Human Rights in China: An Interview with the Laogai Museum’s Harry Wu

I recently visited the Laogai Museum and wrote a bit about it for We Love DC. In the process I also spoke with the museum’s director Harry Wu.

Wu is a survivor of the Laogai prisons – a forced labor system in China to which he was sentenced for political crimes. After moving to the United States, he began the Laogai Research Foundation and Laogai Museum to raise awareness of human rights issues in China. We talked about his story, religious freedom, Liu Xiaobo, products made in China, and US policy. Enjoy!

JCM: Thanks so much for meeting with me today. First off, how did you become involved with this issue?

Wu: I was born in 1937, but when I was 12 years old – 1949 – China was liberated by the Communists. All the Chinese said at the time, “We have received liberation. We are happy to rebuild our country.” And since then the country went into a kind of trouble. First of all the regime killed off so-called landlord elements and then later they applied the same prosecution to the bourgeois class.

But I was teenager. I didn’t know. I was even baptized as a Catholic when I was 13 years old. But later, you have to know in China there is no Church, no churches, any Christian or Catholic, not even temples. No monks, no priests, no bishops, no nuns. Nothing.

In 1955 I was enrolled in university, and in second grade – 1957 – I got in big trouble. The Communist Party criticized me saying, “Hey, you said something wrong.”

I actually was never involved in politics. But at the end of 1956, the Soviets arranged the Red Army, went to Hungary, and suppressed the people fighting the Communist regime. I thought this was wrong. Well, it (speaking out) was very common in America, but in China this is a crime. A very serious political crime. I was a banker, my father was a banker and I was a member of the bourgeois class. It seems like in China just like a Jew in Hitler’s Germany you had to move into a labor camp.

Second reason, I was Roman Catholic. And as you know into today Roman Catholicism is illegal. Into today. So that is my background. At the time I was shocked, I had no idea. I liked baseball, that’s it.

JCM: So that began your time in prison?

Wu: I was sentenced to life in a prison camp. Sentenced to life is very…you know everybody when you’re born you’re bound to one direction: the graveyard. You are going to a graveyard, and I am going to a graveyard. But I walk in to the labor camps, the iron gate closed to me, and that’s it. I am totally out of the human society.

I cannot marry, I cannot write, I cannot talk. I can do nothing, only forced labor. Just every day forced labor. I cannot pray to God, because there’s no religious freedom there. I cannot begin to think about my ideas or concepts because it’s just not allowed there. So-called reform.

That’s why I chose to commit suicide, and why many did. Because I had nothing. Death was better than life. Death’s finished, finished that’s it. I walk in the graveyard a little sooner, that’s it.

Anyway, many people passed away. Maybe 2 million, maybe 3 million. It was a cultural revolution. I look on my left side, I look on my right side – same as me. Later after 19 years, in 1979, I got a release.

JCM: Weren’t you sentenced to life?

Wu: Yes, why should I get a release? Because the regime is unstable. They cannot manage the production; they cannot manage the people – this is very serious problem for the regime. That’s why Deng Xiaoping said okay, we have to change our policy. We allowed American, British, Japanese, Taiwanese to come into China to set up factories, institutions, whatever they wanted to do because we needed to solve the problem of employment.

Many foreigners come in. They come to manage a factory, work, but what are they doing Sunday morning? Where’s the church? So the Communists set up a kind of patriarchal church. The Communists spent money to rebuild the churches. At the beginning 30-40 years there were no changes – no priests, no bishops. And today there are: the government nominated a bishop, they nominated a priest. Perhaps soon they’ll nominate a pope.

This guy (points to a filled bookshelf) Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. What’d he do? He wrote 248 articles, sent them to our website; we published them. He wrote a book, we published it. This is a crime! A so-called attempt to subvert the government.

That was in 2002-2009. In the last 6-7 years we have communicated. In 2009 the government finally cut that off by putting him in jail.

This is a crime. Say a few words and you’re killed? This is unacceptable. There’s a Chinese bishop who spent 35 years in a camp. Why? Because they wanted to reform him. It’s very hard to reform a bishop – he is going to pray to God. You will not change him. So they say, “Fine. Stay here.” 35 years in a prison camp.

So the government has not changed. The economy, yes – we have a Chinese market, forced labor to make the products to benefit our enterprises. That’s the current situation.

JCM: Do you find many people in America know about the Laogai?

Wu: Some, but not a big number. Some people understand it but majorly, no.

I talked to Obama. I sent him our Laogai handbook. He politely responded. That’s it. Because as the president of the United States he is first concerned about our economy and China holding our money. So he doesn’t want to talk about human rights.

I talked to President Bush, I said what is the problem in China? He said human rights. I said, whoa. Human rights? Here’s five pages – the Congress in 2005 condemned Chinese Laogai camps. I said, will you as the president of the United States, can you make a denouncement? This is a very serious human rights violation. He said, “I will.” That’s the last I heard about it.

But many Americans – for example, students, college students – they’re looking at this very seriously and saying what shall we do about China? Because they’re very concerned about human rights.

JCM: If someone found out about the abuses going on and wanted to do something, what could they do to help?

Wu: Some people ask what can we do? You are not a commander, you are not a general, you cannot destroy the regime. Maybe you can tell the people about China’s situation.

Almost every toy today is made in China. Motorola cells phones – made in China. Because their entrepreneurs can save money, to sell products.

Will you accept it? You say no. Okay. When you go to the department store to buy toys made in China, you say no I don’t want to. Because I saw the pictures there. Because they’re human beings.

JCM: Then do you recommend that people not buy products made in China?

Wu: I will. I hope. But the people are realistic, money limited. In China there’s so much cheap labor, prison labor – the products are cheap. You cannot compete with American makers. They’re going to buy the cheap products.

I hope they can do it, but it’s hard. It’s hard not to buy it.

JCM: What about the people in China who are working legitimately? Even though it’s maybe only 25 cents, wouldn’t it hurt them if we stop buying their product?

Wu: There’s a lot of prison workers.

JCM: More than people would think?

Wu: Yes. I was in a prison camp. I grew the strawberries and grapes. At the time, we exported those to Japan, Hong Kong. I was digging the coal, and chemicals. Everything.

JCM: What other products do people in the camps work on?

Wu: You see the binding clips for offices? Binding clips at that time, 50% imported from China. 50% of the American market came from one company. That company designed it and, using female prisoners, assembled it.

China is the largest rubber boots manufacturer. They can produce 8 million every year in prison camps. General Motors automobile – the Cadillac, many parts are from prison camps. Walmart – they have so many cheap products, but many are made in forced labor camps.

JCM: Do places like Walmart know they’re getting products from forced labor camps?

Wu: If you ask Walmart, Walmart says, “We don’t know.” Because in the contract between China and Walmart there’s a condition there. The other side – China’s side – has to guarantee no product is prison made. So Walmart says, “See? If you find something wrong, don’t talk to me – I don’t know. Talk to them.”  There’s no communication with the Chinese. They lie to cover it up.

JCM: When did you start this program (the foundation)?

Wu: Since 1992 – until today, almost 19 years.

JCM: How has it changed since you started it?

Wu: At the beginning the money was not enough, but I was in Congress testifying almost every year, and step-by-step…we were able to set up our museum. This is my second one – the first one was on M street, but we moved it here in April 2011.

JCM: What do you hope to accomplish with your work here?

You see these things? These are original documents. Posters from the street in China. And over there is a document, and over there too is a document. There’s a lot of photos.

I not only want to expand the museum in the United States. I hope one day the museum can go back to China, to set up in Beijing, Shanghai, and all these big cities. Try to give the people a kind of idea that in the Communist regime this kind of behavior should not be accepted by anyone in any occasion because this is immoral. It should not be happening again.

It gives people the warning that no one should be able set up systems forcing people to labor, forcing people to be brainwashed and forcing the people to care about one philosophy, one “ism,” one religion – this should not be happening again.

6 Responses to “Human Rights in China: An Interview with the Laogai Museum’s Harry Wu”
  1. Darrell says:

    Great interview. It must have been quite an experience to talk to him.

    • JCM says:

      Thanks! It was. They’re building up a really interesting hub at their research center/museum, so I’m glad to have gotten a few minutes with him.

  2. Leah Thomason Bromberg says:

    Thank you for sharing his story.

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