REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
The leader of the world's emerging superpower is making his first visit to Toronto. President Hu Jintao has come to Toronto on business and business is booming.
PRESIDENT HU JINTAO (Translation): Canada is a major producer and exporter of energy and resources. China has a huge stable and growing market.
Inside this trade forum, the lure of China's 1.3 billion consumers is enough to silence any mention of human rights. Back outside, among the protesters, the image of a woman's face on a placard stands out for me. Her name is Gao Rongrong, and a few blocks from here lives a man who knows exactly how she died.
It's Han Guansheng that I've come to Toronto to meet. In 1999, after a long career in China's security services, Han was promoted to the top of the Judicial Bureau in Shenyang City.
He became governor of two prisons and four hard labour camps. Two years later he fled China and applied for asylum in Canada.
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): I was almost 50 when I defected. I didn’t want to live against my conscience in the remaining years of my life. I didn’t want to live my life constantly wearing a mask. In my resignation letter to the CCP, I stated very clearly "I don't want to keep on struggling between my duties and my conscience."
Han's conscience is troubled because of his role in the largest gulag of our times - the Chinese Laogai.
It's a massive system of prisons and hard labour camps. These rare images have been smuggled out of China by dissidents. All prisoners in the Laogai work. The conditions are often brutal - 16 or more hours a day of hard labour, and often in toxic conditions with no protection and starvation is used as a tool for control.
The US State Department estimates that today at least 250,000 people are held in labour camps under what's called "administrative detention". Han admits that these detainees have not been convicted of any crime.
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): Generally prisoners serving sentences in prison were convicted at criminal proceedings in court, those who were detained in the labour camp had not been through any legal process. Their detention was based on the national detension rules and determined solely by the police.
That made it possible for labour camps to abuse human rights.
In recent years the Laogai has doubled its population. Most new inmates belong to the spiritual movement Falun Gong. Alarmed by the rapid growth of the Falun Gong in the '90s, the Chinese Government banned the practice. The Falun Gong responded with the unthinkable in China - this open protest. 10,000 members silently surrounded the Forbidden City.
That provoked the Chinese Government to form a special bureau - the 610 Office, to eliminate the Falun Gong by any means necessary. And the main tool was to be the Laogai system.
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): Without any legal evidence, and without going through any legal proceedings, the Communist Party detained many Falun Gong practitioners, with great cruelty and on a large scale. The detainees were tortured and ill-treated. For example they were electrocuted with 15,000 volt batons. They were submitted to brainwashing. This resulted in many detainees losing their lives or their families.
One of the most gruesome practices in the Laogai is the use of force-feeding. Survivors claim that guards will shake the feed tubes, causing damage to the nose, throat and stomach.
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): I’m not sure how the force feeding took place but I’m certain it happened. As some of the Falun Gong practitioners were willing to be force fed, there would have been struggles and scuffles. It must have been a hellish experience.
These paintings are based on direct experience by Falun Gong artists. The situations depicted are largely corroborated by Han's account of what goes on behind the Laogai's closed doors.
REPORTER: You say that you protested when you were asked to detain members of the Falun Gong, how was that received by your superiors?
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): The order came from Zhu Jin, the Deputy Party Secretary Shenyang. She was responsible for law and order in the city and was also one of my immediate supervisors. She ordered me in a serious tone to carry out the order, she said she would take responsibility for the rest.
Mr Han claims that despite these orders he did his best to forbid torture in the camps he ran.
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): In the camp where I was in charge there was a 15-year-old girl, my subordinates asked her to break with the Falun Gong, she adamantly refused to denounce it. So they electrocuted her with an electric baton. I stopped and punished them after I found out. But the tortures continued.
But Dateline has confirmed two other cases of torture at Longshan. 39-year-old Wang Hong was severely beaten and later died of renal failure while Han was still in charge of the camp in 2001. And since Han defected, the case of Gao Rongrong has come to light. Ms Gao, the face from the placard, was brutally tortured at Longshan Prison by the same men who were once under Han's control.
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): The Gao Rongrong incident was a major scandal, she was tortured with electric shock and died as a result, after I left China.
Gao Rongrong was reportedly electrocuted for more than seven hours at one time. She broke her leg jumping out a window to escape. She was later re-arrested. Her death certificate was issued on June 16 of this year while Ms Gao was still in police custody in Shenyang.
During our conversations here in Toronto, Han says that information about camps outside Shenyang was hidden from him. Insiders are told only what they need to know by the Central Party.
But there is a Laogai survivor, an escaped inmate, who is striving to assemble the big picture of the Chinese prison and labour camp system. I've come to Washington DC to meet with Harry Wu. The world's top expert on China's labour camps, Harry spent 20 years in the Laogai and is the founder of the Laogai Research Foundation whose offices are just behind me, a few blocks from the White House.
If Harry returned to China, he would serve another 15 years in the Laogai for stealing state secrets. His experience from years past remains disturbingly similar to Mr Han's contemporary account.
HARRY WU: I was put in solitary confinement made of concrete - 3 foot high, 3 foot wide, 6 foot long, no blanket, no straw. According to regulation the first three days no food, no water.
The condition you leave this small cement coffin is that you have to confess, otherwise you can't. So I feel I have no choice, so I think death is better than life, I prefer the death. Then they feed me, forced to, the rubber tube from my nose to my stomach. So even many years still a total injury in my nose. I very easily bleed. My nose was bleeding, OK. And then the police warden say, "You have no right to hunger strike. You have no right to death. We want you alive, we want to help you, through the hard labour, make you a new socialist person."
REPORTER: How many prisons are there in China at the moment to the best of your knowledge?
HARRY WU: We don't know. This is top secret. But we try to collect the information through the government documents and former prisoners, families of the inmates and the policemen, the survivors, the victims.
So we publish a handbook, we collect more than 1,000 prison camps in China. We estimate that in the last 50 years more than 50 million people was sent to the prison camp, and probably 50% of them vanished.
After weeks of sensitive negotiations, I've arranged a meeting between Harry Wu and Han Guansheng in Toronto. Han wants to share his unique knowledge and Harry has many questions about the Laogai in Shenyang City. But Harry feels that by agreeing to this meeting Han is endangering himself further by aiding in the distribution of state secrets.
HARRY WU (Translation): This is the Shenyang prison, rubber factory? This is one of the main streets. These are all female prisons
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): You have so many precious photos.
The conversation moves away from the camps themselves and onto the controversial issue of China's state executions. Amnesty International believes that China now executes at least 3,500 prisoners a year and they admit the figure is likely much higher. That means that China executes more people than every other nation in the world combined. There is no way of knowing the crimes these people are being executed for.
Mr Han claims that three men were executed for harassing a waitress. Harry recalls that these prisoners were executed for arson - they added fuel to a fire at the Tiananmen Square protest. Once inside the Laogai, prisoners are at its mercy. Their sentence may be upgraded if they do not reform or confess or they can be executed for trying to escape.
HARRY WU (Translation): These days do the court police have any regulations on executions? Like shooting in the head, the heart? Is there a procedure, document?
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): No, I didn't see any document. But the procedures I have seen are all the same. It's like this, it's a cliff in the mountain, all those prisoners were taken to face the edge of the cliff, kneel down, two officers take one prisoner, kneel down in a row, their arms were all bounded by rope. After they knelt down, the court police line up behind them, one behind each prisoner, each one carries a semiautomatic rifle. After they stood, someone distributes bullets to them, one bullet to each. Then the head of the execution from the court, stood nearby, held one green flag in his hand. When he raises the green flag, the execution team prepares. They are all stood close nearby, once the flag is waved down, they shoot and the bullet definitely hits the back of the prisoners' head.
HARRY WU (Translation): That time, 66 people, were they all hit on the back of their head?
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): Yes, all like that. All hit the back of the head and the person immediately fell over forward. I was nearby. What I saw later, basically, in Shenyang, it was all this same procedure.
For Harry, Han's testimony is an invaluable source of direct information on the Laogai and he's prepared to help Han in the days ahead
HARRY WU: He is blowing a whistle - let the people know what the people never know about it and as, individually, I think we have to give him a chance to change his life and change his mind. We have to give him a hand. That also will encourage other insiders to follow him.
The Canadian Refugee Board does not agree. In April, they rejected Han's application for asylum.
READING FROM REFUGEE BOARD DECISION BY ADJUDICATOR TOM PINKNEY: "I find that there are serious reasons for considering that he is an accomplice to these crimes against humanity. Accordingly I find that he should be excluded from refugee protection in Canada."
A key part of this decision is that it specifically finds that there is a policy of abusing human rights in the Laogai that comes directly from the Chinese Government. Yet just a few blocks away the man at the very top of that system is honoured by Canada's leaders.
Unlike the case of Chen Yonglin in Australia, the mainstream Canadian press have not taken up Han's case. As a result, his asylum rejection has not become a political issue. Having come clean on the abuses under his watch, Han's situation now seems impossible.
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): There's a Chinese saying - "When you look back, you’ll see the shore", perhaps it means whatever you’ve done wrong, as long as you stop and regret your wrongs you can become a good person. I think that is what it means. But perhaps in some people's eyes, because of the job I did for a long time and the position I held, those people might think I’m now too far the shore and I cannot go back to it. I feel this is not very humane.
Han is currently appealing his asylum decision. If he fails, which seems likely, he will be deported back to China. That will discourage further defectors, keeping the lid on the dark secret of the world's most favoured trading partner.
REPORTER: What will happen to you if you are, in fact, sent home?
HAN GUANSHENG (Translation): If I'm sent back to China. I would obviously face long imprisonment and possibly persecution to the point of death. There would be no other possible treatment.