Remembering Harry Wu

On April 28, 2016, the Democratic Senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown, addressed Congress remembering Harry Wu.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Ohio.

Mr. BROWN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to speak in morning business.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator is recognized.



Mr. President, on Tuesday, the world lost a courageous activist for international workers’ rights, Harry Wu. Harry Wu spent 19 years in one of China’s ‘‘laogai’’ prison labor camps. That word is pretty much unknown in English—L-A-O-G-A-I. It is a word that the Chinese made famous, at least in their part of the world, as the terribly brutal labor camps where they sent political prisoners.

Mr. Wu was imprisoned in 1960 at age 23 because he spoke out against Communist China’s ally in 1960, the Soviet Union, after its invasion of Hungary. Over those 19 years, from 1960 to 1979, Mr. Wu was brutalized. He was sent to work on farms, mines, and prison camps. He was beaten and forced into concrete cases. As he has written and told us, he survived on food he foraged in rats’ nests.

After his release, following Mao’s death, Harry Wu dedicated the rest of his life to exposing the horrors that his homeland leaders inflicted on their own citizens. He risked his life to return to China under cover and gathered secret footage of the abuses in China’s laogai, China’s prison camps. He wouldn’t let the world ignore Chinese atrocities. He wouldn’t let us forget that opening our doors to China—demanded by U.S. corporations with few strings attached—came at a steep price. Through the footage he collected, he helped show the world that products like cheap wrenches and artificial flowers sold in the United States were made with forced labor. Think about what this was about. U.S. companies would shut down their production in Mansfield, my hometown, or maybe in Baton Rouge or Cleveland, and move their production to China and sell those products back to the United States. The U.S. companies that moved to China never addressed the moral issue of what that move did to our communities. They never addressed the moral issue of, in some cases, using Chinese forced labor to make their products. These companies could also sell their products a little bit cheaper in the United States, and as a result, these companies could reap much bigger profits. The moral question of U.S. trade relations with China has rarely been touched in this body. It is just inconvenient for us to think about. Well, Mr. Wu never let it be inconvenient.

As we approach the 15th anniversary of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization this year and review China’s nonmarket economy status, we should not forget the lessons of Harry Wu. Over the past decade, we have seen that prosperity in China does not lead to more political freedom.

I knew Harry Wu. He testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China when I was chairman. He had testified several times.

As recently as 2012, Mr. Wu warned Congress: The Laogai— The forced labor camp— system [is] deeply rooted into [China’s] economic structure. . . . China’s working class is different from that of the modern democratic countries. It includes not only ‘‘workers’’ in the ordinary sense, but also ‘‘workers’’ of the prison enterprises.

These would be slaves. He warned that ‘‘prisoners in Laogai, more like state slaves than enterprise workers, provide the state with an endless source of cheap or payless labor force.’’ This system is an egregious human rights abuse against hundreds of thousands of Chinese people. It hurts American workers who are then forced to compete.

This system they have set up is one of the reasons that people are really upset about what is happening in this country. Companies in my State of Ohio shut down production in Lima, Zanesville, and Chillicothe, then moved overseas to China in order to get a tax break, hired Chinese workers—some of them were slave laborers for some of the component manufacturing; some of them were just low paid labor—to make these products in a totalitarian system and sell them back in the United States. American companies never talk about the moral dimension of that.

I wrote a book a dozen or so years ago called the ‘‘Myths of Free Trade.’’ I interviewed Harry Wu about this book. He told me: ‘‘Capitalism must never be equated with democracy.’’ Because our country believes in capitalism and democracy, we think they always go together. Well, they don’t. According to Harry Wu: Capitalism must never be equated with democracy. . . . Don’t believe it about China. My homeland is mired in thousands of years of rule by one bully at a time, whether you call him emperor or chairman. Don’t be fooled by electronics or air conditioning.

Before his death, I think Mr. Wu would have said: Yes, the United States has been fooled. Maybe we choose to be fooled; maybe we choose to not know how the products that we hold in our hands are made—by an oppressive government using forced labor workers.

We have been on a continuous march toward more trade with China and demanded far little in return. We have turned a blind eye to China’s labor practices for too long. When you hear Presidential candidates and others complaining about China, it is always about putting American workers out of work, which it should be, but the other part of that moral question is about how we are using slave laborers in China to undercut American workers. How could an American worker or company possibly compete with slave labor in China? Obviously we can’t, but we leave that moral question because U.S. corporations don’t want to acknowledge and want to turn a blind eye toward slave labor. It reminds me of something from a few years ago when an American drug company was making a blood thinner—much of the production of that blood thinner came from China—with contaminated ingredients, and a number of people in Toledo, OH, died. The drug company didn’t know where these products came from. They knew they came from China, but they didn’t know where their supply ingredients came from. Think about that. They should be liable for that—at least you would think they should—but they just didn’t think about the moral question there.

A year and a half ago I gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, warning that before we sign any bilateral investment treaty with China, we need to demand that China comply with existing international obligations in domestic law. We have given China chance after chance, pushing for increased engagement, even though we know that China will play by its own rules. In the past year and a half, nothing has changed. We need to make clear the international obligations we expect China to meet on cyber security, human rights, forced labor, slaves making products that American children use, international trade, workers’ rights, and other issues. We need to demand that China meet these standards now.

Increased engagement by the United States may have led to more agreements on paper, and that is fine, but in reality the only thing it has achieved is our ongoing tolerance of Chinese transgressions. It may be tolerance, it may be ignoring, it may be shrugging our shoulders, it may be burying our heads in the sand, but I don’t think we want to think much about slave labor in China. I don’t think when we buy these products at Walmart—specializing in Chinese products—that we want to think much about where these products were made. We often know they were made in China, but we don’t really want to think about how those workers produced these products.

Harry Wu’s passing is a reminder that this needs to end. His legacy includes the Laogai Museum here in Washington. I encourage my colleagues to visit the museum and pay their respects to Harry Wu. The best way they can pay their respects to Harry Wu is by changing our policies. The thousands upon thousands of other nameless prisoners who suffered in these Chinese prison camps should be honored equally. We can’t forget this tragic legacy, and we can’t forget the human rights abuses that continue to this day as they continue to make these same products in these same working conditions with these same slave laborers. It is shameful. It should not continue.