I Dreamed a Dream: Tribute to Harry Wu

There was a time…

On May 25, 2016, outside the sun was shining, summer was peeking from behind the rainy clouds of weeks’ past. The initial mourning had ended. For many, the loss has been difficult to bear.  For others, anger, as there always is in times of death, “Why him? Why now?”

When men were kind…

In the elegant Members Room of the Library of Congress a tribute to a great man, some say a hero commenced.

 

When their voices were soft…

Venerable members from Congress, past and present, provided insight to a man that refused to be silent. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi eloquently gave the first remarks, followed by former Congressman Frank Wolf, and Chairwoman Emeritus Ileana Ros-Lehtinen closed out the tribute from the legislators.

 

And their words inviting…

The perennial foundations for human rights paid their respects. Kerry Kennedy, who featured Mr. Wu in her book Speak Truth to Power delivered the first statements from the foundations, followed by co-chairwoman of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, Annette Lantos Tillemann-Dick and Kaydor Aukatsang spoke on behalf of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

 

There was a time when love was blind…

Finally, some of Mr. Wu’s closest colleagues took the podium. Ann Noonan spoke on behalf of the board, while Peter Müeller shared his efforts with Harry to bring laogai awareness to Germany and Europe as a whole.

 

And the world was a song…

While the slide show rolled in the background, each speaker shared their cherished moments they had with Harry.

And the song was exciting…

At providential moments when the tribute speakers were giving their remarks, their words would match the pictures. It was particularly inspirational to see pictures of Mr. Wu with his son at the exact time Ms. Kerry Kennedy was speaking about her godson, Harry’s son, Harrison.

There was a time…

Mr. Wu grew up in a large and loving family. In his book, Bitter Winds he talks about the loss of his biological mother when he was very young, only 5-years old. His stepmother turned out to be antithetical of evil caricatures in typical fairy-tales. She was warm, compassionate, and devoted until her death.

The Wu Family photo. Front row from left: Harry’s stepmother, youngest brother Wu Hongren, and father. Back row from left: Harry’s fifth youngest sister Wu Shenlan, fourth youngest sister Wu Xianghai, sixth younger sister Wu Mutao, eldest sister Wu Hanlian, eldest brother Wu Hongyi, Harry, and Harry’s seventh younger brother Wu Hongdao, (Harry’s collection, 1950)

 

Then it all went wrong…

In 1955, as Harry was preparing to enter university in Beijing, Chairman Mao was arranging to cull the poisonous weeds. The elimination of counterrevolutionaries had begun.

I dreamed a dream in time gone by…

When all Harry wanted to do was study to build his country to prosperity, the red nation saw Harry as a blemish radiating imperfection based on erroneous political ideals. At the Geology Institute of Beijing, the university had a total student body of 5,000 students. Every institution had an arbitrary quota system to adhered to, as a result, 100 teachers and 500 students were considered “counterrevolutionary,” “rightist,” or part of the “reactionary class.”

When hope was high…

Harry was able to take solace in the country fields of China while on school-sponsored internships. In the Western Hills he devised a plan to supply underground water to China’s first nuclear power plant.

Internship in the West Hill area outside Beijing. Harry is on the left side of the car. In front of his Ma Jingxin. The others are interns a year below Harry, (Harry’s collection, date unknown)

 

And life worth living…

Simultaneously, Harry was devising another plan, an escape out of China. With the aid of other counterrevolutionaries and coded hand signals they would make their way to Yunnan and slip away through Burma. Regrettably, the plan would spoil.

I dreamed that love would never die…

How easy would it be to leave his family, his girlfriend, even the land that is most recognizable? He would have to learn a new language, new culture, and possibly never return to see his family. Eventually, Harry would disappear, but within the borders of China. He was awarded his degree at graduation, but find his first formal designation equal to “criminal.” He was now sentenced to forced labor in the laogai. Harry was not given a formal sentencing. A Public Service Bureau (PSB) officer did not allow him to read his transgressions, only to sign, accepting fault.

I dreamed that G-d would be forgiving…

Harry writes in his autobiography, “How long would I remain a prisoner? Was I really a criminal? …Though I had largely forgotten my Catholic faith, at this moment of adversity I instinctively prayed to G-d to forgive and protect me.”

Harry at age 28 in Qinghe Farm laogai camp (Harry’s Collection, 1965)

 

Then I was young and unafraid…

Harry’s father instilled in him a high regard for education. With conviction he valued people with knowledge and integrity believing they would always be integral. He told Harry not to concern himself with politics or pick sides. By virtue of his Confucian heritage, he took heed of his father’s guidance.

And dreams were made and used and wasted…

Arriving in Beijing, Harry lacked political awareness concerned more with academics and baseball. People were to be “red” before technical. The school environment shifted toward political proclivity. Harry missed political class meetings due to baseball games. Without disregard, when asked to speak on his political beliefs asserted, “What right does the Communist Party have in our private lives?”

The Beijing Municipal baseball team won the national championship. Harry is second from the left standing in the second row, (Harry’s Collection, 1956)

 

There was no ransom to be paid…

At Yingmen Iron Mine, veteran gang leaders assert their dominance. One threatens Harry to steal cabbages for him. When Harry refuses he is beaten.

No song unsung…

Harry sought advice from a more compassionate prisoner. “Sing a different song in different mountains; speak a different language in a different region,” the sapient captive had gone through the same experience. Until one day he went after the head of the gang, dealt him a big gash from a spade, and no more trouble followed.

No wine untasted…

Harry remembers the sagely prisoner continue, “In the camps there is only one rule: the fierce one fears the relentless one, and the relentless one fears the foolhardy one. If I am the foolhardy one, I am at the top.” Harry understood from then on, “to survive…I needed new skills and different attitudes. I realized that my “reeducation” had reached another stage.”

But the tigers come at night…

In 1955 the start of the Hundred Flowers Campaign emboldened citizens to openly criticize and express their opinions on the communist regime.

With their voices soft as thunder…

Mao proclaimed, “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designated to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.” Mao often used sha, the Chinese word for “kill” in his internal documents. “One never saw Mao with an ugly expression,” Harry writes in Troublemaker, but “he ranks right up there with Hitler.”

As they tear your hope apart…

Then he changed course. Through 1959 the Anti-rightist Campaign targeted those critical of the regime condemning them by blackening out their name or blackening out their lives.

As they turn your dream to shame…

During the summer of 1957, Harry’s high school girlfriend agreed to marry him. Once he was deemed a counterrevolutionary, classmates, friends, even family members distanced themselves. His girlfriend became despondent.

He slept a summer by my side…

Harry, in his youth was insulated from poverty in Shanghai, graduated from an elite Beijing academy, was now the student of peasants in the laogai. He learned to take care of himself by smuggling cabbage cores, fishing for frogs, and tracking rats to their nests.

He filled my days with endless wonder…

On holidays, like Spring Festival, prisoners would acquire special packages filled with fruit, candy, cigarettes and even meat. Sometimes he met guards who were friendly and cordial making life in the camps a little easier. He met a prisoner with the same roots coming from his hometown of Wuxi. “A traditional saying sprang to my lips: “When fellow countrymen meet, their eyes brim with tears,”” recalls Harry in his autobiography.

He took my childhood in his stride…

Many years ago, Harry expressed to a friend that the most horrific thing the Chinese had done to him was not the beatings, the torture or the abuse, but the years they stole, years in which he should have been raising a family; a total of nineteen years lost.

But he was gone when autumn came…

Harry returned to China five times, twice in 1991, 1993, and 1994 and finally in 1995. The memories flashed in his mind. Where had all his comrades gone? Big Mouth Xing who taught him to hunt, Lu Haoqin who went mad without women, Ao Naisong who couldn’t play his lute, they were buried there in the dirt. Standing at the gates of Qinghe Farm he uttered, “I will take you to your mothers. It has been too long. You should go home now. We don’t have to starve anymore.” Harry was alone. Who else would tell their story? Who else would reveal this nightmare?

Harry is greeted upon his return from 66 days in detention which would be his final trip to China, (Harry’s Collection, 1995)

 

And still I dream he’ll come to me…

During his first return to China in 1991, Harry visited many of the camps. He cut a hole in his knapsack with a camera inside to document to prove he could get close without detection. When he returned to the U.S. he convinced a CBS crew to go back with him and glimpse the laogai first hand.

 

That we will live the years together…

After the CBS 60 Minutes story Harry was asked to present his findings to Congress in his first hearing. U.S. Customs officials were pressured to investigate and enforce laws against importing prison-camp goods.

Harry with Ed Bradley and CBS crew members, (Harry’s Collection, 1991)

 

But there are dreams that cannot be…

In his final trip to China in 1995, Harry was caught at the border trying to get into the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. Rearrested, Harry spent sixty-six days in a hotel black jail. He was given a trial and sentenced to fifteen years. With the help of the U.S. Congress and European diplomats China negotiated to a permanent exile.

Harry a prisoner in his hotel room, (Harry’s Collection, 1995)

 

And there are storms we cannot weather…

In his second book Troublemaker, Harry writes, “A pamphlet published in 1989 by a school for prison officials observed that laogai production has “two properties: the place and means of reforming criminals…and commodity economic development.”” Harry was determined to break this habit or die trying.

I had a dream my life would be …

A troublemaker. Harry recalls a story in grade school when the teacher asked each student to bring in a plant from nature. Harry wanted to keep the teacher on his toes and placed a small stem inside another. The teacher was not amused and rapped him on the wrist a dozen times. Harry never suppressed his defiance.

 

So different from this hell I’m living…

Only once Harry was confined to a solitary cell, but it might have been his hardest battle. For eleven days he suffered in a cement box three feet wide, three feet tall and six feet long. The first three days he was given no release, no food, and no water. By day six he was shivering uncontrollably with hallucinations, “life itself had become a torment,” he lamented. On day eight he decided life was over and refused to eat. The next two days he would be force fed with a tube down his nose. On the final day he felt no rage proclaiming, “I was alive, nothing else mattered.” He survived one hell.

So different now from what it seemed…

When he saw his father for the last time in 1980 he believed he could not live a peaceful life in China. On his deathbed, his father said to a relative, “tell [Harry] he cannot stay here. This is not the place for him.” He possessed a remarkable strength to go through hell and back, and back, and back. It’s time to pick up where he left off, spread his message so that his advocacy against the laogai persists until it’s eliminated.

Now life has killed…

Unsurprisingly, China is not forthcoming with information on the laogai. The word has since been revoked. Now jianyu or simply “prison” is used. Today there over one thousand known labor camps with an estimated five million imprisoned, prisoners are pressured to “donate” their organs and executions are still carried out with a single bullet to the back of the head.

The dream I dreamed.

 

Harry manifested many dreams. He escaped the laogai and survived. He left China and made a new life in America. He brought awareness to the public by risking his life and going back to expose the atrocious inhumane acts inside the laogai. He normalized the word laogai in English dictionaries leading to standardization in other languages. A foundation was started brining about greater awareness working with like-minded organizations and congressional legislators. He curated a museum to document the history and progression of the oppressive laogai; the only one of it’s kind.

Yet there remain persistent dreams still to be actualized.  Liu Xiaobo still wallows in jail. Normal citizens are silenced, books are censored, and civil rights lawyers disappear. Tibet continues to be colonized. The laogai still exists.  The laogai: the longest form of forced labor system many refuse to condemn or recognize for fear of losing potential political or business opportunities.

One of Harry’s dreams was to set up a Laogai Museum in Beijing. “This museum truly belongs in China,” he would say on tours. That dream has a long road to traverse. Still to this day, especially today, June 4, China fervently denies the events in 1989. China goes to great lengths to silence Tian’an men Square massacre remembrances and the Tank Man. Ameliorative reform is more attainable with acceptance of its past.

A seat was reserved for Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo a man still imprisoned for his political views and written opinions. Harry was an avid supporter of Liu Xiaobo consistently dialoguing with American politicians and the President to raise awareness of his plight bringing about an expedited release.

 

Harry Wu’s ultimate dream was to see the laogai eternally finished. He didn’t get to see that day. He has heroically paved the way for his forebears to accomplish the task. When that day comes, and it will, his name will be honored as the courageous fighter who never let us forget.

 

The italicized-bold phrases prefacing each paragraph are lyrics from the song “I Dreamed a Dream” from the play Les Misérables, Harry’s favorite novel.