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…

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