The Risks of Witness

With this, the third book that Harry Wu has published about China’s forced-labor prison camp system, we can see that he has been moving on a discernible trajectory, one that has taken him from the world of reality to the world of appearance. In this, we might observe, he seems to mirror the temper of the times, and especially our current approaches to politics and to foreign policy.

Wu published his first book, Laogai—The Chinese Gulag, in 1992. He knew what he was writing about, for he had suffered through nineteen years of this infamous system. His formal condemnation to “reeducation through labor” in 1960 sprang from his ill-judged and youthful attempts to take seriously the Chinese Communist Party’s call in the Hundred Flowers movement of late 1956 to early 1957 for frank airing of criticisms about the government’s shortcomings. When he criticized the Party’s dictatorial methods and tried to leave the country, he was arrested. He was released in 1979 with as little logic or explanation as when he was first condemned, and after a few uneasy years in the People’s Republic he made his way to the United States in 1985, starting off with a visiting scholar’s visa, and then becoming a permanent resident and finally a US citizen. He wrote his first book in his native Chinese, under the newly hybridized Chinese-Western name of Hongda Harry Wu. The book was clearly and effectively translated by Ted Slingerland and had a brief foreword by the exiled Chinese cosmologist Fang Lizhi.1

As Wu explained in the preface to that book, his goal was to make the world understand that China had developed and was still using the laogai system of “reeducation” through forced labor that was specifically “designed to physically and spiritually destroy human beings.” The West seemed incapable of grasping the nature of this system because it was “deceptively packaged in seemingly innocuous governmental policies.” Wu added: “As a survivor of nineteen years of imprisonment in a labor reform camp, or laogaidui, I feel that the investigation of the subject of labor reform camps in the People’s Republic of China is both a personal responsibility and a matter that cannot be ignored by civilized society.” He briefly compared the scale of Chinese abuses to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s gulags, concluding of the Chinese camps that “in every respect—in terms of scope, cruelty, and the number of people imprisoned—they rival the Nazi and Soviet systems.”

He added that the lawlessness of this ostensibly legal system was obvious: Chinese Communist Party sources cited thirty-six documents as the basis of the laogai system, but of these only four had been ratified by the National People’s Congress. The others were all “regulations and notices from Public Security and other administrative departments.” Attempts to study such documents within China could lead to charges that one was a counter-revolutionary who had “stolen and sold state secrets.”

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In content and form, Wu’s Laogai was an academic monograph, seeking to make its point through the precise marshaling and analysis of a wide range of written data, though Wu added the comment that “my personal experience in twelve labor reform camps over nineteen years and what I have seen and heard over the past forty years in mainland China are naturally other important sources of information.” Successive chapters dealt with the main components of the colossal system that was often referred to only by the term “laogai,” but was in fact composed of three main tiers: “Convicted Labor Reform,” “Reeducation Through Labor,” and “Forced Job Placement” (in Chinese, respectively laogai, laojiao, and jiuye). A concluding chapter looked at the Deng Xiaoping-era “reforms” of the system.

Much of the force of the book—as is often the case in academic works—lay in its appendices, five in all, filling eighty-plus pages, and in its charts and its maps. There were also several blurred but harrowing photographs of the system’s enforcers and victims.

In Appendix One, a phenomenal feat of scholarly investigation, research time for which was partly funded by the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University, Wu listed 990 of China’s labor reform camps, estimating that this enormous number probably only represented between one fourth to one sixth of the total. It was, he wrote, extraordinarily difficult to determine the exact nature of the labor force in many Chinese enterprises. Every labor reform camp had two names, one the name identifying its penal and coercive status—thus “Shanxi Province No. 13 Labor Reform Detachment” or “Tuanle Reeducation Through Labor Camp”—the other an innocuous commercial or descriptive label, such as “Qinghe Farm” or “Hunan Heavy Truck Factory.” To ascertain both names at once and affix them to a precise location, work force, and range of products was a difficult task, and one that the Chinese authorities naturally did nothing to render any easier.

Placing the camps he could trace on a sequence of provincial maps, Wu stated clearly when he lacked information, and in brief unsensational notes attached to each camp he could locate he listed the products it produced, which vividly illuminated the extent and complexity of the system. The products included coal, matches, trucks, toothpaste, cosmetics, livestock, vegetables, sugar cane, bricks, flashlights, batteries, shoes, gypsum, tea, knitted goods, nylon socks, wine grapes, prawns, industrial chemicals, bed sheets, glass, lead, cement, paper, opium poppies, auto parts, plastics, crop sprayers, liquor, mercury, tractors, pottery and porcelain, rubber, fans, leather and furs, asbestos, gunnysacks, milk products, firefighting equipment, motorcycles, gloves, embroidery, diesel engines, and even the “launch plate” for one of China’s early intercontinental ballistic missiles. When he could find the appropriate information, Wu also identified the camps in which there were women workers among the prisoners, and in which the products that were manufactured or assembled went into the export market.

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Coincidentally, at just the same time, corroboration for the general accuracy of a great deal of Harry Wu’s analysis, along with much other new material, was provided by the French scholar Jean-Luc Domenach in his Chine: l’Archipel Oublié.2 Domenach, a distinguished analyst of Communist China and the author of a major study of the origins of the 1958 Great Leap Forward, among other works, noted that he had begun his own research on China’s Gulags in 1976, having realized the enormity of the system while conducting interviews in Hong Kong during that year. As Domenach wrote in his introduction, he used the term “archipelago” rather than Gulag because he wanted to underline “the great originality of the Chinese system of repression and incarceration in contrast to its Soviet model.” “At this moment,” he wrote, “when the Soviet Gulag is collapsing, the continued existence of the Chinese archipelago is a scandal for the conscience.” His goal, said Domenach, was to “wrench the Chinese world of incarceration from oblivion,” “to bring it out into the daylight, and if possible explain its history.” Domenach’s was thus more a historical survey of the entire coercive camp system of China than was Wu’s; his detailed account of the laogai system itself appeared mainly in chapter thirteen, after four hundred pages of background analysis.

By comparison with Domenach, Harry Wu was concise and almost restrained in his presentation of evidence that must have been agonizing to him. But already, as Wu noted in an “Afterword” to the Laogai volume, he had returned to China in 1991 to seek new material and corroboration for the continued scale of the system. Since his book was already set in type, he could not alter the basic text to reflect his new discoveries. He had, however, observed that the system was changing, and that the total number of laogai camps in 1991 was probably somewhat less than it had been—though figures were in some ways even more elusive, since the Public Security Bureau had now transferred responsibility for many of the camps to provinces and municipalities. This had made the profitability of the camps all the more important to the new overseers, and brought more prison labor products into the international export markets. As a parallel development, the growing ineffectiveness of Maoist-style “thought control” in China had led to an increased use of violence against prisoners as a way of enforcing discipline and sustained labor productivity. Wu concluded:

I feel that it is necessary to gather and examine materials regarding large-scale persecution of various types of political prisoners and the human rights abuses committed in the LRCs [labor reform camps] over the previous thirty years as well as to investigate more carefully the economic function of and actual conditions prevailing in the LRCs over the past ten years of Communist Party control. These two areas of study spring from the same source, and their investigation is in substance one task.

These cautious words hid a rather more complex reality. Harry Wu had begun to give talks on the laogai system at colleges in the United States in 1986, shortly after he entered the country, and he appeared as an expert witness at the 1990 Senate hearings on the laogai, the first such hearings in Congress on China. But most important for his own future and his own perception of American society, he was introduced by Orville Schell to David Gelber at CBS. Gelber offered to pay Wu’s way back to China—he now had a green card, which gave a possible dash of immunity to such a rash venture—and to run any camp photos or videos Wu could make on CBS News and the program 60 Minutes. It was really this event, and a follow-up trip to China in which Wu met up with Ed Bradley and a CBS cameraman, that gave Wu his taste of the influence of television. He mentioned the two trips in the Afterword to Laogai, though he did not there identify the purpose of his visit or the source of funds.

The photographs Harry Wu took on this journey back to the camps were by his own account blurred, and often unusable; but there is no denying the extraordinary, stomach-knotting bravado it must have taken for him to venture back into China to visit the very camps—or their counterparts—in which he had been interned. Nor is there any doubt that the TV footage he helped obtain and the subsequent stories about him in news magazines gave the laogai much more attention in America and Europe. The publication of Laogai by Westview Press was not in itself enough of an event—despite the book’s merits and originality—to propel Harry Wu into public consciousness, any more than Jean-Luc Domenach’s study was for its author in France. But with the attention he was getting from television and press and a growing awareness among politicians that he was an “expert”—as opposed to just a former inmate—Wu could begin raising more funds to publicize his cause.

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What exactly was and is that cause? It could be described as the attempt to give significance to his nineteen awful years in China’s camps by making as wide a range of people as possible aware of this aspect of China. In a broader sense, it was to stop Americans from buying Chinese products made inside such camps. In addition to this linking of personal experience with the wider currents of history, Wu wanted to memorialize his dead friends and fellow inmates from the camps, those who failed to make it. Wu evoked those years and described those people in his memoir Bitter Winds, published in 1994 with the China scholar Carolyn Wakeman as his able and sensitive amanuensis and narrator.3 In trying to expose the reality of the camps, he moved beyond the perspective of his first book, giving many accounts of how the continual hunger, bullying, and harsh punishment could transform intelligent men of integrity into collaborators bent only on self-preservation.

Harry Wu soon became drawn into the American political world by professionals who encouraged him to put pressure on Congress for reasons of their own. As he explains in his new book, Troublemaker, an important ally here was the AFL-CIO, specifically Jeff Fiedler of the AFL-CIO Food and Allied Service Trades Department:

Obviously the AFL-CIO does not appreciate having goods coming into the United States that are made by unsalaried prisoners in China, but more important, it opposes slave labor anywhere in the world. My friendship with Jeff went far beyond the union activity on his part, however. Jeff went to China on his own for the first time in September of 1991, to investigate labor-camp production for a large American corporation. He made another trip in 1993….

Jeff began giving me sound political advice, something I had never had before, telling me, for example, which members of Congress might be interested in my cause. Until I met Jeff, I had concentrated only on exposing the Chinese camps, but he urged me to be tougher on U.S. companies, saying they should be penalized for encouraging prison labor.

It was Jeff Fiedler who advised Wu to set up a “Laogai Research Foundation” to handle donations, of which Fiedler and Harry Wu were to be the directors, along with Jean Pasqualini. Half-Chinese and half-French, Pasqualini had grown up in China and had spent the years between 1957 and 1964 in laogai camps. His own account of his camp experience appeared under his Chinese name of Bao Ruo-Wang in 1973, with the title Prisoner of Mao.4 In that book Pasqualini/Bao pointed out the economic role of the camps with some precision:

There is a simple, basic truth about the labor camps that seems to be unknown in the West: For all but a handful of exceptional cases (such as myself) the prison experience is total and permanent. The men and women sentenced to Reform Through Labor spend the remainder of their lives in the camps, as prisoners first and then as “free workers” after their terms have expired.

Labor camps in China are a lifetime contract. They are far too important to the national economy to be run with transient personnel. It was convicts who reclaimed and made flourish the vast Manchurian wastelands which had defeated all past efforts and which today still offer the only convincing proof that a Sovkhoze-style state farm can operate profitably; convicts who began China’s plastics industry and run some of her biggest factories and agricultural stations; convicts who grow the very rice Mao eats. To achieve these successes one thing was indispensable: a stable supply of manpower, willing to work hard. With this assured, the Chinese reached a goal that had eluded even Stalin—making forced labor a paying proposition. China surely must be the only country in the world whose prisons turn a profit. It is an exploit of which they can be rightfully proud.

In the summer of 1993 Pasqualini also wrote a laudatory review of the two laogai books by Jean-Luc Domenach and Harry Wu.5 In that review, Pasqualini praised Wu for his instincts on the importance of the economic issues raised by the camps and the export market:

Harry Wu’s intention is to bring to the attention of the United States Government the fact that products manufactured in Chinese labour camps are still being sold in the United States despite laws forbidding such practices. There are no laws to this effect in England, France or other Western countries. Articles published in the British press—The Financial Times in particular—produced no reaction. In France, the press have never shown interest in the sale of the products of slave labour. It was Remy Martin which helped China set up its wine industry, knowing full well that the grapes used were cultivated in lao gai camps. Also, foreign and Chinese supermarkets sell some of the products Harry Wu mentions in the book. Brand names have been changed to keep the fact that they were made by slave labour from consumers. (For example, Dynasty wine is sold in France under the names Nuidechine and Nuicaline.) French enterprises import Chinese goods sometimes from Hong Kong or Macao or under their own brand names. Electronic appliances, towels and hosiery made by prison labour can be found in any French supermarket.

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By now, in the fall of 1996, it is clear that neither economic arguments about “slave labor” nor the moral outrage against the camps has been enough to sway American policymakers in any significant way, any more than they did the French or British. But Harry Wu’s attempt in June 1995 to enter China with a companion via the far western border with Kazakhstan, and his subsequent arrest by the Chinese authorities, despite the fact that he was by then a United States citizen, gave the issue one more burst of worldwide notoriety. The excitement was compounded by the fact that this arrest took place not long before Hillary Clinton’s planned visit to Beijing to participate in the International Women’s Conference. Arguments then broke out among politicians and human rights advocates about whether Harry Wu was a hero or a reckless self-publicist, or both. They will not be resolved by his new book. In Laogai, Harry Wu presented his evidence with calmness and intelligence, and his story of life in the labor camps had dignity and poignance as Carolyn Wakeman rendered it in Bitter Winds. But with Troublemaker, an autobiographical account of his 1995 arrest and interrogation by the Chinese, written in conjunction with George Vecsey, Harry Wu appears to have been won over to the concerns of public relations; the reader might be forewarned by the book’s subtitle, “One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty.”

This is both strange and disappointing, since the story of the camps is such an important one, and Harry Wu’s experiences and attempts to keep the issue alive command respect. One can see here a dilemma of our times—if one does not constantly get attention, then the issue one cares about is doomed to fade away. The international attention that Harry Wu got in 1995 and the hopes for a change in policy have now faded; he apparently thought a dramatically presented book would help revive them. And George Vecsey probably seemed at first sight a perfect collaborator for Harry Wu. One of Vecsey’s first books, One Sunset a Week, dealt with the desperate life of a coal miner in the Appalachian hills of southwest Virginia.6 It was followed by a collaboration with the country-and-western singer Loretta Lynn, which led to an evocative account of the life of a remarkable woman from a mining family in Kentucky who had married at thirteen, had four children by eighteen, and went on to become a major star.7 Later works by Vecsey, including one with the tennis champion Martina Navratilova, confirmed his ability to work with celebrities from very different backgrounds. Vecsey is also a fine sportswriter, whose columns appear in The New York Times. Since Wu, as a prisoner, had worked in the Shanxi coal mines, had loved baseball as a youth, and wanted widespread attention in order to publicize his cause, his collaboration with Vecsey must have seemed well-advised.

Instead, despite the deep seriousness and sadness of the events and issues that are involved in the story of the camps, their luckless denizens, and the fruits of their labor in the international market, Troublemaker constantly deflects the reader by its relentless attempts to construct a sense of hushed excitement and imminent drama out of Wu’s 1995 trip, even when such drama seems wholly lacking. For instance, Wu tells of traveling to forbidden borders by taxi, of how, by skipping lunch after he was arrested, he gave the impression he was about to go on a life-threatening hunger strike, and of how he received information about organ transplants in southwestern China by phone in Canada and by fax in California. As for Wu’s presentation of his brief trips to Dachau, Auschwitz, and the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam as attempts to identify himself with the suffering of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, these are best passed over in silence.

* * *

In Troublemaker Harry Wu gives a detailed list of the motives that lay behind his botched and potentially disastrous 1995 trip. He wanted to examine the effects of the World Bank loans in Xinjiang and the relationship of these loans to the operations of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which Wu describes as a “quasi-military organization” operating “forced-labor camps” in the province. More significantly, he wanted to know if World Bank officials, in their staff appraisal reports, deliberately concealed their knowledge of this forced labor. A second goal was to explore the persecution of Chinese Christians in the “underground Christian church” in Hubei. A third was to chart the “large ethnic unrest” in western China, along with “the mistreatment of the Uighers and other Muslim groups.” A fourth was “to confront the reality of population control,” and the allegations that “aborted fetuses were being sold for use as medicine.” A fifth was to show how graphite produced in Chinese labor camps made its way to a company in New Jersey. Taken individually, each of these was a matter calling for extensive analysis, and several of them were of great significance for human rights and the assessment of US relations with China. But cumulatively the list suggests that Wu was attempting too much in too short a time.

The Harry Wu of Troublemaker, who tries to pull these five disparate quests together, is a far different writer from Harry Wu the scholar of Laogai, or Harry Wu the inmate of Bitter Winds. He has become the Harry Wu who “chatted informally with friends on both sides of the House, like Frank Wolf and Chris Smith, Republicans, and Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, as well as Senator Jesse Helms.” He casually uses the letterhead of two American universities with which he has no affiliation whatever, confident that he is “not hurting anyone with these false credentials” and reflects pleasantly on his status as “a worldwide symbol of defiance.” The TV anchor Ed Bradley has become his “old friend,” who “as an African American, would have a special passion about slave labor.” CNN, he writes, has a “massive, worldwide impact” that Chinese guards cannot be expected to comprehend. Wu’s wife Ching Lee, his loyal backer during his years in prison, is congratulated for having “mastered the fifteen-second sound bite for television.”

Finally, Harry Wu cannot deny that he feels “enormously flattered” when he is compared to Natan Sharansky, Lech Walesa, Raoul Wallenberg, and Aung San Suu Kyi. But when “several members of Congress” speak of nominating Harry Wu for the Nobel Peace Prize, he demurs, urging “everyone to support Wei Jingsheng, who has been brave and outspoken while living in China, and continues to suffer. He is far more deserving.” Here Harry Wu is quite correct. The great power of some dissidents lies in their dignity; their long periods of enforced silence only underline the strength of their protest against injustice. If they do gain world attention, it is by means of their moral force. But to shape one’s message and behavior so as to attract the attention of the mass media is to risk weakening the strength of the message itself.

  1. Westview Press
  2. Paris: Fayard, 1992.
  3. Harry Wu and Carolyn Wakeman, Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag (Wiley, 1994). See my review in The New York Review, August 10, 1995.
  4. Bao Ruo-Wang (Jean Pasqualini) and Rudolph Chelminski, Prisoner of Mao (Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1973).
  5. See "Glimpses Inside China's Gulag," The China Quarterly, June 1993, pp. 352-357.
  6. George Vecsey, One Sunset a Week: The Story of a Coal Miner (Saturday Review Press, 1974).
  7. Loretta Lynn with George Vecsey, Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner's Daughter (Regnery, 1976).
Law, Politics
Gulag, Labor Camps, Harry Wu