Wu, Harry Hongda

▪ 1996

      When human rights activist Harry Wu was sentenced to 15 years in prison, then expelled from China on Aug. 24, 1995, the worsening of relations between China and the U.S. eased ever so slightly. Wu had been arrested by Chinese customs officials on June 19 at a remote northwestern border station when he attempted to enter China from Kazakhstan. While his American assistant was detained for only four days, Wu (a naturalized U.S. citizen) was charged with "entering China under false names, illegally obtaining state secrets, and conducting criminal activities."

      Wu had spent 19 years as a political prisoner in China—building roads, mining coal, and farming—before immigrating to the U.S. in 1985. Haunted by his experiences and deeply disturbed by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy students in Beijing, he assumed personal responsibility for exposing laogai ("reform through labour"), "a vast prison machine that crushes all vestiges of humanity—not only flesh and blood but spirit and ideals as well."

      Wu's books—Laogai: The Chinese Gulag (1992) and Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag (1994)—are a scathing condemnation of the way the Chinese government treats dissidents and political foes. The author, however, was destined to become more widely known for his daredevil return trips to China: twice in 1991, again in 1994, and the failed attempt in 1995. Risking arrest, Wu had posed as a prison guard, a tourist, and an American businessman to gain the documentary footage that later was shown on "60 Minutes" and the BBC. Wu most recently had focused on the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners, a practice roundly condemned by various groups. China responded aggressively to criticism, condemning a BBC-produced documentary on the lot of prisoners in China. Wu freely admitted that several specific scenes were faulty representations of the true state of affairs, but such groups as Amnesty International wondered about the virulence of the condemnation of China by those in the U.S. who supported the death penalty. Wu acknowledged that no one not previously scheduled for execution had been killed in order to obtain organs for transplants.

      Wu Hongda was born Feb. 8, 1937, in Shanghai to a homemaker and a banker. He attended Beijing College of Geology (1955-60). His criticism of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary led to his imprisonment in 1960. After his release in 1979, he taught at China Geoscience University, Wuhan (1980-85). He was a visiting scholar (1985-87) at the University of California, Berkeley, before becoming a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University. He founded the Laogai Research Foundation in 1992 and served as its executive director. (ELLEN FINKELSTEIN)

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Universalium. 2010.

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