The NI Interview
Vanessa Baird meets China’s big ‘trouble-maker’.
Harry Wu has a reputation for being proud, difficult and headstrong. He’s also resolutely honest. As a geology student in Beijing in 1960 Wu was asked what he thought about the communist system. His reply? ‘Not much.’ That comment earned him 19 years inside a Chinese prison labour camp.
I met him in Oxford between two appointments on his hectic tour of Europe, calling for boycotts of goods made by slave labour in Chinese prison camps. He looks his age – 59 – and admits feeling ‘very tired’. Nonetheless, he has a powerful presence and a determined energy. This is a man not easily crushed or knocked off course.
After nearly two decades of mental and physical torture he could have accepted the quiet life of an exile in the US. But in 1991 Harry Wu returned to China to do an exposé of the laogai or labour-camp system. His film was beamed around the world courtesy of ITV and CBS. Wu made another trip in the summer of 1995 to unearth more dirt on the labour camps. This time the Chinese authorities were waiting for him at the airport.
‘They asked me: “Why are you coming back here? You are a big trouble-maker. We have been waiting for you.” They talked about wanting to “solve the problem” — their euphemism for wanting to eliminate me.’
Wu was then arrested and observed round-the-clock for 66 days, charged with being a spy and entering the country under false documents. The spy charges he dismisses as nonsense. ‘The information I was seeking was for the media, not intelligence service. You must understand that the Chinese Government lies all the time,’ he says emphatically. ‘It lies to its own people; it lies to other governments. The Government says there are no political prisoners in China; they say the country doesn’t export missiles to Pakistan. They lied about me and to me. Communist Party members lie to themselves. Nobody really believes in communism any longer in China. They just believe in power.’
He was tried and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. But another sentence was tagged on first: he was to be expelled from China immediately. This face-saving move was in response to mounting pressure from the international community, particularly the US where Wu is now a citizen.
His US-based Laogai Research Foundation estimates that a third of China’s tea output is the product of slave labour. But because the laogai system is so intertwined with state control of industry, it is difficult to say for sure which Chinese products are ‘clean’ and which are not. Instead Wu proposes a boycott of Chinese toys. ‘China is too big a market for a total boycott. But we can target toys. Evidence shows that many of these are made in prisons. We have kind thoughts when we give a child a toy. But what if that gift has been made by blood and tears?’
It is not just the exploitation of labour that makes the laogai system inhumane. As he details in his book Bitter Winds, the treatment of prisoners is cruel and sadistic – crushing souls as well as bodies. ‘There are no gas chambers in the laogai. But there are spiritual gas chambers. The laogai turn people into wrecks, spiritually and mentally.’
So what about him? Did being arrested last year bring back all the old fears and horrors?
‘I feared nothing. I know these people. I had 19 years of it. Of course I did not want to lose my freedom. But I thought: don’t think about it or you will become weak.’
I ask if after his exile he became disenchanted with the West, like former Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn?
‘No. Solzhenitsyn had a strong Slavic and Orthodox Christian identity. My religious education stopped at 11 when the Communists took over. I have prayed only twice. Once when I saw an inmate in prison die; and once under torture.
‘I took American nationality in June 1994 as a convenience, but I did not feel a part of the US. After the trouble I had in China last summer, I feel differently. People in the US cared about what was happening to me. When I returned they put up yellow ribbons and that felt very good. They cared about my liberty.’
Now Harry Wu is trying to get a new word into the English dictionary: ‘laogai’. ‘People still talk about the Holocaust and the Soviet gulags. It’s important to remember these things, but they are in the past. The laogai system is happening in China right now.’
You can contact the Laogai Research Foundation at PO Box 361375, Milpitas, CA 95036 US. Tel: 408 263 8477.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996