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A policewoman tries to stop media from taking photos at the entrance to Qincheng prison. Many of the inmates at the maximum security jail are household names in China. Photo: AFP

Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai among elite prisoners in China’s ‘tigers’ cage’ Qincheng growing vegetables and wearing suits

  • Former security chief Zhou Yongkang has a garden near his cell, while disgraced politician Bo Xilai doesn’t have to don his prison uniform, according to sources

Former security tsar Zhou Yongkang was once one of China’s most powerful men. Now, he grows fruit and vegetables inside the “tigers’ cage” – the infamous maximum security jail for fallen political elites.

Meanwhile, disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and his former police chief Wang Lijun, who were at the centre of the country’s biggest political scandal in recent years, do not cross paths at the prison but apparently share the same hobby: calligraphy.

More than 1.3 million Chinese officials – from the elite “tigers” to the ordinary “flies” – have been snared since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012 and began an unprecedented graft-busting campaign.

And most of the “big tigers” like Zhou, Bo and Wang – officials with a vice-ministerial ranking or higher – are jailed at the secretive Qincheng prison.

While many of its inmates are household names in China, little is known about the conditions within the walls of the heavily guarded prison.

But details have emerged from former guards and prisoners and the families of inmates, who have told the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity about the treatment of corrupt cadres in the jail.

Bo, for example, is said to enjoy practising his calligraphy in letters to the authorities seeking to get his case reopened, according to a source close to his family. The former politician is serving a life sentence for corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power.
Bo Xilai is seen in handcuffs during his trial at a Jinan court in September 2013. Bo is said to enjoy practising his calligraphy in letters to the authorities. Photo: AFP
His fellow inmate and former right-hand man Wang, who was sentenced to 15 years’ jail for defection, taking bribes and other crimes, fell out with Bo, but is also said to be keen on practising his writing. Wang’s failed attempt to defect to the US consulate in Chengdu exposed the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Bo’s wife Gu Kailai – she is serving her life sentence at Yancheng prison.

“Wang always likes doing Chinese calligraphy. He also reads a lot in prison and spends his time studying English,” according to a source close to the former police chief.

Located on the northern outskirts of Beijing at the foot of the Yan mountains, the “tigers’ cage” is different from other Chinese jails. It is directly run by the Public Security Ministry, while other prisons are run by the Ministry of Justice.

These days there are group activities – Bo is known to be active in those – and the inmates are locked in 16-square-metre cells.

Former Bo Xilai family aide jailed over murder of UK businessman Neil Heywood ‘released early’

Bo, who was known for his flamboyant style before his downfall, has also apparently been given permission to wear Western suits instead of a prison uniform, according to a source close to the jail.

He was not the first inmate granted that privilege – former Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu was earlier allowed to swap his uniform for suits.

The source said Qincheng was not like other prisons, and that the guards were well aware of the status of the inmates.

“The guards are told to keep their hands off the prisoners. They are told the inmates aren’t ordinary people and that they have to refrain from hitting back, even if they are scolded or hit by an inmate, or they will be fired,” he said.

But although Bo is free to wear his suits, the line is drawn at leather shoes – all prisoners must wear the plastic shoes provided for them. And any shoes or trousers with laces or drawstrings are not allowed inside the prison to prevent suicides, the source added.

The tigers’ cage: inside China’s Qincheng prison

Other inmates have secured different privileges. Former security chief Zhou, who was jailed for life for taking bribes, abuse of power and leaking state secrets, has his own garden. His cell is in an isolated compound and he has a small plot of land to grow his own produce – and apparently he is quite good at it.

“When his relatives and friends visit him, they sometimes take home fruit and pumpkins grown by Zhou,” according to a source close to the family.

Zhou Yongkang is sentenced in a Tianjin court in June 2015. The former security chief grows fruit and vegetables at Qincheng prison. Photo: Reuters/CCTV

Aside from Zhou’s vegetable patch, there are also two big walnut trees and a persimmon tree within the prison grounds.

A source close to Qincheng operations said guards looked after the trees and kept them pruned.

The persimmons were also said to be a favourite of the late Yao Wenyuan, chief propagandist of the so-called Gang of Four that led the Cultural Revolution, who apparently used to hide the orange fruit in his straw hat and take it back to his cell to eat.

“He behaved like a little kid,” the source said. “There’s no rule against eating the fruit from the trees.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: In the ‘tigers’ cage’, VIP inmates grow fruit and wear suits