Another Kind of American History in Chongqing, 3: Puzzle

A deeper investigation into SACO, the mysterious American run concentration camp in China clears up some -- but not all -- questions related to the prison

by Xujun Eberlein

(Continued from 1:Prologue and 2:Evolution)

For the two years following 9-11, I struggled with a Hamletian question, "To quit, or not to quit?" I eventually chose the former, bowed out of my high-tech job, and became a writer and a guilty dependent of my husband.

After I started writing in earnest (my focus then was on the cultural revolution), I browsed the Internet more diligently. One day in early 2005 I happened upon a Web page, whose content gave me pause.

Written by the proud son of a Navy officer who had served in SACO, the text expressed admiration for Miles and Tai Li (i.e., Dai Li), and was a tribute to the father's brave participation in "guerrilla warfare operations against the Japanese troops." The Web page gave a few links to other sites related to SACO personnel, where I saw the same pride manifest.

By that time, I had gotten used to the information disparity on both sides of the Pacific. Still, the two irreconcilable images of SACO were unsettling at a personal level. Did either of us, the descendants of the SACO men or Chinese like me, see the full picture? 

It isn't easy to reject a certain notion when one has been accustomed to it from a young age, much like one's taste for food. Nonetheless I began to research, at first aimed at finding evidence of SACO's involvement in the Refuse Pit and Bai Mansion prisons, depending mainly on English resources. I searched library catalogues and the Internet extensively.  I read whatever I could get hold on SACO.  Among the books I have read, three are especially worth noting.  I won't be giving a detailed review of each, just note a few things of particularly relevance to my subject.

Miles was a Vice Admiral and SACO's co-director. In the memoir, he did not hide his hatred toward the Chinese Communists. I got the impression that, if it were up to him, he wouldn't have minded lumping them with his Japanese enemies. The book claims that "SACO had no personnel that was employed against the Communists, and that no equipment had been supplied for use against them except in certain already reported instances when they themselves had attacked our Chinese troops." I doubt the veracity of such a claim, but Miles might well have believed it. I found his unconditional trust in Dai Li quite naïve, but the book did give me the impression that Miles was genuinely unaware of the prisons at his "Happy Valley" headquarters. This was baffling.

A SACO researcher in Chongqing, Sun Dannian, told me recently that Miles' book is unavailable in mainland China, and there has been no Chinese translation of it published there, though she had read a Taiwan-published translation. Her impression of Miles from that translation was "he was an excellent naval officer doing a great job."

This was the only foreign book quoted (not sure since when; in any case won't be earlier than 1979) at Chongqing's SACO museum, apparently for its favorableness, and the author was respectfully addressed as "America's China expert." I took a photo of the quote, which was in Chinese translation, during my 2002 visit to the museum. Some time later I bought a copy of the book. That quote's original English text, as I found in a chapter titled "SACO: The Counter-Revolution in Action," reads as follows:

Amidst the highly unstable political and military situation in wartime China, the politicized personnel of SACO played a pivotal role in affecting both the current policies and future expectations of the two contending Chinese factions. SACO's direct involvement in China, its willingness to become a conduit for secret military programs, and its dedication to the destruction of revolutionary movements all gave it a disproportionately large impact on Chinese-American relations. ... SACO's essential policy had been to help prepare the KMT for civil war.
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The chapter cites activities of SACO that supports the above charge. At one point, it refers to a source's accusation "Miles's personal participation in mass trials conducted by Tai Li, after which political prisoners were buried alive." However, no specifics such as time and location are given. There is also an indirect allegation appearing at the end of the same chapter, which mentions that, in 1974, "the Chinese press carried gruesome reports on the mangled human remains which had been unearthed at SACO's 'Happy Valley' headquarters near Chungking." ("Chungking" was the 1940s transliteration of Chongqing.) The bodies referred to here must have been those from the same photo I had seen in my childhood, because nothing new was unearthed in 1974, the year I graduated from high school.

This book has a Chinese translation in the mainland. In recent years, several Chinese researchers who have read it write that the museum's isolated display of the above quote was intended to mislead the public, because the book clearly states that many of the things it criticizes were Miles' own doing, not in concordance with US policy at that time.

  • Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service by Frederic Wakeman Jr., University of California Press, 2003

This scholarly volume, also over 600 pages, is all about Dai Li, the head of the Nationalist secret service and also SACO's Chinese director.  It includes the most balanced information I've seen so far on SACO's history.  Its detailed citations of sources clearly show that the US Navy personnel at SACO had helped to both fight the Japanese, and train Dai Li's secrete police to eradicate Communists. Thus the image of SACO I got from the book was a mixed animal; it was neither as evil as we Chinese thought nor as glorious as those Navy men and their descendants perceived.

But again I did not see evidence of American participation in Chongqing's two prisons.

SACO's participation in the Chinese civil war was also evident from some American personal accounts I saw elsewhere.  For example, the website I mentioned earlier, the one written by the son of a Navy officer, stated that,

At the request of General Tai Li, the Chinese Nationalist leader of SACO, my father stayed in China for six more months until March of 1946, training Chinese Nationalist troops for their impending conflict with Chinese Communists.

By late 2005, two facts had emerged from my reading: one, all the Navy personnel serving at SACO had left China by mid-1946, thus they wouldn't have possibly involved in the November 27, 1949 massacre; two, after SACO officially ceased to exist, the Americans gave the supplies and weapons to their Chinese counterpart  -- the Nationalist agents -- who continued to use those as well as their training from SACO to tackle the Communists. Thus there was an indirect involvement of America in killing the Communists.

Yet questions remained.

It is unclear whether the Nationalists continued to use SACO's name in the civil-war years from 1947 to '49. If that was the case, then the label of "SACO concentration camp" makes for effective, harder-to-dispute propaganda by mixing truth with lies. With this question in mind, during a visit to Chengdu in the mid-2000s, I asked Uncle Jin whether he knew, while jailed in Refuse Pit prison in 1948, that the prison was under Zhong-Mei hezuosuo (SACO)?  He said no, he did not hear the name "Zhong-Mei hezuosuo" until after liberation, in the early 1950s. When he was in the prison his jailers had called it a "xunyusuo," which means "moral education institute."

A more important question to me was whether, in the years from 1943 to '46, while SACO was active, Americans were involved in torture and killing at the Refuse Pit and Bai Mansion prisons. The prisons were on the grounds of SACO's headquarters in walking distance from the training sites and residences.  How was it possible that, living and working there for three years, none of the Americans had noticed the prisons? The only logical explanation, it seemed, was that they might have been covering their involvement.

This question seemed to gain urgency in light of the 2004 exposure of Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. But I was making a mistake by focusing my research on English resources alone. Unbeknownst to me, a few Chinese historians have addressed my questions as early as 1988, and are still struggling to make their voices heard today.

(To be continued tomorrow here)

Xujun Eberlein is the author of Apologies Forthcoming, a story collection set in China, and Inside-out China, a cultural criticism blog. She also writes reviews of China-themed books, for example this one.