The world lost a truly inspiring soul last month. Renown Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu died at the age of 79 while vacationing with friends. Highly regarded internationally, Harry Wu was known for his devotion to human rights in his native China.
Born in Shanghai, Wu later attended the Geology Institute in Beijing. During his time there, the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong launched a campaign encouraging citizens – particularly students and intellectuals – to express their true views of the Party. This campaign, which began in 1956 and was known as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, served as the beginning to Wu’s life as an advocate and activist.
Though cautious of the government’s encouragement, Wu eventually spoke his truths; at just 19 years old, he voiced that he strongly disagreed with the Soviet Union’s (then an ally of China) armed crackdown of Hungary.
Wu also spoke up at a university meeting: “the second idea, I said, if the Communist Party is going to say that all the people in socialist China is a comrade, it will be fine. We don’t call everyone Mister or Misses, Professor, or Doctor, we call everyone comrades. So I said okay, I think this is a good idea. But in our university, the Communist Party would always say, we have a meeting with comrades and students. If you are not a member of the Party they only call you a student, not a comrade. So I said this is my suggestion. I never wrote it, I never went to any speech engagement, but they recorded it,” he said in an interview with Political Prisoners.eu.
Wu quickly learned that this notion that citizens of China were “free” under Mao’s regime was a fallacy. The campaign had been a malicious scheme. By the fall of 1956, the Hundred Flowers Campaign was abruptly reversed by the merciless dictator, who proclaimed that the true enemies of the Party had been exposed – including the young Harry Wu.
“A couple of weeks later, they held a meeting to criticize me and said my opinion was a counter-revolutionary opinion – an opposing opinion – and I had to confess why I would say that.”
Now black-listed as a “counter-revolutionary rightist”, Wu was singled out and closely surveilled by Party members. “I was not free; I lost my freedom.”
This went on for a few years until, at the age of 23, Harry Wu was arrested and given a life sentence at a forced-labor camp (known as laogai in China).
Wu spent 19 grueling years inside, being moved to a total of 12 different camps.
In an interview with the BBC in 2011 Wu said, “I intended to commit suicide twice, because I felt that death was better than life.”
“I was working in a coal mine, 12 to 12, two shifts a day. Then in a chemical factory, 12 to 12, two shifts a day. Then on a farm. When the sun was rising, we would go out and when the sun went down, we would come back.”
China’s political climate changed rapidly upon the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, and Harry Wu was released from the laogai three years later at the age of 42. After immigrating to the United States to pursue a career in geology, Wu soon switched his path to advocating for human rights, spending the rest of his life speaking out against China’s continued use of forced-labor as punishment.
In 1992, Wu established the Laogai Research Foundation, a nonprofit research and education organization that is focused on gathering information and raising public awareness of the human rights violations in China’s prison system.
Since the founding of the Laogai Research Foundation, Wu has returned to China four times, going undercover as a prison guard in order to document the horrendous conditions in the labor-camps. In 1996, on his fourth attempt into his native country, Wu was detained by the Chinese government, convicted of “stealing state secrets” and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Wu was instead deported back to the United States, which he attributed to an international campaign that was launched on his behalf.
Wu opened the Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C. in November 2008, calling it “the first ever United States museum to directly address human rights in China.”
Wu was committed to exposing the violations and educating the world, sparking people’s fervor to change the broken system.
“Even today, if China becomes a free country, a democratic country, we will still have to remember the past – how many camps, how many people were there – we have to expose the truth. Otherwise the history will be covered up and we will repeat history again,” Wu told Political Prisoners.eu.