The Bo Xilai guide to doing time in a Chinese prison, the not-so-hard way

Next stop, the Big House.
Next stop, the Big House.
Image: AP Photo/Andy Wong
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In the Qincheng prison outside of Beijing where Bo Xilai will likely serve out his life sentence, all inmates are not created equal.

Found guilty of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, Bo will—barring an extreme long-shot appeal—serve out the rest of his life in relative comfort, at least compared to the average Chinese inmate. As Associated Press Beijing correspondent Didi Tang wrote last year, “the Chinese elite take care of their own, even in disgrace.”

Qincheng’s guests through the years have included leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, Chairman Mao’s widow Jiang Qing, and officials purged during Mao’s Cultural Revolution—including Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, whose political struggles the younger Bo cited in an angry letter to his family before receiving his sentence. Since the 1990s, the prison has become known for housing Chinese officials and politicians who ended up on the wrong side of political infighting, were found guilty of corruption, or—often—both.

“Formerly high-ranking party members are generally treated better than ordinary inmates, especially in relation to detention conditions, healthcare, visits, exemptions from certain prison rules etc,” Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas Bequelin told the BBC. “As long as the arrangements are approved ‘upstairs’ the prison will oblige.”

Here’s a guide to the amenities, pitfalls and wardrobe options that the formerly high-flying Bo will have plenty of time to get used to.

The accomodations

According to according to former prisoner Dai Qing, a journalist who spent about six months there after the 1989 Tiananmen protests, cells at Qincheng are about 20 square meters—not bad considering that apartments in Beijing sell for upwards of 25,000 yuan ($4,085) per square meter.

Some have carpeted floors, sofas, and en suite bathrooms. And then there are the world-class safety features: The Shenzhen Economic Daily reported that the “walls of cells for major criminals are specially padded with rubber to ensure that the prisoners cannot commit suicide.” In any event, it sounds a lot nicer than the Ai Wei Wei secret detention cell that the dissident artist documented in a series of dioramas earlier this year.

The food

A chef who used to work for the swank Beijing Hotel was once responsible for the cooking, which included shark’s fin and sea cucumbers, while he served out his sentence in Qincheng; it’s unclear if he’s still running the kitchen. Back in the days of the Cultural Revolution, food consisted of milk for breakfast, two dishes and a soup for lunch and dinner, and an apple for dessert. There aren’t any contemporary accounts of the Qincheng menu, but it’s safe to say it doesn’t include the big chunks of raw meat from rare and exotic African animals that Bo is accustomed to.

The dress code

The Shenzhen Economic Daily reports that “although prisoners are given uniforms, they are generally not required to wear them.” While prison inmates the world over opt for jumpsuits or sweatpants, Chen Liangyu, former party Secretary in Shanghai before he was fired following a 2006 corruption scandal, “wears a suit and tie most days.”

The neighbors

Among the collection of convicted officials and politicians that will live alongside Bo in Qingchen, there is one man that he will not be happy run into: his former right-hand man Wang Lijun, who triggered the scandal that brought down Bo when he fled to the US Embassy in 2012. During Bo’s trial, Wang testified that his former boss had punched him in a meeting, a day after Wang brought up the involvement of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood. (Bo claimed it was only a slap.)

Gu, who confessed to murdering Heywood earlier this year and received a suspended death sentence that will probably leave her behind bars for life, is reportedly not an inmate at Qincheng. According to media reports she is doing her time at the luxurious new Yancheng prison, nicknamed “The White House” by Internet commenters for its distinctive architecture. Yancheng boasts a cocktail lounge, basketball court and “cells that are about the size of an average New York City apartment.” So for all of Bo’s creature comforts at Qincheng, the cruelest irony may be that he has only ended up at the second fanciest prison in China.