Books Lives: At home among the snakes and rats

TROUBLEMAKER: One Man's Crusade Against China's Cruelty by Harry Wu with George Vecsey, Chatto pounds 10.99
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The Independent Culture
In 1961, two men by the side of a canal in the Chinese countryside fought over a hole in the ground. It was the entrance to a rat's nest one of them had spotted. Both men were prisoners, and they were slowly starving to death - as were so many Chinese in the famine that followed Mao's agrarian reforms. The rat, contrary to its reputation, is a clean and orderly animal which excavates an unfloodable nest 20ft along its tunnel and in the autumn stores there two or three pounds of grain - wheat, soya beans, rice - in separate piles. The man who won the fight was named Wu Hongda, and the rat's hoard that he dug up saved his life. He is now an American citizen, Harry Wu, famous around the world as the greatest thorn in the side of the Peking government, China's "Number One Troublemaker".

His first memoir, Bitter Winds, recounted the 19 years he spent as a political prisoner (as a student he had criticised the Russian invasion of Hungary) in the Chinese gulag, the Laogai, or "labour reform" system of camps into which millions of people have disappeared since the early 1950s and which still exists as an instrument of repression and a source of profit from the products of slave labour. This new book takes up his story since he was freed in 1979. Unable to forgive or forget, he set to reveal to the world the iniquity of China's prison universe and of the regime as a whole. He describes three successful forays back to his homeland, disguised as a businessman or policeman or benignly blinking tourist, filming and documenting the camp zones where so many have died, their lives "flicked away like ... cigarette butts".

Each of his trips produced a revelation. In the Qinghai Hide & Garment works - otherwise known as the Qinghai provincial Number 2 Laogai - he watched a prisoner strip and lower himself into a vat of curing chemicals, his naked body in effect a state-owned ladle. Wu discovered a vast range of products, from artificial flowers to diesel engines, being exported from the camps to the West, against international, US and for that matter, British law (not one article of Chinese manufacture has ever been turned back by HM Customs). He documented the trade in human organs under which prisoners are virtually farmed like cattle for their kidneys or corneas, shot in the heart if corneas are required, or shot in the head for their kidneys.

The denouement came last year when he was arrested trying to get into China for the fourth time. He was spirited away by the security police into central China like an Emperor Mao in reverse, travelling in a cavalcade of cars, in special train compartments, arriving at railway stations swept clear of the public. Then, for 66 days, there ensued a fascinating diplomatic tug-of-war over Harry Wu, who was held incommunicado, with the Chinese weighing their desire for vengeance against their fear of infringing the rights of a US citizen, with foreign trade and human rights and Hillary Clinton's possible trip to Peking all thrown into the calculations.

Eventually Wu admitted his "crimes", promised to give up his campaign against the Communist regime and agreed never to return to his homeland. He was found guilty, sentenced to 15 years and promptly expelled. His promises, he cheerfully announces, were quite worthless. He will go back.

No one could pretend that this is a beautifully written book. The language is a raw, immigrant's staccato ("Decent guy ... Bad mistake ... Hey, this is America"), quite unlike the stately periphrasis found in Bitter Winds. Harry Wu is not primarily a storyteller. He is something more important than that: he is locked within a great story. In Bitter Winds, he and another prisoner (who later committed suicide), discussed why they should go on living. "I really don't know," said Wu. "I'll just live on, perhaps to learn the end of the story."

We still do not know the end, but we know what kind of story it is. It is an epic, for Wu is a hero, not in the modern reduced sense of the word ("Hero saves toddler from flames"), but in the ancient, authentic sense - the stubborn, lonely, devious man who pits himself against the dragon, the devourer of human lives, and who seems to be helped from time to time not only from above, but from below, from the rat's hole or the serpent's nest (during that first famine, in an incident worthy of Ovid, the prisoner put his hand in a hole under a bank and drew out a tangle of 12 hibernating snakes with dark red spots on their heads - his first protein for months.)

Wu's clear-headed loathing for the masters of China is palpable. They may be keeping order and making the Chinese richer, but they are still "sons of bitches who ... steal millions of lives." He warns that, no longer having an ideological justification for their power, they resort increasingly to Han Chinese imperialism and nationalism, and with their complete absence of moral principles he equates them bluntly with the Nazis. But they are not invulnerable. The regime, for instance, must play the increasingly difficult game of keeping its power of repression highly visible to the Chinese yet indistinct to the rest of the world. If Wu and others keep up their assaults, this may be impossible and the regime, reduced in its ability to terrify, could be fatally weakened.

In one of his madder moments, Mao once declared war on the sparrow. Within a year there was scarcely one to be seen across the country. The rulers of China may come to regret that he did not, instead, declare war on that useful subterranean storekeeper, the rat.