Harry's horror story

November 22, 1996

Chinese labour camp survivor Harry Wu tells Simon Targett that his country's rulers are not reforming but getting more hardline, that they continue to imprison millions of his compatriots, and will wreak havoc on Hong Kong.

Say laogai, and any English-speaker will stare back at you blankly. Say gulag however, and you will be understood immediately. Yet the laogai are the Chinese version of the gulag -forced labour camps introduced by the Maoists in the 1950s. Worse, they are still thriving as above-board factories, many producing the cheap cuddly toys children in the wealthy West will be given this Christmas.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate, introduced the word gulag into the English language when he wrote The Gulag Archipelago in the early 1970s. Harry Wu, the Chinese dissident who shot to fame last year when the United States made his freedom the price for Hillary Clinton's appearance at the high-profile United Nations women's conference in Beijing, wants to do the same for the word laogai.

"My goal," he says, "is to see the word laogai in every dictionary in every language in every country." Tiananmen Square is now a byword for a bloody massacre. Yet, according to Wu, Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese government put down the pro-democracy movement with brutal proficiency in 1989, is "peanuts" alongside the murderous inhumanity of the laogai.

And he should know. For 19 years, he lived under the thumb of the ruthless laogai rulers "like an animal without hope", surviving a near-fatal coal mining accident, supplementing his starvation diet by catching and skinning rats.

His crime was to speak his mind. In 1956, as a callow 19-year-old from the "bourgeois class" studying at the Beijing College of Geology, he spoke out against the Soviet invasion of Hungary, calling it a violation of international law. He later apologised, but by then he was a marked man, and in 1960 he was arrested on a trumped-up charge of stealing the piffling sum of 50 yuan.

Hustled away to the laogai, he lived out a nightmare. Some of his friends are still in the camps, guiltless convicts rather than contented grandfathers. But, in 1979, Wu struck lucky. His camp commander asked him to teach his two daughters, and later the government asked him to lecture at the Geoscience University in Wuhan, 500 miles west of Shanghai. If education had got him into this mess in the first place, it also got him out of it.

For the next six years, he became the geologist he always wanted to be. Looking back, this was, he says, his "interlude of hope".

Wu then had a second stroke of luck. An article he wrote on an advanced French design for a drill was reproduced in a Paris journal and was drawn to the attention of a Berkeley scholar. Out of the blue, Wu was invited to take up a research post at one of America's most distinguished ivy league universities.

There was one drawback. Berkeley would not fund the post. But Wu did not think twice. He jumped at the chance - paying his way by selling doughnuts on a street corner, cutting costs by bedding down on research library benches and office floors, and later securing funding from the rightwing Hoover Institute on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.

Today, Wu betrays little outward sign of his personal struggle. Happily married (for the third time), an affluent American citizen, he dresses well - a fine pinstripe, a natty tie, a tartan cashmere scarf - and his clear complexion makes him look 49 not 59.

He could so easily have forgotten. But he has not. "How could I?" he protests. Forty years ago, his father told him to "stay out of politics". He did not, he now explains, because he had no choice.

Likewise, the memory of the past is so painful that he cannot just let it go - though he has tried and tried. "Look," he says, his eyes facing downwards, his voice soft, "I'm a very normal person, OK? I always tell myself 'you're nothing special'. And yes, I like the things other people like. I want to have a good car, I like pretty women, I want to enjoy good food. And I understand that there are not many years in the rest of my life. When you die, you die. Nothing."

With this, a strange silence descends around the stairwell of 4 Millbank in Westminster, just outside the Sky Television studios where he gave his latest broadcast interview. People who had been chatting noisily by the lifts suddenly pipe down and stare in Wu's direction, eavesdropping on the conversation.

Barely audible now, he continues: "I've had so many hard times, so many terrible days. Why should I place myself in the past? I didn't want to do it. And I tried. I did try. And when I couldn't sleep, I drank alcohol, just to help me go back to sleep. I really didn't want to think about it. But I can't help it."

Wu has not forgotten his long yesterday. Nor has he forgotten the power of education to change the course of someone's life, and as head of the California-based Laogai Research Foundation he is now on a mission to re-educate the world about the laogai and about China.

In the past few years, he has discovered the enormous domain of the laogai, which he calls "the biggest concentration-camp system in human history" and which he thinks is every bit as bad as Auschwitz and the rest of Hitler's hells on earth. China, he says, admits to 1.2 million workers in 685 camps, but he claims this is "a ridiculously low figure". He puts the current total at around 8 million in over 1,000 laogai, and he reckons that over 50 million people have been sent to the laogai since 1949.

Given this, Wu cannot understand why the West does not do more to protest about the camps, and he highlights the startlingly different reaction the Jewish holocaust still provokes. "I saw Schindler's List," he says, stabbing the coffee table with his index finger. "It was a very good movie. But the events - they were 50 years ago. Yet everything you saw in that movie is still happening today in China."

His frustration is palpable. The mere mention of the word laogai makes him boil. "The phrase burns my soul, makes me crazy, makes me want to grab Americans and Europeans and Australians and Japanese by the shirt and scream: 'Don't you know what's going on over there?'" It is this rage which has driven him back to China, prompting him to make daring covert missions to the camps which once imprisoned him, even making a film with CBS television which won an Emmy award.

It is also this rage which has driven him to write three books about the laogai, including his autobiographical Troublemaker, published earlier this month. Mainly ghost-written, they lack the poetry of Solzhenitsyn's work, but they are brimming with simple, brave, heart-felt humanity.

And they are stirring up a debate about China. China, he thinks, is set to become "a new form of totalitarian, supernationalistic military state".

He disagrees with the standard view that China's conversion to a sort of capitalism under Deng Xiaoping will lead eventually to democracy. He warns that while China gives the impression of reform, the regime is actually getting even tougher. Two years ago, the government officially stopped using the term laogai, replacing it with the softer term jianyu.

But Wu suggests the camps are harsher than ever, with the appliance of science precipitating an escalation in the trade of key organs like kidneys and corneas from executed prisoners.

He adds that the wider implication of this silent crackdown is doom for Hong Kong: "All those multinational companies that want to maintain Hong Kong as a financial centre, the way it was as a British colony, are kidding themselves."

This deep pessimism runs through his conversation, runs through his books. He offers some constructive suggestions - a ten-point strategy which stands as his own kind of manifesto. This includes condemnation of the laogai, a worldwide boycott of forced-labour products, a scaling down of World Bank assistance to China, and a ban on the sale of military equipment used by the government to torture and terrify dissidents.

But the fruits of such policies - even if President Clinton implemented them tomorrow - would probably not be seen in Wu's time.

He longs to return to his homeland. But he will not smuggle himself across the border again - at any rate not while the 15-year sentence in the laogai imposed last year remains in force. Next time, he wants to go through a welcoming customs house waiving his passport. It will be "the front door next time", he says buoyantly.

And if his dream is fulfilled, he may well stay there because, in his heart of hearts, he is Chinese rather than American.

"Of course," he says, "I live in a wonderful and peaceful place - the United States - and in my lifetime I enjoy it. But when I die, I want to die in China."

And why, after all the years of agony? Harry Wu's answer is as determined as it is hard to deny. "That land," he says with a gentle shrug, "is full of my blood and tears."

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