|Hary Wu on a return visit to China|
Very few people survive the great outrages of history. Fewer still stand up and force the world to pay attention.
One of these, Harry Wu, died two weeks ago.
Wu was raised in Shanghai and by age 23 in 1960 considered himself a communist during the period of the country's grotesquely named Great Leap Forward. As he was completing his college degree in geology, he made two insufficiently servile comments about the elite status of Communist Party members and the USSR's 1956 invasion of Hungary.
For these, he was hustled off to a forced labor camp where he learned that he had received a life sentence. His family did not know what happened to him for years (during which period his father was tortured and a brother was persecuted and tortured until he descended into madness.) When his stepmother learned his fate, she killed herself.
Wu spent 19 years in 12 camps, being tortured and beaten, working 12-hour shifts in coal mines and fields and augmenting his starvation diet by foraging in rats' nests for concealed seeds. In 1979, three years after the death of Mao Zedong, Wu was released and returned to the study of geology.
A year later, he was offered a non-paid teaching job in the geology department at the University of California, Berkeley. He arrived in the U.S. with $40 in his pocket and stayed a week with a sister who had immigrated many years earlier and made clear that he was not welcome in her Bay Area home.
He worked days and slept nights in parks or on commuter trains. Eventually he got a (probably illegal) job making donuts on the midnight shift, which allowed him to feed himself and sleep in Berkeley libraries during the daytime hours when he was not teaching.
Gradually he shared his labor camp stories with colleagues who encouraged him to speak out in his new country, where a person could say what he wished without being sent to prison.
This became his life's work. Wu wrote three books about laogai (the name of the Chinese labor camp system, which translates as "reform through work"), the system that enslaved him and millions of other Chinese citizens, many of whom died of starvation and execution and untreated diseases.
One of the books, "Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag," was described this way in a Los Angeles Times book review:
"Bitter Winds" deserves to be compared to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag
Archipelago" as an achingly intimate account of what happened to millions of
innocent men and women in the secret penal realm of the People's Republic. And
there's a strong dose of Kafka and Orwell in Wu's tales of a world so twisted by
revolutionary ardor that every decent human impulse became a crime.
Starting in 1992, Wu returned to China several times, at great personal risk, to document that the laogai system still was operating. He demonstrated that the government was harvesting the body organs of dead prisoners for transplants and that officials of the one-child policy were forcing women to abort unapproved pregnancies.
Significantly, he proved that more than a few of the products China was shipping to U.S. under new open-trade policies were manufactured by political prisoners. This was not what people in the George H.W. Bush administration wanted to hear.
Later, after earning U.S. citizenship in 1994, Wu made another documentation trip in 1995. This time, he was caught, jailed and sentenced to a 15-year prison term.
I lived in the Bay Area during this period. People there knew Wu's story, admired his courage and agitated for his release.
Meantime, then-first lady Hillary Clinton was planning to attend a UN women's conference in China, and she seemed to view Wu's situation as an irritating distraction from her travel plans. Ironically, perhaps, Wu was released after 66 days in prison, almost certainly to placate the Clinton administration.
Once back, Wu founded the Laogai Research Foundation and started a Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C. He hoped one day to move both to China.
As relations between the U.S. and China became increasingly normalized, Wu's activism came to be regarded as annoying. The idea here seemed to be this: Things are better in China now, so why don't you pipe down?
If I had spent 19 years in slave labor camps for no good reason, I don't think I'd be willing to move on so fast myself.
Wu's goal, he said in one speech, was to place the laogai in its historical context -- with Nazi exterminations, Stalinist gulags and the Pol Pot regime's killing of 25 percent of the population of Cambodia.
He did not try to exact vengeance but to set the record straight. He took an outrageous life experience and forced the larger facts of the matter into the open. He left this world a better place than he found it.
The Chinese Memory Hole
China has been opening up in recent years, but there are parts of its 20th century history that the ruling Communist Party would like to pretend never happened.
Harry Wu made this difficult for the Chinese leadership, but he was not the only one.
In 1989, Chinese students staged an uprising in Tiananman Square in Beijing. What they wanted was democracy. The army was turned on the students, and an unknown number were killed.
Liu Xiaobo, a university professor, supported the students and for this lost his job. He wrote books about Chinese human rights violations (published elsewhere of course) and has been in and out of Chinese jails ever since. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts and, presumably, to make him prominent enough to avoid the worst depradations of his government.
Liu is still under house arrest in China. Chinese schools are still do not teach about the Tiananmen Square uprising.
In 2008 came the release of "Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962," a remarkable compilation of history and personal death records. Its author, journalist Yang Jisheng, spent more than 15 years researching information that might never have come to light otherwise.
Tombstone is the story of a man-made famine (ascribed to naive-to-totalitarian central planning) in which 36 million Chinese people starved. Later commenters have suggested the death toll was greater by several million or more.
Tombstone of course is banned in China, but a version was published in western countries in 2012. Yang remains in China, but two months ago the government denied him the right to visit the U.S. and receive an award for his book.
Last year, I wrote about a prominent Chinese artist who has been beaten, jailed and harrassed (Thinking about China -- Ai Wei Wei, October 25.)
Also last year, a dissident journalist trying to leave the country was tracked down in Thailand, returned to China and jailed.
Last year and the year before, Hong Kong students mounted massive and increasingly violent protests against China's suppression of democratic elections. The concept, when Britain turned Hong Kong over to China, was "one country, two systems," but Beijing seems not to be totally on board with the two-systems part of the deal.
Brave Chinese individuals continue to resist a top-down government that hides unpleasant truths. But the truth will come out eventually.
As of this year, more than 300,000 Chinese students are enrolled at American universities, and thousands of others study at schools in other Western countries.
While those students are here, they have access to websites of Chinese commentary that are blocked inside China. They have access to news reports and histories of post-war China that are not available at home. While they study abroad, they can observe other government systems and consider what changes they might like to see in their own country.