I was sentenced to life in a Chinese labour camp. This is my story

Harry Wu was incarcerated for 19 years, a victim of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. Now a human rights campaigner, he recalls how the horror began

Harry Wu, was condemned to life imprisonment when aged just 21. He was sent to a laogai, a Chinese labour camp for being a "rightist counter-revolutionary". He was incarcerated for 19 years, survived, went to the United States, and founded the Laogai Research Foundation, which reports and campaigns on labour camps and other human rights abuses in China.

He has described his experiences in a remarkable new book, Nine Lives, which tells the stories of individuals who, operating outside the normal channels, have made the world a better, fairer place. They include Sompop Jantraka, who has rescued thousands of girls from the Thai sex trade, Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian peace campaigner whose daughter was shot by Israeli border police, Rami Elhanan, an Israeli peace campaigners whose 14-year-old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber, Youk Chhang, who has dedicated his life to exposing the atrocities of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, and Chaeli Mycroft, a teenage girl with cerebral palsy who is transforming disability rights in South Africa.

Mr Wu was born in 1937, the son of a banker father who prospered until the 1949 Communist takeover. Thereafter, the family suffered a descent into not-so-genteel poverty. Harry went to university in 1955, and in 1957 came the events which defined his life. This, extracted from Nine Lives, is his story in his own words.

At the time, the government was running the so-called One Hundred Flowers Campaign. Mao said: "Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting the progress of the arts and the sciences and a flourishing culture in our land." This sounded promising, but it was a disguised way of finding out who was for, and who was against, the Communist revolution. The Communist Party asked everyone at the university to speak out. My class had 30 students. Of these, seven were party members and 16 were Communist Youth League. So they were red students and the remaining seven of us were white. The secretary of the Communist Party said to me: "We want to ask you in a friendly and straightforward way: what are your views on politics?" "I have no views," I said, "I'm a major in geology. I am captain of the baseball team and I'm getting ready for a training session."

"No, no, no!" she said, "you have to come! Whatever you have to say, we want to listen to you." I entered the classroom. "Well," I said, "the Soviet involvement in the Hungarian Revolution last year was right, because we are a socialist country and Hungary was involved in counter-revolution. But I think that one country's military intervention in another country's political affairs is a violation of international law." [He also said that the division of students into those who were party members, and those who were not, created a "first and second class"].

A couple of weeks passed. The student body gathered again in June. "Today we will criticise Harry Wu!" they said. They arranged for some students to come forward and talk about the two points I had raised. "So you disagree with the Soviet invasion. It means you disagree with the policies of the Communist Party. You are a counter-revolutionary rightist." On 20 October the school put up a big poster, using the big characters in the style of newspapers: "Harry Wu is a counter-revolutionary rightist". From that point on, I was forced to make confessions, to tell on my classmates, and accept the lead of my Communist League classmates. The Communist Party appointed two people to watch over me. I had to report to them: tell them where I went, what I was doing, and what I was thinking. I lost freedom.

From 1958 until 1961, the Great Leap Forward started. It was an economic and social plan to change China from an agrarian to a modern industrialised society. Whether you were poor peasants, middle-class peasants, rich peasants or landlords, everyone had to register their class background. You filled in questionnaires saying whether you were a worker, a government official, a capitalist, and so on. And I belonged to the so-called capitalists because my mother was from a landlord family and my father was a banker. And these two classes, the landlords and the capitalists, were destroyed and their property was confiscated.

At school I had been under surveillance for almost two years. They said: "Your behaviour is not good enough. You go to the labour camp." The police simply came to the school. "Now would you follow us." We went to my dormitory and I gathered my belongings. I was put on a jeep straight away and into a prison cell. The doors shut.

During the first night, at midnight, I was called into the interrogation room. I went in and there was a police officer behind a small table and there was only one light in the room. He yelled at me: "Sit down!" I couldn't sit down, because there was no chair. So I squatted on the floor and he shone the light right into my face. "State your name, occupation and the nature of your crime," he said. "I am a counter-revolutionary rightist," I said, "In the One Hundred Flowers Campaign I attacked the Communist Party. And I still have a lot of poisonous ideas."

"Do you know your sentence?"

"I don't know."

He opened a file. "You have been sentenced to life."

I was utterly shocked. Life imprisonment! He then said: "Tell me your crimes. List them carefully." He took note of all the crimes that I "confessed" to him.

"All right, I have to give you an education," he said. He stood up and walked to the wall and kicked the door open to another room. I was still squatting on the floor and he said: "Look!"

One man was hanging on the wall with his arms tied behind his back, naked. Another was on the floor, naked. He had lost consciousness. They just poured water over him. The interrogator said: "I'm warning you. I'm giving you a one-day chance. Tomorrow, come back here to finish your first interrogation." And pointing to the other room: "Otherwise you'll go this way."

As I was a graduate student and there were only a few of them in prison, they first sent me to the laboratory of the chemical factory. Every day was labour, torture and the teachings of Mao. Altogether I did forced labour in 12 different camps. Every two months they reorganised the prison camps and the labour. They put you in different companies and different small groups. Every day I had to fulfil the labour quota.

One prisoner, Xing Jingping, nicknamed Big Mouth Xing because of his voracious appetite, taught me how to be tough. He was a peasant and thief from a poor village. But in prison he was the most influential teacher of my life. "You have to take care of yourself," he said, "If you don't hit another first, you won't make it." I was only able to survive by reducing myself to my most primal state. My first concern was always food. Sometimes I fought over food and if there was any chance of stealing anybody else's food, I would. So out in the fields I was looking for edible weeds. And I was also looking for rats, frogs, and snakes in irrigation ditches. Someone educated me about rats. I learned not to kill the rat, but to follow it. Because if you followed it, it would lead you to its burrow and the places where it stored its kernels of grain and other food. Every morning we got up and we received a bucket to clean ourselves and we went to labour at the farm right away. And around noon, two prisoners pushed two big wooden carts with buckets. One contained soup, the other corn. But it wasn't enough. Many people starved to death.

In Chinese labour camps, there is no freedom, despite the camp slogan "Labour Makes a New Life", similar to the words above the entry gates of German concentration camps: "Arbeit Macht Frei". The last few years I was working in a coalmine, doing shifts of 12 hours a day. One time, after seeing a burial of fellow inmates, I thought: "Human life has no value here. It has no more importance than a cigarette ash flicked in the wind."

[One day, after Mao's death in 1976, Harry Wu was told that he was now rehabilitated. He was freed, after 19 years in the labour camps. He was able to teach at university, and, via an old contact of his father's, eventually to reach the US, where a sister lived.]

Getting started in the US wasn't easy. I received an invitation from the University of Berkeley. I said I had enough money to live on, even though I didn't. So, even though I was appointed visiting professor of geology, I was sleeping in bus stations and on park benches. I couldn't sleep in the office, so I walked the streets and returned at 5.30 in the morning. Eventually I got a job in a donut shop, making 72 donuts during the night shift. It was wonderful, for finally I had a roof over my head. The coffee was free, and so were the donuts. During that time I didn't talk about China and I didn't tell anyone about my personal experiences. But then, in 1988, something special happened. There was a student who was writing his thesis. His name was Jeffrey Ling. "Can I write about you?" he asked.

His professor was amazed and wanted to see the guy that the story was about. I received an invitation to lecture about my experiences. "You're free," they said, "Whatever you want to say, say it." So I said: "Alright, I am a storyteller. I am not Harry Wu. I will tell you a story about Harry Wu in the third person."

I had only just begun, when suddenly I stopped. I couldn't prevent the tears from running down my cheeks. I was crying for probably 15 to 20 minutes. They let me cry. The first two years in the labour camp I cried, but, after that, never. No tears for 20 years. But in 1988 it all came out.

In the 1990s, I went back to China undercover four times. I went to the prison camps, managing to get close or inside by assuming the role of someone in the police. First of all, I would walk around the whole area, along the walls and the watchtowers, take pictures and go in front of the gate. Sometimes I pretended I was in business, sometimes in the police, allowing me to get into the camps and film the police, the prisoners. Going back undercover allowed me to obtain evidence for the rest of the world to see what is going on.

The last time I went back was in 1995. I was arrested and held by the Chinese government for 66 days before they sentenced me in a show trial to 15 years in prison. But thanks to an international campaign, I was immediately deported from China. The books I have written, the undercover trips, and all the work we do here at the Laogai Research Foundation and the China Information Center is not being done because we want to oppose communists. That is why I had a vision to create a Laogai Museum in Washington – a permanent reminder how some people have been killing innocent people with impunity.

In my time the Chinese killed one million in just one year, 1957! Their own people! They cannot tell their story. I don't care whether today China speaks about freedom, democracy, or prosperity. I want to tell the story of the lives of that million.

In 1992, Harry Wu devoted himself full-time to exposing human rights abuses in China, and has given evidence to the US Senate, UK Parliament, European Parliament and the United Nations. The Laogai Research Foundation, of which he is executive director, documents other human rights violations in China. The Laogai Museum was opened in 2008 in Washington DC. There are still three million inmates in China's labour camps.

'Nine Lives: Making the Impossible Possible', by Peter Braaksma, is published on Thursday by New Internationalist Publications Ltd.

( http://shop.newint.org/uk/nine-lives.html)

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