Starting with a Question

On Monday the School of Ethics and Global Leadership ushered by their exuberant instructor paid Mr. Harry Wu and the Laogai Museum another splendid visit.

With unmatched energy, each of the fourteen students emitted an impression of spiritedness and potential. It could have been the brisk mornings walk down eighteenth street or their admirable attempt to capture the essence of their founder and director, Noah Bopp, imitating his facial scruff (students dotted their faces with black pens representing a beard).

Noah Bopp Founder and Director of School of Ethics and Global Leadership (SEGL website)


With little time to spare the event was underway.


Mr. Wu addressed the class first by introducing them to the story of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C., but before the House has had a chance to comment on the bill, the Obama Administration announced its commitment to veto. There are some implications why the ‘Liu Xiaobo Plaza’ issue has President Obama steering away from the human rights discussion.

At the same time during this week, Washington D.C. is accepting foreign heads-of-states such as China’s President Xi Jinping (习近平). “What are you doing here?” the Executive Director bemused at the turnout of Chinese supporters for Xi during his visit for the Nuclear Industry Summit, his second to Washington D.C. in seven months.

“Of course we’re here. He’s our grandfather. Our Xi Dada (习大大),” replied one of the supporters when asked. It’s difficult to determine whether their support is genuine. It’s a little known secret that the Chinese Embassy pays, albeit not much, a meager allowance, transportation cost and provides a modest lunch to stand and wave a little red flag.

Mr. Wu digresses to his own experience at Qing He Farm (清河农场), a 115 square kilometer (44 square miles) area comprised of 6 different labor camps nearly the size of Washington D.C. Soviet gulag officials originally set up the camp. There he would be counted before and after laboring by guards wielding machine-guns. The field distinctly marked with work to be done and lines that couldn’t be traversed otherwise prisoners would be shot.

Today, the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) estimates 40-50 million people have perished in the laogai prison system since the establishment of the Communist Party of China in 1949 to the present. This striking number has yet to catch the majority attention of U.S. politicians. There are a few Representatives such as former House member Frank Wolf (R-VA) and current Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) adamantly raises awareness on questionable Chinese activities.

Despite the little attention given from the government the Laogai Museum remains the lone institution presenting atrocities by the Chinese government. It’s Mr. Wu’s hope that China will one day embrace its faults, tell the truth, and the Laogai Museum will stand as a reminder on a street in Beijing.

Mr. Wu notes that his story is soon over. He doesn’t dwell on the past so much anymore. He’s not the future that “belongs to you,” he says addressing the students. He’s established the groundwork; it’s now the students, who maybe one day, “become head of a department or a president will come from one of you,” who has the courage to confront such serious issues.

After his encouraging statements to the students he opened the floor to questions.

Mr. Wu address SEGL students before taking questions (LRF)

When you were in prison, did prisoners ever think to fight back or rebel?

Everyday after working we went back to the dormitory. We had two hours of political study. We would sit down and make a self-criticism of ourselves. We would write about our work, the discipline status of our prison-mates, and confess any of our wrong doings. The Chinese prison system has reform activities. The incentive to join these activities was the additional food. Food was not free. Prisoners and even guards in the camp received [subjective] food rations; if you were at a different level you were given different food. For example, if you performed well that day you might be given two muffins where the man next to you might have performed poorly and only received one.

Another incentive was to act favorably toward the government. If you spoke well of the government you may have an opportunity to reduce your sentence. The guards were not the only ones watching you, but the prisoners were all watching each other. If you said something poorly, your prison-mates could report you [hurting you, but benefiting them]. This is even how to the whole country operates.


What allowed you not to conform?

In the beginning, the police told me I’d been sentence to life. The police told me, if you labor well and perform well you might be released sooner. I was very encouraged by these words. I confessed, I criticized my capitalist ideas, I accepted Communist ideas, and I called out, “Long live Chairman Mao. Loyal to the Government,” whatever the government asked me to do, I did actively. I wanted to show that I could follow the government’s instruction. However, one thing was bothering me, hunger and starvation. I hunted for food. I ate a lot of rats. This was the only meat. I ate snake. I ate frogs. I wanted to survive. I was just like an animal looking for another animal. I didn’t have a pen, I didn’t have paper, I didn’t read, and I didn’t think about my freedom. I just ignored myself. I didn’t have an idea to fight against the Communist government. I was just like an animal [trying to survive]. Of course when big political events happened in the country the prisoners cared. For example, when Mao Zedong died in 1976 we (the prisoners) didn’t know what would happen. Maybe they would execute us, all of us. Or maybe they will release us.


What is the role America can play in getting rid of the laogai system in China?

They don’t have the responsibility for the change in China. China has to change by from within. America’s diplomatic policy is often based on human rights. If I showed you a picture of an execution you could say, “I don’t like it,” but how to change? You have to change. If you’re Chinese you have to change. I disagree with it, but you or China is the only one who can change. At the same time, I don’t think the U.S. has clearly, responsibly expressed its human rights ideals. For example, forced labor products imported to the U.S. are forbidden to enter, but the laws need to be enforced with more stringency.  Today, it is being ignored. And China is receiving this message. In the past, the United States didn’t want to engage with the Soviet Union by technology or financial trade. Instead factories were set up in Indonesia or India because it would benefit Russia if partnerships were made with them. Why do American companies want to set up business inside China? It’s helping China.


Now that you live in America and are an American, do you believe there needs to be reforms to our own prison system, especially when it comes to race, lack of education, and the ‘high school to prison’ pipeline? Have you found problems in our own prison system?

I visited an American prison when I was in California. It’s a totally different system. The concentration camps in Nazi Germany, the Soviet gulags, and the laogai of China are special systems that suppress the people for the government. This doesn’t happen in the U.S. Americans are not imprisoned because of their political views or because of their religion. Most prisoners in the laogai are not political prisoners, but people who actually commit crimes; however, they are forced to labor and they are brainwashed to follow Communism.


Do you believe getting rid of the laogai system will hurt China’s economy?

Laogai is an additional suppression system related to the regime. They cannot dissolve the laogai. If the Communists cease to control the country the laogai system would end. The Chinese system is controlled entirely by the Communists: there’s only one party, the party controls the military, the media, and all the government entities are controlled by the Communist Party. Thus, the Communist Party controls the prison system. When Xi Jinping came to power in China an American correspondent asked me, “What is your view?” I told him ‘I cannot comment about it, he’s not elected by the people. He’s a dictator. The Soviet gulag ended when the communist system ended.  The laogai system will end when the Communist system ends.


Earlier you mentioned it’s not the responsibility of the U.S. to help the laogai prisoners. Whose responsibility is it to help?

The prisoner is responsible for his or her own life. China is responsible for China’s issues. The change must come from China. America has its own responsibility and that mostly deals with telling the truth. We have to honestly tell what is right and wrong, expressing our ideas and care about human rights. But we should not say, “You have to resign, you have to change.”


So, how is that change going to happen when those same people are being suppressed?

This is the ultimate question.