Harry Wu

Born in 1937 in Shanghai, Harry Wu was one of eight children of an affluent Roman Catholic family. He was educated at a Jesuit school before attending Beijing College of Geology in the late 1950s. In the throes of a Communist purge, his university was expected to turn over a quota of dissidents. Wu was arrested in 1960 when he was 23 years old and labeled “a counterrevolutionary rightist,” accused of criticizing the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and not supporting Mao Zedong’s regime. He was imprisoned for 19 years in the Chinese gulag, known as the laogai—“thought reform by hard labor.”

During his detention, Wu survived physical and psychological torture, living on next to nothing. In his autobiography, “Bitter Winds,” he describes eating snakes and chasing rats in order to steal the grains in their nests. He was constantly beaten, both by guards and other prisoners, and endured solitary confinement. Wu was released in 1979, three years after Mao’s death. He was 42 years old and had lost 75 pounds.

In 1985, Wu arrived in the United States, having accepted a position as an unpaid visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He had $40 to his name. For 10 days, he conducted research and slept on a park bench, before landing a job on the graveyard shift at a doughnut shop. Then, twice in 1991 and once in 1994, Wu returned to China to document conditions in prisons and labor camps for “60 Minutes and others. As a result of his exposés, he was placed on China’s most wanted list. In 1995, on his fifth trip, he was captured and spent 66 days in detention.

A worldwide campaign was launched for Wu’s release, and China complied. His return to U.S. soil was widely celebrated, and he frequently testified on Capitol Hill about the latest abuses he had uncovered—the selling of executed prisoners’ organs by Chinese officials, the illegal export of prison labor products, the frequency of public executions, the unfair restrictions on reproductive rights, and the appalling enforcement procedures. In 1992, Wu created the Laogai Research Foundation to gather information and raise awareness of the Chinese prison system. It is estimated that 50 million people have been incarcerated in laogai since 1950, and while the Chinese government ostensibly ended the system in 1994, a version of the labor camps continue to be used today. Because of his endless efforts, the Oxford English Dictionary added the word “laogai” in 2003. In 2008, Wu founded the Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C., the first museum in the world to exclusively deal with human rights in China. Harry Wu died in April 2016 at the age of 79.

Postscript: Within months of Harry Wu’s death, articles appeared in the media, including The New York Times, pointing out issues with his legacy—from allegations of bullying and abuse to mismanagement of funds and other financial irregularities.