Chinese Activist Raises Awareness of Chinese Labor Camps

Critical of Obama, businesses for lack of action on prisoner abuses

December 20, 2013

Harry Wu, a former prisoner in a Chinese labor camp, has met several U.S. presidents, including President Barack Obama.

He gave President Obama a copy of his book, Laogai: The Chinese Gulag. How did the president thank him?

"He sent a letter back to me saying, ‘I appreciate your good writing in the book; I hope you can continue doing that.’ That’s it!" Wu told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview.

"I said I don’t need that; I don’t need you to say I’m a good writer. I want you to care about the case," Wu said. "But have you heard anything by Obama on human rights violations in China?"

Wu established the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) in 1992 and later Washington, D.C.’s Laogai Museum in 2008, the first U.S. museum to directly address human rights violations in China. His mission is to raise awareness about China’s oppressive Laogai labor prison camp system, where he was once detained for 19 years.

"People today have the Holocaust issue; they have the [Soviet] Gulag issue," he said. "Everybody today understands and condemns it. But the Chinese don’t have the Laogai system issue."

Wu was imprisoned in 1960. Communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong had just begun to implement his "Great Leap Forward," a disastrous agricultural collectivization program that resulted in mass starvation and the deaths of between 30 and 50 million people.

Wu said he was a victim of the "class struggle" instigated by the CCP at the time. He was labeled a "counterrevolutionary" by party authorities because his father was a banker, a member of the "capitalist class."

Wu worked 12 hours a day at a coalmine with two shifts, from midnight to noon and noon to midnight. Prison authorities used food as a means of control, he said.

"The guard would say, ‘Good labor, good food; bad labor, bad food. Refuse labor? No food,’" Wu said.

"Many people disappeared. Many people died, starved to death, killed, whatever," he said.

While Wu was detained at the camp, his brother was killed. His brother had left home to join the communist rearguard and receive "reeducation" from poor peasants. He helped take care of the peasants and paint their homes during the "Cultural Revolution"—Mao’s directive to Chinese youth and CCP-backed militias to purge "impure," counterrevolutionary elements of society by persecuting millions and executing hundreds of thousands.

Party authorities suspected Wu’s brother of damaging a portrait of Mao, he said.

"They probably executed about 100,000," he said. "My brother was one of them."

Today’s Laogai system contains more than 1,000 prisons and "reeducation through labor" camps, according to the LRF, but the exact number is difficult to determine because the Chinese government does not release statistics about them.

Dissidents like Wang Wanxing can also be involuntarily confined to psychiatric detention centers or held indefinitely in extrajudicial "black jails" hidden in hotels and warehouses. Wanxing was diagnosed with "political monomania" and forced to spend 13 years in a psychiatric hospital near Beijing after he unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square commemorating the third anniversary of the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

Petty criminals and dissidents are often arbitrarily arrested and indefinitely detained before facing what activists say are sham trials. Judges are appointed by the CCP and no defense lawyers are allowed. Of those charged with "endangering state security," 99 percent are convicted.

Once inside the prisons and camps, the detainees can be brainwashed, beaten, electrocuted, confined in 3ft x 6ft cells, burned with cigarettes and soldering irons, sexually assaulted, and sterilized. Organ harvesting from dead prisoners has also become a lucrative business in China.

China changed the name of its Laogai facilities to "Jianyu" in 1994 and claims that it has abolished the "reeducation through labor" camps. About 3 to 5 million people are believed to be held in the Laogai camps at any given time.

China also banned the export of products from its forced labor camps in 1991, but manufacturers continue to evade those rules by mixing them in with legal goods and making them indistinguishable. The camps produce 72 different types of products, including binder clips, coffee mugs, stuffed animals, wine, wrenches, boots, and other articles of clothing. The LRF is currently working with a former prisoner who says she found the tea she produced at her camp in New York.

Wu has continued to try and expose these camps, which he calls "construction companies of a different name," by cutting small holes in his bag for a camera lens and secretly filming them while in China. He was arrested again in 1995 and held in a hotel. He documented his detention by penciling notes in the spine of his dictionary and pasting pages together with rice congee, his breakfast.

Wu said he remains disheartened by multinational companies that do business with the CCP.

Chinese human rights activists have sued U.S. tech giant Cisco for allegedly customizing its "Golden Shield" technologies to facilitate human rights abuses and censor the plaintiffs’ publications. Cisco has marketed the technology to China as a means of combating the "Falun Gong evil religion" and addressing the challenge from "westerniz[ing]," according to a presentation by the company.

"I’m not going to say Americans have to stop business with China, but I’m complaining, saying ‘why don’t you want to talk about human rights?’" Wu said.

He said U.S. officials continue to discuss human rights "under the table" and are unwilling to publicly condemn the Laogai, Internet censorship, 400 million forced abortions and sterilizations under China’s one-child policy, and the persecution of Christians.

Still, Wu holds out hope that he can one day move the Laogai museum to China.

"I wish one day the museum can return to China—somewhere in Beijing, Shanghai, telling the people that in our history one of the regime’s leaders, because some of the people disagreed with him or criticized him, they would spend their lives in the prison camp," he said.

"If the people remember this history they would not allow any regime in the future to do it again. This is democracy."