Chinese prison camp victim and human rights activist Harry Wu

In this week’s One on One I talk to Chinese Human rights activist Harry Wu. He survived 19 years in Chinese prison camps. Released during a thaw in 1979, he was later invited to the United States where he became a citizen. There he has devoted himself to uncovering details of the Chinese labour camp system, risking a fresh term in the camps when he went back to China in 1995. On the sidelines of a conference in Prague about communist crimes, I asked him what he had been able to find out about the Chinese camp system.

“The Chinese regime has lasted 60 years until today. They have never told the people how many they have executed, how many people are in jail or how many prison camps there are. That is what I have tried to find out in the last 20 years. I have tried to find out how many camps there are. We recognise more than a thousand camps but the government says that is top secret information. That was why in 1995 the government re-arrested me at the border and had me in a camp for 66 days with a sentence of 15 years. Up till now we do not know the number. But we estimate that over the last 50-60 years more than 40-50 million people were in them.”

Harry WuHarry Wu And what was your experience of camps. You were in camps for 19 years. Can you say a bit about that?

“Yes, I was in 1960 sentenced to life and I was in camps for 19 years. And then again in 1995 I was sentenced to 15 years. So the government wanted to put me in camps for 34 years. I do not know what their reason was, what they wanted to charge me with or what was my crime. Was I a drug trafficker, a rapist, a robber or terrorist? I was not. Yes, I said something that I thought. That was my crime. This is Communist China and this was a very serious crime. I am one of millions of people like that. That is the situation in today’s China.”

What was your crime? They never told you, but, in their eyes, what do you suppose was your crime?

“In 1957 I said that the Soviet invasion of Hungary was wrong and it was a violation of international law. I just said it in a meeting in class and that is it. That was my crime. In 1995, I was not in the camp (China), I was outside and I tried to enter. They arrested me again and said you are trying to steal state secrets. I just do not know.”

Can you describe the conditions in the camps where you were?

Photo: www.laogai.orgPhoto: “The camps are very simple. There are different types of camps for different types of labour. I was in a coal mine working two shifts a day, 12 until 12 that is it. I also worked on a farm. We worked from the time the sun rose in the morning until the time the sun set. You never knew how many hours you would work. The food was very limited and controlled. You were not free to have food. Instead, people were divided into sections and the police said: good labour, good food; less labour, less food. And if you refuse to work you will get no food and be sent to solitary confinement.”

What was your situation, were you hungry?

“Hunger was constant and the major problem for prisoners was to find food. Of course, they can steal food from other people but that is not enough. When we were working in the coalmine or in the fields we tried to find food. In the coalmine we tried to find mushrooms underground. In the field, we tried to find frogs, snakes or rats ― that was important. Even today, I can teach you how to catch a rat.

Were you a dissident from the start? You were very young when the Communists came to power but your family was quite a rich family in Shanghai so by definition they labelled you as an enemy.

Yes, I was described as an enemy. For the first few years I was so sad and I cried ‘I am not an enemy’ and they said ‘No, you are.’ Then, okay, okay, I was a capitalist and I wanted to undergo thought reform. But it does not really work like that. So later, I turned myself into a beast looking for food and that is it. I did not care what the future held because for 19 years in the camps no-one came to see me. I was just like a slave, nothing.”

Did you think you were going to get out of that system alive?

“Well, everyone wanted to free themselves. And I tried to escape. But you cannot escape because the whole country is controlled by the Communists. If I left the small cage I could only go into the big cage. Where could I go? First of all I wanted to go home. But my mother had committed suicide and my father was a counter revolutionary writer in the same situation as me. What could I do? There was no place to go, no way to escape. Just being like a robot, a machine, I was able to survive. I do not know how I survived but I did. Many passed away.”

How was it that you finally left for the United States?

“In 1979 we had a kind of rehabilitation. It was not entirely a recovery but we left the camp. So I went back to my old university and had a job there. I was there five or six years and never talked about politics again. I just quietly worked, worked, worked and studied, studied, studied. And I had some academic paper for an international society. And then the University of California at Berkeley asked me to go there. I was very, very lucky. So I was there at the university as a visiting scholar for two years studying geology and geo-science but later I went to the University of Stanford, the Hoover Institute, and continued my research on labour camps.”

What do you think about the West’s current attitude towards China? It does not seem to like to speak up too much these days.

Map of the labour campsMap of the labour camps “Well, first of all, everybody whatever their position is, whether he is a merchant, a businessman, a professor, a congressman, senator or president, whatever, first of all you are a human being. That is the basic situation for everyone. As a human being you have to think about your rights, human rights. You cannot allow any government to, say, control your decision about having children, control your freedom of speech, control your freedom from sensitive things. These are your rights. As a US president or Czech president, you should think about what are rights. We cannot carry out business with the Communists and ignore human rights inside China.”