Beyond the Classroom of American University

The new month started with a warm visit by Dr. Christian Maisch’s class from the School of Professional and Extended Studies of American University.

Professor Christian Maisch, American University Assistant Professor of Professional and Extended Studies

 Professor Maisch addressed the class, “It’s an honor for me to have the opportunity to introduce Mr. Harry Wu. He’s a survivor of the Chinese forced labor prisoner camp. He’s an outstanding human rights activist. He successfully petitioned for the word laogai (劳改) to be accepted into the Oxford Dictionary as an English word referring to the Chinese ‘gulag’ system. He founded this foundation and museum to bring awareness to people about the tragic human rights conditions in China.”

Professor Maisch introduces Harry Wu, March 1, 2016, LRF


Executive Director Mr. Wu spoke to the students.

He started with his coming to America in 1985 with less than forty dollars in his pocket, no friends or family, and barley comprehendible English. He recounted his life as a university student in China. After graduation, due to his family background and limited participation in the growing support of the Communist Party, he found himself in the laogai; a place he spent the next nineteen years.

After Mr. Wu’s lecture on the laogai system, Chinese government and policy, and human rights activism, Wu addressed the student’s questions.


Executive Director Harry Wu speaks to students from AU, March 1, 2016, LRF


Are there activist movements now in China working against the government?

China is a complicated situation today. They have agreed to capitalism and foreign investment setting up an environment for seditious ideas. If the foreign company has a manager over there, he’ll have Chinese friends, and communication will be very different. When people ask me this, I usually end by saying, “China is on the way to change.”


Could you elaborate a little more on families able to have more than one child?

Population control in China has adjusted a bit. Couples are allowed to have a second child, but no matter they have one child or two children it’s still controlled by the government. To have a child you must get a permit. If no permit, no child. Either you pay a fine or punishment, usually by having an abortion. If you were able to talk candidly with someone from China, 30, 35, 40 years of age and older, and ask them, “Have you aborted?” Almost everybody say yes. The government has a very fine tuned system from the top to the bottom. The Central government gets data from the province, which gets data from the county that gets data from the village. This data has everything: how many people are in your family, ages, occupations, job, when you were married all the way to when the woman has her period, the government has this.


Do you believe the exclusion of China from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) will set America on the right track to rely on other Pacific Rim countries?

TPP doesn’t match the political system in China. Free trade is not for China. They cannot say no to TPP because it’s an international movement, international activities. If they say no, the other countries will have a negative perception of China. If they say yes, there are conditions that conflict with Chinese strategy.


If the U.S. were less reliant on China, could they be more outspoken and critical?

When I first came to America I would see people having a barbeque, watch movies or travel around. Sometimes they would ask me, “What is China?” But I would ask myself, “Why does America have to know about China?” They enjoy life. They own a house. They watch Oprah. This is the life. Life is short. Why not let people enjoy life? So, you as a student concerned about human rights can say, ‘[China’s] human rights is not good.’

Europe and the U.S. have a very strict capital punishment system, but China executes thousands of people a year. They cannot do that, but you cannot tell them they will be punished if they continue. You can say, “I dislike it. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to do business with you, to share my money with you.”

I’m not asking everyone to understand the situation. I’m asking them to follow their heart and ideas. You have to say, “I don’t like it. I don’t want to touch it.” That’s what’s important. American diplomacy is based on human rights. Americans care about human beings and want to make things better.

You had mentioned there are about 300,000 Chinese students studying in China, do you think when they go back to China they should try to change the situation?

Everyone wants to have a safe, free, wealthy environment. I’ve been granted asylum in the U.S. so how can I say to them, “You need to go back?” Almost every Chinese wants to run away from China. Some will stay in America for various reasons: a job, marriage, whatever. Most will go back to China and want to go back to contribute to their motherland. I hope these people will become the core force of change in the country. Once again, I’ll remind you; never in China’s history has there been this number of students studying abroad. This small step is one of many factors that will bring about change for the future.


What is being taught to students in school? What is being restricted in teaching and finally how is the access to information on the Internet?

The Chinese Communist Party has more than 80 million members. Every head of ministry is a member of the Communist Party. In the party there are two major departments: organization and propaganda. For example, the organization department will set someone get on track to become a mayor. Propaganda in American minds has a negative connotation. In China it’s very positive. It controls all the media. Every year only ten American movies are allowed into China. Those movies are chosen very carefully. They are scrutinized and often parts are deleted.

There are two groups from China that come here [to the museum]: 1. People in their 50s and 60s who say, “don’t’ talk to me, I already know about it, I just want to look around.” They experienced the laogai in some way. They may have even been in the laogai.  2. The Chinese student will say, “I never heard about it.” They are citizens of China and they don’t know what is the laogai. For China, it’s very important to control your ideas. Absolute control.


How did you get released?

I received a lifetime of re-education through labor. One and half years later, they decided to give me a three-year term. That was May 24, 1964. The police told me they were still processing my procedure and I had to wait. So I waited for five years. During this time was the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命). The Beijing Municipality Security Department was controlling the ‘black elements’ and turned down my case. I continued to be a prisoner until December of 1969. Eventually I was transferred to Shanxi Province (陕西省) No. 4 Laogai Detachment, a coal mine. There were about 2,200 prisoners who were once laogai or laojiao prisoners. This was a type of limbo. The police controlled us, but they were unarmed unlike life in the laogai. There were still punishments and solitary confinements. In 1967 Mao Zedong (毛泽东) died. We were scared. We thought of two possibilities: 1. We’d be released because the anti-righteous movement was over 2. Execution. Some people suggested we run away. Some said we should turn against the guards. They would say, “If I kill one, then I’m even, if I kill two then I win one.” But I wasn’t going to sacrifice myself. We all moved carefully, but still labored. In 1978 the Gang of Four fell. Two months later everyone received a notice to revise their case. Upon release no one received payment or compensation. Still today my file is in the public security system.  They know that I’m an ex-counter revolutionary. I found a job at a university teaching. I was very quite and didn’t want to talk about the laogai. I realized there was no future left for me in China so I left to the United States.


After the question and answer session the students toured the museum.

It’s not only Mr. Wu’s “hope these [students] will become the core force of change,” in China, but also the American university students, who come from so many different backgrounds, different countries even, become a positive force that repairs the world.