Harry Wu: One Man Against China

An exclusive interview with Robert R. Reilly

In June 1995, the eyes of the world turned toward China when a naturalized American was arrested, detained, then tried and convicted for crimes against the Communist state. As the world prepared for the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, suddenly, one man was able to put a face on the millions of Chinese who continue to be secretly enslaved, tortured, and killed in the forced labor camps called laogai. Crisis contributing editor Robert R. Reilly interviewed Harry Wu recently at our Washington, D.C. offices. For more background on the persecution of the Church in China, see Nina Shea’s “Terror Against the Church” published in last month’s issue of Crisis.

Reilly: You have written one of the great prison memoirs in Bitter Winds, recounting your nineteen years as a political prisoner in Chinese slave labor camps, called laogai. I’ve read a lot of prison memoirs, including The Gulag Archipelago and memoirs of the Nazi camps, and they are very different. Bitter Winds exposes the extraordinary extent of “thought control.” You said that the Chinese went from foot-binding to Communist mind-binding.

Wu: The Chinese have a thought reform policy of mentally, psychologically crushing people. Hitler had gas chambers to physically destroy people. The Communist Chinese are more clever. They know how to control human beings, not so much with the power of guns, but by replacing your brains, reducing you to a robot.

Reilly: This makes it all the more remarkable that you survived psychologically and spiritually. How did you? You claim you’re not a hero, but the fact is you are.

Wu: First of all, there is no hero who can survive Chinese laogai. Laogai means labor and reform. All prisoners, including penal and political prisoners, are subject to hard labor and forcible brainwashing. Brainwashing is meant to destroy you spiritually and mentally. Whatever the party accuses you of is true. You have to accept it. You have to condemn yourself. You have to forget about yourself as a human being.

In the first years of prison, my living environment suddenly, totally changed. My parents separated from me. My brother and sister, my classmates, my schoolteacher, my schoolmates, everybody condemned me. Given this environment, you say to yourself, “I really am a criminal.” The pressure is not only physical, it’s mental torture. You cannot treat yourself as a human being in Chinese labor camps and survive. If you think you’re a human being, then you’ll think about, first of all, your dignity, your freedom, your future, your life, your family—all the things that you can never have. Such thoughts can only cause problems.

I was tortured, almost to death, because I insisted on being treated as a human being. I was almost starved to death because I wanted to treat myself as a human being. So I just tried to stop my life. I reduced myself to the level of a beast. The beast is nothing, without any concept of liberty, dignity, or love—just looking for food, right?

Reilly: Yet, in Bitter Winds, you recount several times in which you prayed. Can you tell us about this?

Wu: Perhaps I should talk about my religious life. I was baptized as a Catholic when I was eleven years old, just a couple of months before the Communist takeover. Then three years later the Catholic Church in China was taken away, expelled, finished, nothing. So when I was thirteen or fourteen there were no religious activities in my life at all. As a teenager it was very easy to forget about it, but it was actually deeply seated in my heart and soul, even though I didn’t realize it then.

In the camps, I only prayed two prayers. The first prayer was when I almost died of starvation. I prayed very quietly and very briefly: “No hope. Where is my hope? God, guide me.” The second prayer happened when one of my inmates died because there was no food. I helped him to get some food and the food killed him because of the state of starvation he was in. I felt really bad about his death. I was very angry with God and I shouted to God, “You told me you are universal. We are suffering. We are innocent. See these people, they are just like cigarette ashes. Where are you, where are you?” I shouted. After that, I never prayed again.

Reilly: Are you religious now?

Wu: Yes. Today you asked me, “How could you survive?” For many years I could not answer that, because I didn’t know. Finally, now I know that God is in my body and at the bottom of my heart and soul.

Reilly: Were you ever questioned in the prison camps about your Catholicism?

Wu: A policeman, Captain Yang, one of the cruelest persons—almost every day he tortured the prisoners—treated me very well for some strange reason. Once he had a conversation with me. He said, “I looked in your file. I learned that you are a Catholic. So how do you explain God creating human beings? Did he use some soil mixed with water that exploded, and a man and a woman came out, or something like that?” He tried to insult me, tried to humiliate me, and I didn’t want to talk about it because this was a conversation between cats and mice—no conversation at all. But he insisted, “No, no, tell me what you think, because we Communists believe in Darwinism. It means man comes from the apes.”

Like a fool, I wanted to fight back. So, I asked, “What are apes?” He said, “A kind of thing like a monkey.” I said, “Oh, so a monkey is a kind of great grand-grandfather. Is that correct?” He said, “Yes, it’s a kind of great grand-grandfather.” “So,” I said, “maybe we can see your great-grandfather in the zoo?” But he felt badly about this prospect and he said, “No, that’s not my great grand-grandfather.” This is the only chance I had to talk about religion in the camps.

Reilly: You were never able to discuss religion with the other prisoners?

Wu: This is forbidden and a violation would entail severe discipline. Let me tell you one story. I interviewed a Catholic priest. He had spent thirty-five years in a prison camp. His crime was that he was a priest. He could have left prison immediately if he had signed a paper that cut off his relationship with the Vatican. He said to them, “I can’t.” He was put in solitary confinement for punishment. I described to him my solitary confinement—three feet wide and six feet long and three feet high, it was like being in a cement coffin. He said his was four by four and ten feet high. I said, “So, you were better off than I. At least you could stand.” But he said he couldn’t sit because there was water on the ground a foot deep. Why such punishment? “Because,” he said, “I’m a priest and I believe in God. They didn’t allow me to pray, so I just found a small place to do my praying, but my inmates reported it.”

Reilly: So it was really hard for you to tell in the camps whether there were other Christians there or priests?

Wu: No way to tell.

Reilly: So there was really no possibility for fellowship in these camps?

Wu: No. If you were seen talking with more than one prisoner, you could be charged with being a member of a reactionary clique and severely punished.

Reilly: How can you deal with the horror through which you have lived? Are you able to forgive?

Wu: The individuals—the captain, the policemen—I can forgive. But as for the system, never. I will fight all my life to tear it down.

Reilly: You went back to China four times after your release, and were arrested during your last trip in 1995 as one of the most wanted men in China. Why did you go back at such a great peril?

Wu: After arriving in the United States in 1985, I told myself, “Go ahead and enjoy your life, do something you want to do, say something you want to say and think something you want to think. This is your freedom. You have lost twenty years. Now you can get it back.” I worked very hard at starting my new life, but I couldn’t. All the time the nightmare came back to me. Let me explain. My last tear was shed in 1961. I was crying as I was thinking about my family, my friends, my suffering, and everything. Since then, even when my mother passed away, and then my father and my brother, I never shed tears.

Then, in 1986, the U.C. Santa Cruz Student Association invited me to tell about my experiences. I warned myself, don’t get emotional. You are not Harry Wu; you are someone telling about Harry Wu. But suddenly, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I stopped right in the middle of the speech and cried for about twenty minutes, all of the students waiting for me. Fifteen years later, my tears came back. Then I realized, now I’m ready to return, I am no longer a beast. As a human being, as a believer in God, I have to do something. I could have easily died in the camps. So, who is Harry Wu? No one, if not someone for these millions of faceless, nameless, voiceless people.

Reilly: What is the extent of the slave labor camp system in China today?

Wu: We have identified more than 1,100 camps in China. We estimate between six and eight million people remain under the slave labor system. Each labor camp, according to Chinese law, has two different names, one for the public enterprises, i.e., factories, mines or farms, and an internal name for the public security system, because these prisoners are workers with no pay, and this situation has to be disguised so their products can be exported to places like the United States.

Reilly: How many people have gone through this system?

Wu: I think a minimum of fifty million since 1949.

Reilly: From your Laogai Research Foundation, what do you know about the persecution of Catholics in China today?

Wu: First of all, from 1949 to 1979, China totally destroyed any kind of religion, including Buddhism, Christianity, Catholicism, Muslim practice, anything. They set up one system, Communism, in which the majority did believe. Even if one’s mother died of starvation, or one’s parents were persecuted and tortured, the people still believed that Mao is a god. Communism is the only heaven that we would have. That’s why we had the revolution. After thirty years, we learned from our blood and tears that this is a joke. That’s why since 1980 the ideological crisis has become very serious in China. People are now widely seeking new religions to fulfill their souls. So, the Communist government has had to change its religion policy. Using two hands, it set up its own religion system, the Patriotic Church Associations, in order to show the West we have freedom of religion and also to control people domestically. But with the other hand, real religion is very seriously suppressed. Despite this, there are at least six million underground Catholics.

Reilly: Some reports state that 1996 was the worst year for religious persecution in China since Mao.

Wu: The worst is still going on. Underground church members and their priests are being arrested and sent to labor camps. Many of them are being tortured to death. The Chinese Communist understands that student dissidents can sometimes change their minds. Today, you can’t find too many Chinese dissidents in the United States. They were granted asylum over here because they claimed to be freedom fighters, democracy fighters in Tiananmen Square. But right now they’re back in China doing business as usual.

But once you become a Catholic, you can never stand together with a Communist. This is a major problem in China. So today, in terms of human rights abuses, one of the very important issues is underground church activity, which is more widely spread in the countryside than in the city. Many whole villages are turning Catholic because they don’t trust Communism. They’re looking for their God; they’re looking for the truth.

Reilly: How does the Communist attempt to give the appearance of religious freedom actually work?

Wu: In the Party they have a religious affairs department. In the government they also have a religion management bureau. What is their job? Their job is control. In 1983, I had a conversation with a senior official from the religious bureau. “Why do you allow religion to come back?” I asked. He said, “I have no choice because fundamentally the people are voluntarily seeking the truth and nobody can stop it. We are just guiding and controlling them.” So, they spent a lot of money repairing churches and temples. They asked all these monks and priests to come back from the countryside, from exile and the camps, to work for a salary. They employ them.

Reilly: The priests in the Patriotic Church are paid by the government?

Wu: Today, there may be a lot of donations, including donations from foreigners, and maybe they can survive on these. But at the beginning, for around the first five years, they were employees of the government. At first they could only find old monks; no young people wanted to become monks. So they hired unemployed young people as monks, with signed three-year contracts, better than normal salaries and the promise of better jobs later. But in the meantime, they told them, “You have to discipline yourself as a monk, cannot get involved in love affairs, and you have to be a vegetarian,” or something like that. Also, they were told that they had to shave their heads. Many young people did not like this, but they had no choice because there were no other opportunities.

Thus many young people became monks, so that when foreigners visit China they can exclaim, “Oh, not only do they have old monks, but young monks as well, and religious freedom!” Yet another problem arose. According to Buddhist custom, the young monks needed to have nine scars burned on the head by incense. But the young people objected, saying, “I’m only temporary. This is not a permanent job. I’m not really a monk.”

Reilly: So to tell the difference between real monks and temporaries, you look at their heads?

Wu: But then the Chinese religious bureau hired some Buddhist experts to look into ancient Buddhist texts. Five hundred years ago, some text said, “It’s not necessary to have the incense.” So the new monks don’t have that today.

Reilly: What about the persecution of Catholics short of sending them to a forced labor camp? Are there intermediary measures against them that the police or the party would exercise, such as firing them from their employment or refusing to let them travel?

Wu: There are different levels of control. The first level is that you never get a promotion in your work. That’s very easy and simple because your political condition does not satisfy the requirements for promotion. The second level is to be laid off. The third level prohibits you from gathering together for any religious activity. These are called illegal meetings in China and you can be sentenced for attending. If ten people get together to pray, they can be arrested.

Reilly: If Communism is dead in China, why are they so afraid of the Church?

Wu: Communist ideology is dead, but the practice is not. The Communists still remain in power. That’s why I said, once you believe in God, you can never again stand together with the Communists.

Reilly: But do the party cadres still believe in Communism or are they simply using it to maintain power?

Wu: Mostly, no. They don’t believe in Communism at all, they just want to maintain power.

Reilly: What is going to sustain the Chinese people with the collapse of Communism?

Wu: My view is very pessimistic because China today still remains a traditional, feudal, dynasty system. We still have an emperor system, so how does one end it and turn to a newer democratic society? This is a very complicated issue.

Reilly: What sort of damage has the one-child policy done in China, along with the forced abortions? Is that something you follow at the Laogai Research Foundation?

Wu: In 1994, the Chinese government statistics show that there were fourteen million abortions. If we say 10 percent were forced, then that’s 1.4 million. According to American standards, though, I would say that about 60 percent of the abortions are forced.

Reilly: One wonders about the future shape and character of Chinese society when there will be a preponderance of males, because the girls are aborted, and when these males will have grown up without siblings, without brothers or sisters. Then you have a completely different kind of problem.

Wu: The problem is already in society. We see many spoiled boys and they don’t have brothers and sisters for company. There will be many more males than females. By the year 2000, there will be eighty million Chinese men between twenty-eight and forty-five who will have no women.

Reilly: Well, that’s certainly potential for civil strife.

During the Cold War President Reagan had the courage to say that the Soviet Union was an evil empire. I know that resonated throughout the Soviet empire. Is China an evil empire?

Wu: Much more than that.

Reilly: But what about the enormous changes going on in China today?

Wu: Yes, this is critically changing, but we don’t know how far yet. The private sector is growing. I hope it can continue growing for the next twenty or forty years, and finally defeat the other sector. But so far, not yet. So far, the people in power who control the military, control the government, control the financial sector and the Communist party say, no, we’re not going to change.

Reilly: All right, so what should U.S. policy be?

Wu: No free lunch.

Reilly: What is your assessment of the U.S. policy that trade liberalization will automatically translate into political democracy in China and that all we have to do is focus on these trade issues?

Wu: It is ridiculous for everyone to say that capitalism will bring democracy, including our dear president. It’s a shame and it is not true. Everybody knows that capitalism doesn’t always mean democracy. If this kind of political concept is correct, it means engagement with totalitarian countries can change them, that money can buy over the Communist system. Why didn’t that apply to the Soviet Union? It never applied to Cuba. I don’t know why the Soviet Union, as an evil empire, never enjoyed Most Favored Nation trading status, yet China is given MFN year after year.

Reilly: If you could speak to President Clinton right now, what would you say to him?

Wu: I have a very nice wish. I hope that Clinton becomes the first president and the first world leader to publicly condemn the laogai.

Reilly: Is there anything you would like to say at the end of our interview, something important I may not have asked you?

Wu: Well, one thing is that America is great because America has principles. If you only act on your business interests, you sooner or later will destroy America.

Reilly: Do you have any words specifically to say to American Catholics?

Wu: Yes. Your brothers and sisters in China are suffering. Today, the Church has been totally destroyed. When you do your praying, please think about them and pray for them. Don’t go to welcome these Patriotic Church priests. It’s a sham. Your real brothers and sisters are being suppressed in the underground church. If you are a businessman and you also go to church on Sunday, think about it. Do you want to make money from the forced labor of these suffering people?


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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