Peking tries to silence voice of the gulag

China/ American citizen held
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HARRY WU was always nervous crossing the border into China. When we crossed from Kazakhstan together last year, he asked me to stand at least 10 places behind him so that I could act as a witness if he was arrested and alert the necessary contacts. He was fully aware that he is probably China's most wanted man, and would rely on immigration inefficiencies to get across the frontier. Once he got through, he relaxed completely. He saw China as a giant sea full of fish. "Once I am in," he said, "they will never find me."

But on 19 June he did not get in. He was stopped on that same Kazakhstan border and is still being held. Wu is an American citizen, and on Friday the US Senate condemned the arrest, demanding consular access to him. The Chinese say they are detaining him to investigate the trip we made together last year, which produced a series of news programmes on the BBC, including investigations into China's prison camps and the use of executed prisoners to provide organs for surgical transplants.

Wu knew the dangers of going back to China. He has been back three times since he escaped to the US in 1985. But he could not stop himself. After 19 years as a political prisoner in China's forced labour camps, he could not forget the injustice he suffered nor the cruelty he witnessed to thousands of fellow prisoners.

He survived the camps during the period of Mao's Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famine, which is now believed to have killed up to 60 million. Political prisoners were at the bottom of the pile when it came to sharing out the country's sparse resources. His autobiography Bitter Winds describes an atmosphere of sadism, torture and brutality between prisoner and guard, and between prisoner and prisoner, and even cannibalism.

It was an experience that influences every aspect of his life. When we were travelling through the "Reform through Labour" camps we came across a 29-year- old prisoner who had been arrested during one of Deng Xiaoping's sporadic campaigns against crime. For taking part in a street brawl, he had been sentenced to 19 years in a labour camp. He was 23 when he was arrested, the same age as Wu when he was held during the Oppose Rightist Opportunism Movement in 1960.

Wu emptied our Jeep of food and gave it to the young man, who lived in a tiny shack guarding the piles of cotton picked by the prisoners. He sat with the prisoner, tears running down his cheeks, reliving and sharing the desolation and hopelessness that had overwhelmed him when, still in his twenties, he saw no future outside China's prison camps. Our driver and I had to force him back into the Jeep before the guards returned and arrested us.

He believes there is no limit to the degradation to which prisoners in China might be subjected. On that trip last year we investigated China's sale of the organs of executed prisoners to wealthy Chinese expatriates, who travel to China for transplant operations. Posing as a relative of a sick kidney patient, Wu negotiated the purchase of a kidney. As with any good investigator, he had no problem arguing that the ends justify the questionable means of an investigation. He is thorough and intellectually disciplined.

Our inquiries led us to interview former patients, doctors and policemen in Sichuan province, Wuhan, Hong Kong, Canada and Germany. Our report, denied by the Chinese, has been corroborated by Asia Watch and Amnesty International and was the subject of a US congressional hearing earlier this year.

Understandably, Wu is obsessive on the subject of China's prisoners. I spoke to him a few weeks ago about another project in China and he got quite angry. He believes there is only one task for the human rights activist and journalist in China - the exposure of the laogai, the forced labour camp network, and the 10-16 million prisoners he claims are being held there, 10 per cent of whom he says are political. There is an awful irony, therefore, in the fact that Harry Wu is being held by his erstwhile persecutors again.

He has done more than any of his compatriots to expose human rights abuses in China. He enjoys the comparison made between him and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, although he is always quick to point out that Solzhenitsyn only spent seven years in the gulag, "compared with my 19!" Unlike Solzhenitsyn, he is worldly enough to realise the message about China is best transmitted through broadcast media, and he has worked with the BBC, the American CBS network and Yorkshire Television, taking journalists from all three into China on perilous journeys.

But it is naive of the Chinese authorities to believe that negative reporting about China will be silenced by apprehending Harry Wu. In all the above cases, it was the journalists who approached Wu and asked him to be our adviser and guide on projects already agreed by our commissioning editors. The more we hear about the brutal realities of life in China, the more of an appetite there will be among responsible news organisations to publicise it.

China may be the world's fastest-growing economy, but that cannot blind us to the fact that thousands of prisoners regularly serve long sentences in labour camps on petty charges; car thieves and small-time embezzlers are often executed; political dissidents are routinely detained; thousands of women are being forcibly sterilised and near-mature foetuses aborted.

It is a bad time for Harry Wu to find himself being held. A US diplomat has said his arrest could be the latest Chinese demonstration of fury at Washington's decision to allow the Taiwanese President, Lee Teng-hui, to visit the US.

Others see it as an act of revenge for Wu's repeated attempts to get the US government to tie China's Most Favoured Nation trading status to human rights, in particular by pointing to those Chinese exports that are made by prison labourers.

So far the Clinton administration has tried to protect Chinese trade against these allegations. Would China really want to make a casus belli out of Harry Wu? Surely it must recognise the public relations damage caused by continuing to hold a man who has already done 19 years in the prisons of the People's Republic?