This cruel torture method that leads to severe physical and psychological damage is often used to interrogate religious believers in China.
The Chinese government signed the United Nations Convention against Torture in 1986 but has never complied with it. Law enforcement authorities in China use nearly 100 forms of extreme torture. The most widely-know is “the tiger bench;” detained people are also forced to drink hot chili water, mustard oil, fecal matter, or concentrated brine; they are exposed to extremely hot or cold temperatures, parts of their bodies are burnt with fire; needles or bamboo sticks are inserted under their fingernails.
Sleep deprivation may sound harmless but is universally recognized as one of the cruelest forms of torture. It is widely used because it does not leave any marks on a victim’s body but helps to break down his or her will. “Exhausting an eagle,” an expression often used to describe the torture of extended sleep deprivation, comes from bird training: an eagle’s feet are tied to a cord, and whenever it closes its eyes, the trainer will sway the cord, waking the bird; at the same time, intense light is shining directly into the eagle’s eyes. Usually, it takes no more than three days for the eagle to become exhausted and turn into an obedient bird.
The same happens to people that undergo this torture method: they are forced to sit or stand, not allowed to sleep for days. Interrogators would keep a bright light on at all times and make loud sounds by shouting or banging something to prevent a person from falling asleep, beating him or her at the same time.
55-years-old Li Xinzhi, a member of The Church of Almighty God, a Chinese Christian new religious movement, from Hebei Province experienced this torture over a decade ago, and he recently described to Bitter Winter this harrowing suffering.
Late one night in November 2002, 15 public security officers arrested him after a tip-off, without showing any documentation. They took him then to a hotel in another city and interrogated him all night long but failed to gain the information they wanted: the list of church leaders and information on its funds. An officer who identified himself as the bureau chief Zou ordered Li Xinzhi to speak, or he’ll make him “suffer for seven days until he submits.”
He was then taken to another room where a small-framed officer gave him a sadistic look and said, “We begin ‘exhausting an eagle’!” Not understanding, Li Xinzhi asked what this meant. The officer paced back and forth and replied smugly, “You don’t know about ‘exhausting the eagle’? Trainers of falcons do not let their birds sleep, eventually, making them obey unconditionally.”
Another officer, a large man, pointed at Li Xinzhi and said, “You’ll be in a total state of confusion in less than seven days. You’ll talk even if we don’t make you.” The small-framed officer went on, taking pleasure in Li Xinzhi’s plight, “When your flesh is hit too hard you don’t feel pain anymore, but ‘exhausting an eagle’ is worse than death. Even if you don’t die you will feel like a layer of skin is taken off.”
Hearing this, Li Xinzhi became very uneasy because he understood that it was undoubtedly a brutal torture method. He could just silently pray. The officers continued to interrogate him nonstop on his faith and the church, but he didn’t tell them anything.
Three days later, the police found a notebook of spiritual devotions and a book of God’s words at Li Xinzhi’s workplace. The bureau chief returned to question him. “Do you have anything to tell us now? Speak up, who converted you? Where did you get this book?” Li Xinzhi did not respond, so chief Zou ordered him to stand up. “These last few days you’ve been pretty comfortable, haven’t you? Don’t think that everyone here is easy to deal with!” Another officer chimed in, “We have evidence of your crime now. Even if you don’t talk, we can still convict you without a confession. You believe in Almighty God, and if you still don’t talk, we’ll hand you over to the Public Security Bureau. They’re not as nice as we are. I’d be surprised if they didn’t beat you to a pulp!”
Li Xinzhi responded, “Since you say that you can still convict me without a confession, don’t question me anymore, just convict me!” Chief Zou waved his hand and shouted at other officers, “Don’t waste words on him. Just take care of it!”
The police started interrogating Li Xinzhi 24 hours a day continuously, in shifts of two: three shifts in one day. Aside from going into a prison cell for meals, he spent the remainder of the time on the tiger bench deprived of any sleep; he was not even allowed to close his eyes or nod off. He was continuously interrogated and had two high-intensity lights shining straight at his face at all times.
Li Xinzhi said that the evenings were the most difficult to endure. The beams of the two high-intensity lights caused stabbing pain in his eyes, and he was forced to keep them wide open and look straight ahead. Late at night, two officers would sit across from him and take turns napping. The second he drifted off an officer would suddenly smack the table loudly to startle him awake.
Sometimes, when the officers saw that he was desperately tired, they would pry open his eyes with their fingers. They would also take him off of the tiger bench and have him raise his arms over his head, angrily shouting at him, “Be good and stand there. We’ll see if you’re still sleepy—stand up!” After standing for an extended period Li Xinzhi would start swaying from exhaustion, and the officers would kick his legs, preventing him from closing his eyes.
The officers would not give him anything to drink but would eat fruit or drink something, enticing him, “Want some? If you talk, we’ll give you something to eat.”
During interrogations, if he didn’t answer or was not quick enough, he would be punished. One time when he was slow to respond, officers rushed toward him, punching and kicking him. They then pressed him down with his face against the floor—his cuffed hands were below the bench. He was half-lying, half-kneeling on the ground and before long, both of his hands were numb, having lost all feeling. Seeing Li Xinzhi’s pain, they laughed maliciously, “Serves you right! No one made you believe in God!” Li Xinzhi was tortured within an inch of his life. Faced with such inhuman torture, he could do nothing but continue praying to God.
The combination of the lights shining into his eyes and sleep deprivation has resulted in Li Xinzhi’s eyes becoming red and swollen; his eyesight deteriorated noticeably, and his strength was depleted; he couldn’t even walk steadily. The police had to drag him along every time he was taken to eat; otherwise, he would trip and fall. He became unable to get food down and only wanted to sleep. When he was in this hazy state, the officers banged the table or yelled to startle him. This was a terrible psychological strain on him, and he began hallucinating from time to time as if he were up in the clouds while he was on the tiger bench. He was no longer able to distinguish between hallucinations and reality.
The endless interrogations utterly depleted Li Xinzhi’s body and mind. He suffered from severe hemorrhoids, so sitting on the hard, cold tiger bench for long periods of time caused him incredible pain. He said that at the time, he felt that death would be less painful than living.
After about 15 days of torture, Li Xinzhi was in a state of confusion and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Concerned something fatal would occur, and they would be held responsible, the police allowed him to rest for over an hour that day. They also relaxed their monitoring of him since their interrogations had yielded nothing. Though he was still handcuffed in the interrogation room, the frequency of questioning decreased. He was able to have a brief, occasional rest on the tiger bench or briefly doze off when he saw they weren’t watching. He endured 23 days and nights like this.
The brutal torture has caused Li Xinzhi severe physical damage: his vision deteriorated, his reaction times slowed down, he has memory gaps because of neurological overstimulation, and he has insomnia. He often has unbearable headaches, as if his head has been split open.
To Li Xinzhi’s knowledge, many other believers in Almighty God have been tortured using “exhausting the eagle” method. Bitter Winter has recently received reports about two such cases, proving that this brutal torture is still used in China: a man who was arrested on June 12, 2018, was tortured for eleven days by sleep deprivation; and a woman in her 60s had been subjected to this torture for four days.
Bitter Winter plans to report on how religions are allowed, or not allowed, to operate in China and how some are severely persecuted after they are labeled as “xie jiao,” or heterodox teachings. We plan to publish news difficult to find elsewhere, analyses, and debates.
Placed under the editorship of Massimo Introvigne, one of the most well-known scholars of religion internationally, “Bitter Winter” is a cooperative enterprise by scholars, human rights activists, and members of religious organizations persecuted in China (some of them have elected, for obvious reasons, to remain anonymous).