Encouraged by Deng Xiaoping, who would later become an economic reformer, the party sent about half a million alleged "right-wing deviants" to re-education camps. The camp inmates, often educated city dwellers, were accused of questioning the policies of the Communist Party. Many did not survive the ordeal.
One of the camps was in the town of Jiabiangou in the Gobi Desert. Yang, the author, tracked down survivors of the camp and published their stories in a small Shanghai literary magazine, whose editors ignored the bans imposed by censors. On this morning, Yang has brought along Chen Zonghai, a spry, 79-year-old former teacher. Of the Jiabiangou labor camp's roughly 3,000 inmates, he was one of only a few to survive.
Chen is bald and wears large glasses. It was his bad luck to have been "too quiet" in the self-criticism meetings that were customary at the time. The party used these meetings to examine the class consciousness of its subjects, and party officials accused Chen of not having denounced anyone. As a result, he was loaded onto a truck on the banks of the Yellow River and taken to Jiabiangou together with other "right-wing deviants."
The insidious thing about this form of detention was that it was not limited by time. "We were expected to work hard, day and night, and to re-educate ourselves," Chen recalls. But the camps developed into death camps, as the already scant food rations became smaller and smaller until there was no food at all. The guards looked on as the prisoners starved to death, one after another.
Chen pulls a blade of grass out of the ground. "This is edible," he says. "I used to dream of sumptuous meals back then. It was the winter of 1959, and more and more of my fellow prisoners were dying." The horrific episode finally ended in 1961, when the authorities released the few remaining survivors.
From Death Camp to Blossoming Oasis The old death camp is near Jiayuguan, an hour's flight from Lanzhou. In this world, the past and the future live side by side near the crumbling Great Wall, built to protect the Chinese from nomadic horsemen. The city is also home to China's nuclear engineers, who work at a laboratory in the desert about 100 kilometers away. Every morning, at 7:40, a train takes engineers and workers to the secret nuclear center. At about 6 p.m., it brings them back to Jiayuguan.
Somewhere along a road that leads from the city to one of China's four space stations is a bumpy dirt road -- the path to the former Jiabiangou hunger camp.
At first glance, there is nothing to remind the visitor of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward. Today, Jiabiangou is a blossoming oasis on which corn, melons and chili peppers are grown. A sign at the entrance warns: "He who does not work properly today can look for a new job tomorrow." Quotations from the speeches of party leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao are written in chalk next to the sign.
Not a single sign or even memorial stone offers a hint of what happened here. Medical students from Lanzhou collected all the corpses in 1960, and the skeletons were distributed to universities to be used as instructional material.
Mr. Chen, who is not related to the former teacher, runs the government farm.