In 1999, leading dissident Jiang Qisheng was given a four-year sentence for inviting the Chinese people to light candles to honor the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Drawn with indignant intensity from Jiang's time in prison, his memoirs record chilling observations of the modern "civilized" Beijing jails in which he was held.
While awaiting a farcical trial, he shares a cell crowded with common criminals, among them a murderer who had dismembered his victim with an electric saw. Along with intriguing vignettes of his fellow prisoners, Jiang describes the brutal conditions they all faced: inmates led to execution with necks corded to silence them, savage fights between prisoners, and rare moments of unexpected kindness. He describes the frequent beatings by guards, the use of the electric prod, and a dehumanizing regime aimed at humiliation and the destruction of individual personality.
After he is sentenced, conditions are even worse. Prisoners, used as slave labor, become bitterly exhausted and emaciated, while facing new depths of mental degradation. Throughout, however, Jiang retains his dignity, his detached and perceptive intelligence, and his concern for his fellow sufferers, guards included.
Written in a light and ironic style, Jiang's stories of prisoners, many of whom come from the most primitive and impoverished layer of Chinese society, are related with vividness, insight, humor, and compassion. Dismayed by their fatalistic docility, the author asks, "Where lies China's hope? Can democracy ever take root in China?" The answers, surely, lie in the voices of those, like Jiang, who dare to speak out.