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The Risks of Witness

Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty

by Harry Wu
Times Books, 328 pp., $25.00

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.”

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.

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.

  1. 1

    Westview Press.

  2. 2

    Paris: Fayard, 1992.

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