Harry Wu (Chinese: 吴弘达; pinyin: Wú Hóngdá; February 8, 1937
– April 26, 2016) was a Chinese-American human rights activist. Wu
spent 19 years in Chinese labor camps, and he became a resident and
citizen of the United States. In 1992, he founded the
1.1 Early life and education
1.2 Labor camp years
1.3 Early years in the U.S.
1.4 Focus on the laogai regime
6 See also
8 External links
Early life and education
Wu was born into an affluent family in Shanghai; his father was a
banking official and his mother "had descended from a family of
well-to-do landlords." Wu recalled:
My youth was one of peace and pleasure. Then in 1949 came the
communist revolution, led by Mao. My life changed dramatically. During
my teen-age years, my father lost all his properties. We had money
problems. The government took over all the property in the
Wu studied at the Geology Institute in Beijing, where he earned a
degree. In 1956, the Communist Party began a campaign encouraging
citizens, particularly students and intellectuals, to express their
true views of the Party and the state of society (known as the Hundred
Flowers Campaign). Although cautious, Wu eventually voiced some
sentiments, by disagreeing with the Soviet Union's armed crackdown in
Hungary, and the practice of labeling people into different
By the Fall of 1956, China's leader,
Mao Zedong abruptly reversed
course and proclaimed that the true enemies of the Party had been
exposed and 19-year-old Wu was subsequently singled out at his
university. Wu later wrote of this experience: "This was the first
time I had ever been singled out as a political troublemaker. Most of
my classmates were more pragmatic than I, and they just repeated what
the Communists wanted to hear." For the next few years, Wu was
continuously criticized in Party meetings and closely monitored until
his arrest in 1960 at the age of 23 when he was charged with being a
"counterrevolutionary rightist", and was sent to the laogai (China’s
system of forced-labor prison camps).
Labor camp years
Harry Wu was imprisoned for 19 years in 12 different camps mining
coal, building roads, clearing land, and planting and harvesting
crops. According to his own accounts, he was beaten, tortured and
nearly starved to death, and witnessed the deaths of many other
prisoners from brutality, starvation, and suicide.
In the camps Wu met a rough, illiterate peasant with the nickname,
"Big Mouth Xing". Wu wrote, "I could see how Big Mouth Xing had gotten
his name. The corners of his mouth seemed to stretch all the way to
his ears." Xing had experienced a lot of starvation in life, first
in his rural village, and later in the camps, and had become obsessed
with getting enough food.
Lean and muscular, with missing teeth and ears that "looked black with
dirt", Xing taught Wu how to fight for survival in the camps. He
showed Wu how to dig for underground rat burrows in order to find
clean caches of grain and beans which could then later be boiled for
food to avoid starvation. He also taught Wu how to be aggressive to
discourage bullies. Wu came from an urban, educated background and was
naive. Xing often repeated to Wu, "Nobody here will take care of you.
You have to take care of yourself." Wu later wrote:
I was twenty-three, a college graduate raised in an affluent, urban
family, and a political criminal. Xing Jingping, three years younger
than I, was a peasant from a starving village, a thief with no
education and no political viewpoint. The gulf between us was vast,
yet I grew to admire him as the most capable and influential teacher
of my life.
Wu was released from his life sentence in 1979 at the age of 42, as a
result of political changes following the death of Mao Zedong. He
obtained a teaching position at the Geoscience University in Beijing,
but found that the label of having been a political prisoner continued
to follow him. Wu also found that those who had played a part in
labeling Wu "an enemy of the people", leading to his imprisonment
twenty years earlier, tended to react to Wu's survival and return the
same way: "All that has happened is in the past...the Party has
Wu left China for the United States in 1985, after having received a
chance invitation from the
University of California at Berkeley
University of California at Berkeley to be
a visiting scholar. (A faculty member at Berkeley had happened upon an
article that Wu had written in an academic journal on geology).
Early years in the U.S.
Wu arrived in the U.S. with only 40 dollars, a few clothes, and an ink
tiger print that he had inherited from his father. Since he did
not have funding from the university for his first year he had to
improvise. At first he was sleeping in the park, and on the Bay Area
Rapid Transit when it rained. He got a night shift job making donuts
at a donut shop for a few months; then a job at a liquor store, and
was finally able to rent a cheap apartment. Wu continued to work
various odd jobs during this period and in 1988 began working for an
electronic chip manufacturer, where he became an assistant manager,
and was able to buy a used car. Looking back on this period of his
life, Wu felt that there was opportunity and if he just worked hard he
could make it.
During his first years in America, Wu did not want to think about or
discuss politics. He felt that he had already lost the years of his
youth and he wanted to try to carve out a personal life and enjoy his
freedom. But slowly he found himself getting drawn back into the
discussion about prison camps in China and his own experiences there.
In 1986, Wu was asked to talk about his experiences in the camps in
front of a class of college students at the University of California,
Santa Cruz. As Wu spoke he started to weep as he felt he was being the
voice for the many seemingly forgotten prisoners who had died.
Focus on the laogai regime
In 1988 Wu met with the curator of the East Asian Studies department
Hoover Institution at Stanford to explain his interest in
studying China's network of forced-labor prison camps. Wu did not have
academic experience in social studies, only that of a geologist, but
his stories about his time in the camps intrigued the curator, who
invited Wu to pursue research as a visiting scholar. From that time
on, Wu started compiling a catalog of the labor prison camp system
within mainland China. Known in China as the laogai, which translates
as "reform through labor", Wu eventually published Laogai: The Chinese
Gulag in 1992. In the early 1990s, Wu made several trips into China in
order to gather the evidence needed to prove the existence of the
labor camps to the outside world — part of this involved visiting
various camps and secretly recording images in photo and video.
Harry Wu showing an exhibit to the Dalai Lama at the
October 7, 2009
In 1990, Senators
Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), and
Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)
invited Wu to testify before the Senate on laogai. In 1991, Wu did
a story with
Ed Bradley for 60 Minutes, in which they posed as
businessmen interested in purchasing factory goods in mainland China
that had been manufactured by the slave labor of Chinese
In 1992, Wu established the
Laogai Research Foundation, a non-profit
research and public education organization, considered a leading
source for information on China's labor camps; and was instrumental in
proving that organs of executed criminals were used for organ
transplants. Among Wu's supporters was the AFL–CIO. In
addition, the center's stated purpose is to also "document and
publicize other systemic human rights violations in China,
including...the coercive enforcement of China's 'one-child' population
control policy, and Internet censorship and surveillance."
In 1995, by then a U.S. citizen, he was arrested as he tried to enter
China with illegal documentation. He was held by the Chinese
government for 66 days before he was convicted for "stealing state
secrets." He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was instead
immediately deported from China. He attributes his release to an
international campaign launched on his behalf.
In 2007, Wu criticized the selection of a Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin,
as the lead sculptor for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
based on the fact that Lei had also carved statues celebrating Mao
In November 2008, Wu opened the
Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C.,
calling it the first ever United States museum to directly address
human rights in China.
Wu received the Freedom Award from the Hungarian Freedom Fighters'
Federation in 1991. In 1994 he received the first Martin Ennals Award
for Human Rights Defenders. He was awarded the Courage of Conscience
Award by the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts, on September 14,
1995 for his extraordinary sacrifices and commitment to exposing human
rights violations in his motherland China. He received an honorary
doctorate from the
Institute of World Politics
Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC in
In 1996, he was awarded the Geuzenpenning, the Medal of Freedom from
the Dutch World War II Resistance Foundation. He also received
honorary degrees from
St. Louis University
St. Louis University and the American University
of Paris. That same year, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review
awarded Wu its second Award for Leadership in Human Rights. In
1997, Wu was presented with the Walter Judd Freedom Award by The Fund
for American Studies for being an outspoken voice against tyranny and
Wu served as the Executive Director of the
Laogai Research Foundation
and the China Information Center. He was also a member of the
International Council of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.
He was a member of the international advisory council of the Victims
of Communism Memorial Foundation.
In 2007, Wu helped the relatives of
Chinese dissidents Wang Xiaoning
and Shi Tao sue Yahoo!, which had disclosed their IP addresses to the
Chinese government, leading to their arrest and imprisonment. Yahoo
settled the lawsuit by establishing a $17 million fund to compensate
and help Chinese dissidents, and chose Wu as its administrator. In
January 2011, Wang and his wife Yu Ling sued Wu, who allegedly
demanded $1 million of kickback from Yu for his
Foundation. Wu stated that Yu had willingly donated the money. The
cased was settled in April 2012 when Wu repaid the $1 million to
Yu. Wu's alleged mishandling of the millions from Yahoo alienated
him from many in the human rights community. Seven Chinese dissidents
signed an open letter stating that Wu had spent $14-15 million of the
Yahoo fund from 2008 to 2015, but only $700,000 was used to help
In March 2015, a Virginia woman named Wang Jing publicly accused Wu of
sexually assaulting her and three underage girls, the daughters of
Chinese dissidents who were under her guardianship, in late 2013. Wu
denied the accusation. Wang filed a lawsuit against Wu with the
Fairfax County Circuit Court, and the case was scheduled to go on
trial in January 2017.
Wu died in
Honduras on April 26, 2016, at the age of 79 while he was
vacationing there with friends. He was survived by his former wife,
Ching Lee, and a son, Harrison.
Laogai: The Chinese Gulag (1992), the first full account of the
Chinese labor camp system.
Bitter Winds (1994), a memoir of his time in the camps.
Troublemaker (1996), an account of Wu's clandestine trips to China and
his detention in 1995.
Thunderstorm in the Night (2003), Wu's first Chinese language book; an
autobiography that spans his entire life.
New Ghosts, Old Ghosts, Prisons and Labor Reform Camps in China
(1999), by James Seymour and Richard Anderson
Peter Braaksma (Editor), Nine Lives: Making the Impossible Possible
New Internationalist Publications, which tells the stories of
Wu & 8 others who, "operating outside the normal channels, have
made the world a better, fairer place".
The Sunflower (1998), by Simon Wiesenthal, Hary James Cargas (Editor),
Bonny V. Fetterman (Editor)
Censorship in China
^ a b c Lobaido, Anthony c. "
Harry Wu on the Real China". Article.
World News Daily. Retrieved April 11, 2012.
^ a b Wu; Vecsey; Troublemaker — pp. 49–52, 54–55.
^ "laogai definition". Oxford dictionaries. Retrieved May 17,
^ Langer, Emily (2016-04-27). "Harry Wu, dissident and activist who
endured 19 years in Chinese labor camps, dies at 79". Washington
^ a b Wu, Harry (1994). Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's
Gulag. New York: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 51–52.
^ Harry Wu; George Vecsey (December 30, 2002). Troublemaker: One Man's
Crusade Against China's Cruelty. Times Books. pp. 53–.
ISBN 0-8129-6374-1. Retrieved May 9, 2012.
^ Wu, Harry; Wakeman, Carolyn (1994). Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My
Years in China's Gulag. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
pp. 63–64, 66–68, 91.
^ Wu; Vecsey; Troublemaker — pp. 64–65; 70.
^ Wu; Wakeman; Epilogue in Bitter Winds — pp. 266–267.
^ a b c Wu; Vecsey; Troublemaker — pp. 74–81.
^ Wu; Vecsey; Troublemaker — pp. 69, 77.
^ Wu; Wakeman; Epilogue in Bitter Winds — pp. 277–278.
^ "HARRY WU is a resident scholar at the
Hoover Institution at
Stanford University". NPR. January 11, 1994. Retrieved April 28,
^ Wu; Vecsey; Troublemaker — pp. 122–128.
^ Glen McGregor, Inside China's Crematorium Archived April 20, 2008,
at the Wayback Machine., The Ottawa Citizen, November 24, 2007
^ Wu; Vecsey; Troublemaker — pp. 135, 244.
^ a b "About LRF". Archived from the original on May 2, 2016.
^ Wu; Vecsey; Troublemaker — pp. 273–280.
^ Cohen, Patricia (September 24, 2007). "The King Memorial: Dreams at
Odds". The New York Times. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
Agence France-Presse (November 10, 2008). "US museum displays
China's 'laogai'". The Taipei Times. Retrieved December 12,
^ Buffard, Anne-Laure (November 14, 2008). "D.C. museum 1st in U.S. to
look at Beijing's prison system". The Washington Times. Retrieved
December 12, 2008.
^ The Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Recipients List Archived
February 14, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
^ PREVIOUS HONORARY DEGREE RECIPIENTS Archived February 16, 2016, at
the Wayback Machine.
^ Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev., 1995 27: 429
^ "International Advisory Council". Victims of Communism Memorial
Foundation. Archived from the original on May 22, 2011. Retrieved May
^ a b c Fish, Isaac Stone; Chan, Melissa (May 25, 2016). "The
Complicated and Contradictory Legacy of Harry Wu". Foreign Policy.
^ "Harry Wu, Champion of Human Rights Dies". laogai.org. Archived from
the original on April 30, 2016.
^ "I was sentenced to life in a Chinese labour camp. This is my
story". The Independent. September 20, 2009. Retrieved April 17,
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Harry Wu.
Laogai Research Foundation
NPR interview with Harry Wu, 1994
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