emergency and to telephone for a backup surgeon to finish the operation. He put down his surgical instruments, and, as soon as he had untied his face mask and removed his bloody gloves and gown, the two officers pulled his arms behind his back, handcuffed him and led him away.
Minutes later, after a brief ride in a military vehicle, Joseph stood before two interrogators.
“Where are we?” one of them asked.
“The Public Security Bureau,” Joseph answered.
“What do we do here?”
“No!” one of them screamed. “We arrest counterrevolution-aries! You are a counterrevolutionary!”
Joseph was a Roman Catholic faithful to the Pope, which was a crime in Communist China, where Party members must be vowed atheists. Any Roman Catholic devoted to the Pope was considered counterrevolutionary, counter to the People’s Revolution, therefore an enemy of the People, an enemy of the Party, an enemy of Chairman Zedong Mao.
Before Joseph, they placed a detention paper.
“Sign!” they ordered, repeatedly.
Repeatedly, Joseph refused.
Unable to sway him, authorities transferred him to Province Jail Number 3, where he underwent a thorough search. Guards confiscated his eyeglasses, shoes, belt, then led him to his cell, a 9-foot-by-9-foot room, which he shared with a dozen other men.
Some were political prisoners, but others were hardened criminals, not the most trustworthy sort of men. And Joseph trusted no one, for inmates were rewarded with merits of sentence reduction for reporting to authorities the thoughts, words and deeds of others.
In the cell, there was no bed, only the cement floor. No bedding, only a single sheet to cover the entire floor, which it did not. No toilet, just a bucket for waste elimination placed in the corner, where new cellmates were forced to sleep.
No heat, just occasional drafts of air through the cracks. And because Joseph was still in his summer clothing and only had a thin blanket, he suffered from the increasingly cold temperatures as the days and weeks blew by.
Only two gourds of water per person, per day, to drink only, not to wash. And because inmates were never allowed to wash, their bodies were infested with lice.
Two meals a day of starvation rations – rotten rice covered with mold, occasionally garnished with some pickles.
That was 1960, when the masses of China were gripped tightly in the death hold of the Great Chinese Famine. No one had enough to eat except the Communist Party’s top officials, who had plenty.
Because of his empty stomach, Joseph’s thoughts dwelled on food, especially as he was ordered to sit all day every day on the cement floor and think about his Catholic “crimes” against the People’s Government. At night, he lay awake, struggling to fall asleep, fighting the hunger pangs. Unable to move, he had to remain still, crammed between the other inmates. It seemed as soon as he shut his eyes, he was wakened by the clanging of a key in the cell door.
“Number 18! Come out! Follow me!” ordered the guard.
Joseph struggled to his feet and stumbled to the interrogation room, where he was forced to stand, for hours upon hours. Behind the bright light pointed directly toward his eyes, the voice of an interrogator hidden in the shadows repeated the same questions.
During the periods of silence, the only sound was the scratching of pen on paper. A recording secretary somewhere in the darkness wrote down by hand everything that was said.
But Joseph refused to answer their questions.
Thinking a little “encouragement” might help, guards wrapped heavy chains – more than 10 pounds – around his legs. Around his wrists, they clamped French handcuffs and screwed them so tightly that he could feel the blood circulation stop to his hands. Not sufficiently satisfied, one of the sadistic guards looped a rope around the cuffs, then yanked up, pulling Joseph’s arms into the excruciating jet-plane position. Mosquitoes buzzed around, stinging him, as he was unable to move.
“We don’t give you torture,” Cadre Wu said, laughing, hitting Joseph’s face.
“Yeah. We don’t give prisoners torture,” another taunted, hitting Joseph.
For his lack of cooperation and for his “bad attitude,” Joseph was dragged to a different cell, where he remained in solitary confinement for the next eight months, enduring inhuman treatment. Because his hands remained cuffed behind his back, he was forced to eat his meals off the floor, bending forward while in a kneeling position. When he had to urinate, guards ordered a prisoner from another cell to help him. With the handcuffs so tight, blood vessels burst, causing intense pain. He feared irreparable damage and that, very probably, he would lose the use of his arms.
After three months, he noticed a rusty nail sticking out of the window frame. As a student in secondary school and in college, he had joined the gymnastics teams and had excelled at the rings and the high bar. From all his years in athletics, he was still limber enough to step through his cuffed hands, bringing them from the back to the front.
Just barely able to reach the window frame, gradually, he popped the nail out from its bed in the wood. Sitting on the floor with his back against the door, under the peephole so the guards could see only his feet, he worked diligently to pick the lock of the custom-made handcuffs forged by a blacksmith. After two days, success.
For the next five months, during the day he kept the cuffs on, loose, in case the guards looked through the peephole. But because he was in isolation, the guards never entered his cell, so during the night he removed the cuffs and hid his hands.
Finally, on June 8, 1961, the cell door opened.
“Number 18, come out!” ordered a man Joseph had never seen.
His isolation had ended, and the cuffs were removed.
“Follow him,” ordered the man.
“Stand over there,” said a second stranger, opening a briefcase and pulling out a paper.
“I announce,” the stranger read aloud, “the punishment for Joseph Ho, Cantonese, hospital doctor, age 26. You are an active counterrevolutionary, but you have no activity, so according to the Reeducation-Through-Labor Department, we punish you with three years reeducation through labor. If you want to appeal, you have three days.”
“Give me that paper. What evidence do you have against me?” Joseph said.
With that, the man stuffed the document back in the briefcase and left the room.
Joseph had only three days to file an appeal, but he had no pencil, no paper. He had had no trial, no judge, no jury, no lawyer. His particular “crime” was a civil matter, which – unlike a criminal matter – wasn’t required to go to court. Instead, his case and punishment had been discussed and decided upon by the Communist Party members in the Regional Administrative Hospital, the Public Security Bureau and the Reeducation-Through-Labor Department.
Two days later, on June 10, 1961, Joseph was transferred out of Province Jail Number 3.
Under an armed escort of two soldiers hired by the Public Security Bureau, Joseph and two other prisoners were ordered onto a public transportation bus, alongside regular commuters.
Upon reaching their destination in Anshun District’s Puding County, the three prisoners were pushed out of the bus and forced to walk many, many miles, without any rest. The entire way, the armed soldiers screamed and threatened to use their rifles to shoot the unshaven, dirt-encrusted, half-starved, half-naked men, who could barely walk. Every step of the way, Joseph felt that he would never make it to the end, to Tai Ping, Peace Plantation, a prison slave-labor farm, hidden in the bleak countryside.
But he did make it, and once there he was immediately forced to work alongside other prisoners in a labor team.
Luckily for him, he arrived in the summer, the best time to labor in the fields during the famine, because he was able to steal enough to survive while harvesting corn, wheat, soybeans and peanuts. Unbearably hungry, while pulling peanuts out of the earth, he stuffed handfuls into his mouth without rinsing off the soil, which had been fertilized with human waste.
Because of the unsanitary conditions, Joseph and the other men suffered from roundworms, which laid eggs internally, which were passed through their bowels, which were eliminated in defecation, which was used for fertilizer, which contained parasite eggs, which contaminated the food, which was eaten by the inmates, which began the cycle all over again.
Doctors often used santonin to treat the men suffering from roundworms, but the vermifuge caused the dying worms to twist together, frequently causing intestinal blockage.
The most dangerous time for the laborers to work was in the rainy season, in the autumn, when mushrooms popped up in the fields. Because the men were starving, some ate anything they could get their hands on, including the many poisonous mushrooms.
But to be on the labor farm in the winter was the absolute worst. The arrival of cold weather brought more deaths. Every day, several prisoners died, mostly from infectious diseases that invaded their bodies because of the starvation. The emaciated corpses were dumped in mass graves, with soil loosely thrown on top. At night, the wolves would disinter the bodies, devouring flesh and bones.
And then there was the brainwashing.
Every night except Saturday, for two hours or longer depending on the supervising ideology cadre, there were small-group study sessions, for the purposes of brainwashing. However, during the winter months, with nothing in the fields there was not much outside work, so the prisoners were forced to endure more hours of daily “reeducation.”
During the sessions, with units of 20 to 30 prisoners, each man took his turn criticizing, reporting on what the others had said or done during the day while working.
Did each man work diligently? How was the attitude of each? Did anyone malign the Communists?
One of the prisoners acted as recording secretary and took notes, which were given to a cadre and filed away. Each year, each man would receive a yearly evaluation for attitude.
Some nights, usually once a week, a cadre would announce that there would be a struggle meeting. The entire brigade of prisoners, consisting of 300 to 400 men, would meet in the big hall and sit on the ground, as one of the prisoners was isolated on the stage in front.
The political ideology cadre, who was in charge of thought control, spoke first about the prisoner, explaining how the prisoner was against the Communists, against the People’s Government. Then the prisoners sitting on the ground would be forced to accuse, to criticize, to say something against the targeted victim, who was usually handcuffed, tied and tortured.
The next day, the prisoner would be forced to work in handcuffs and chains. Or he would be isolated in a cement casket, in which there was very little room to move and where everything had to be done, including relieving one’s bladder and bowels.
Because Joseph’s hands were still numb and he was very nearsighted without his eyeglasses, he had to be extremely careful not to break any of the plants while laboring in the fields. Otherwise, he would have been accused of intentionally damaging the crop, for which he would have been targeted and attacked during a struggle meeting.
After several months of fieldwork, Joseph was transferred and assigned to a 100-man team that cut down trees in the Dayong forest.
To fell trees and cut off the branches, prisoners used primitive tools, either a single-man or two-man saw. Then the limbless trunks had to be carried away, nearly 10 miles through the forest to the mines in Big Coal Mountain. There, the trees were used as supports in the underground mine tunnels.
If a tree was not too heavy, a few men would hoist it upon their shoulders and carry it away. If a tree was extremely heavy, then at least 10 men, in two columns, would work together to move it. Two-by-two, the men paired up and shared shoulder poles between them, to which the tree was tied and from which it was hung. Dry trees were not so bad, but when wet, the work was horrible.
And Joseph was still barefoot.
Everything he did, he did barefoot – in the heat, in the rain, in the snow. His shoes had been confiscated the night of his arrest, and he hadn’t worn any since.
Though heavy work, logging was better than working in the fields. One reason was that there was only one cadre per team, and in the less-strict environment Joseph was able to interact with local peasants. Although they were extremely poor, at times he was able to exchange some little thing – perhaps, a piece of cloth – for food.
After logging in the forest, he was assigned to work in one of the coal mines in Big Coal Mountain. On his first day, with only minutes before he was to enter the tunnel, a sudden subterranean explosion shot a plume of dirt and smoke out the entrance.
A light bulb, dangling from a wire, had hit the ground and shattered, igniting a gas explosion.
More than 40 prisoners burned to death inside the mine. Those who survived suffered from severe burns, incredibly painful wounds for which there was no morphine. From the dormitories, the survivors could be heard screaming from the pain.
“Don’t shout! Don’t scream!” ordered a cadre. “Learn from the Russian hero Pavel Korchagin! Don’t complain of the pain!”
The cadre referred to the idealized selfless hero in Nikolai Ostrovsky’s 1930s Socialist realist novel, “How the Steel Was Tempered,” considered a must-read in the literary canon of Communist propaganda.
In the mines, absolutely no safety precautions were taken for the prisoners; after all, they were only prisoners. Not even a gas monitor. To burn off methane gas fumes, one of the prisoners would be completely wrapped in heavy clothing and rags, which enclosed his body, head and face. Then the clothing would be soaked with water right before he would be pushed into the tunnel with a torch to burn off the fumes.
Even though working in the mines was dangerous, the men preferred to work underground, because they received more rations.
Fieldworkers were allotted only 26.5 pounds a month of grain, such as corn, rice, wheat. Those working in the coal mines, depending on the type of work, could receive up to 39.5 pounds a month.
When labor-camp officials learned that Joseph was a medical doctor, he was ordered to work in the small clinic attached to the mine. And, finally, he obtained permission to receive from his family a pair of shoes, simple sneakers made of rubber and canvas.
While working in the clinic, Joseph overheard whispered conversations about parents exchanging their very own children for the children of neighboring villagers. Some children were dead. Others were near death. As the “goods” in the exchange, the remains of the children were eaten by those suffering from extreme starvation during Mao’s famine. Because of the malnutrition, there was no flesh, no muscle on the bodies of the children, betrayed by their protectors. Only the hearts and the livers were removed from the victims and eaten.
Saddened by what he heard, Joseph was not shocked, for he knew about China’s history of cannibalism.
At the clinic, Joseph had one colleague, a “barefoot doctor,” who knew nothing about medicine. He had gained his position by ingratiating himself and currying favor with the cadres, who expected and received from the barefoot doctor everything free from the clinic, including medicine, for themselves and their family members.
Joseph, on the other hand, sent all bills to the accounting office, which charged the cadres. Unhappy to pay for services and medicine, the cadres sent Joseph back, after about six months, to Tai Ping, Peace Plantation.