For 19 years, Harry Wu, a young geologist from Shanghai, was confined to the laogai, China’s system of forced-labor camps.
Imprisoned in 12 different camps, beginning in 1960, he was forced to mine coal, build roads, clear land and harvest crops. Routinely beaten, tortured and nearly starved to death, he witnessed the deaths of many prisoners from brutality, starvation and suicide, which he attempted twice.
In despair, Wu, a lifelong Catholic, said, “I stopped praying. There was no hope.”
Harry Wu, now 77, told his gripping story of survival—and detailed continuing human rights abuses in China—to a standing-room only crowd on Dec. 4 as the Museum’s final speaker of the 2014 Upstander Speaker Series. His story is detailed in his harrowing memoir, Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in the Chinese Gulag (1995, Wiley)
Wu was born into an affluent family in Shanghai; his father was a banking official and his mother “had descended from a family of well-to-do landlords.” Wu recalled: “My youth was one of peace and pleasure.
Then in 1949 came the communist revolution, led by Mao Zedong, who became Chairman of the Community Party of China. “My life changed dramatically. During my teen-age years, my father lost all his properties. We had money problems. The government took over all the property in the country. We even had to sell my piano.”
Wu studied at the Geology Institute in Beijing where he earned a degree. In 1956, the Communist Party began a campaign encouraging citizens, particularly students and intellectuals, to express their true views of the Party and the state of society (known as the Hundred Flowers Campaign). Although cautious, Wu eventually voiced some sentiments, by disagreeing with the Soviet’s armed crackdown of Hungary, and the practice of labeling people into different categories.
By the Fall of 1956, Mao abruptly reversed course, proclaiming that the true enemies of the Party had been exposed, and 19-year-old Wu was subsequently singled out at his university. “This was the first time I had ever been singled out as a political troublemaker,” Wu wrote later. “Most of my classmates were more pragmatic than I, and they just repeated what the Communists wanted to hear.”
For the next few years, Wu was criticized in Party meetings and closely monitored until his arrest in 1960 at the age of 23 when he was charged with being a “counterrevolutionary rightist,” and was sent to the laogai to serve a life sentence.
In 1979, at the age of 42, Wu was released from his life sentence, as some blatantly unjust sentences were re-adjudicated following the death of Mao in 1976.
Wu left China for the United States in 1985, after having received a chance invitation to become a visiting scholar from a University of California faculty member at Berkeley who had happened upon an article that Wu had written in an academic journal on Geology.
Arriving in the U.S. with only 40 dollars, a few clothes, and an ink tiger print that he had inherited from his father, Wu had to improvise where he would live since he did not have funding from the university for his first year. At first he was sleeping in the park, and in the subway when it rained. He got a night shift job making donuts at a donut shop for a few months; then a job at a liquor store, and was finally able to rent a cheap apartment. Wu continued to work various odd jobs during this period and in 1988 began working for an electronic chip manufacturer, where he became an assistant manager, and was able to buy a used car. Looking back on this period of his life, Wu felt that there was opportunity and if he just worked hard he could make it. After a series of meetings with a Catholic priest, Wu said he recovered his faith.
During his first years in America, Wu did not want to think about or discuss politics. He felt that he had already lost the years of his youth and he wanted to try to carve out a personal life and enjoy his freedom. But slowly he found himself getting drawn back into the discussion about prison camps in China and his own experiences there.
Called to testify before Congress, Wu became a human right activist.
In 1991, Wu accompanied Ed Bradley of the CBS news program 60 Minutes to mainland China for a story in which they posed as businessmen interested in purchasing factory goods in mainland China that had been manufactured by the slave labor of Chinese prisoners.
In 1992, Wu established the Laogai Research Foundation, a non-profit research and public education organization, considered a leading source for information on China’s labor camps; and was instrumental in proving that organs of executed criminals were used for organ transplants.
In 1995 Wu, by then a U.S. citizen, was arrested as he tried to enter China with valid, legal documentation. He was held by the Chinese government for 66 days before he was convicted for “stealing state secrets.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was instead immediately deported from China. He attributes his release to an international campaign launched on his behalf.
In November 2008, Wu opened the Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C., the first ever United States museum to directly address human rights in China. Wu said he continues to be surprised by Western countries and governments engaging in business deals with a government where human rights abuses on a massive scale continue unabated—abuses such as China’s one-child policy, the political and legal status of Tibet, neglect of freedom of the press in mainland China, lack of legal recognition of human rights and the lack of an independent judiciary, rule of law, and due process.
“Harry Wu’s story of courage, reconciliation and simple human dignity is a history lesson all of us should become familiar with,” said Mary Pat Higgins, Museum President & CEO.
The 2014 Upstander Speaker Series Presenting Sponsor is Bank of Texas; Speaker sponsors include Richard and Trea Yip and The Dallas Morning News.
Be sure to save these 2015 dates for the Upstander Speaker Series, which promise another year of thought-provoking commentary and conversation. Locations for teach of these speakers will be announced closer to the events:
March 26: Michael Sam, currently a free agent in the NFL who, on Feb. 9, 2014, became the first openly gay football player drafted into the NFL.
June 4: Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland who has been described by the Polish author Mladen Petrov as the “24/7 Rabbi” for his tireless efforts to rebuild Jewish life in Poland that was nearly obliterated during the Holocaust.
October 26: Roméo Antonius Dallaire, a Canadian humanitarian, author and retired senator and general. Dallaire served as Force Commander of UNAMIR, the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda between 1993 and 1994, that attempted to stop the genocide that was being waged by Hutu extremists against Tutsis and Hutu moderates.
Meantime, be sure to visit the Museum’s current Special Exhibit, “Drawn to Action: The Life and Work of Arthur Szyk,” through Jan. 31. Szyk was a Polish-Jewish refugee who settled in the U.S. during WWII, advocating for democracy and fighting Hitler’s hatred with elaborate political cartoons featured on the covers of the most prominent American wartime magazines and journals.
-Chris Kelley, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum