Harry Wu, Chinese Labour Camp Activist, 1937-2016

Campaigner and gulag survivor who exposed ‘re-education’ system

Harry Wu, a prominent Chinese human rights activist who has died in exile aged 79, spent years campaigning to expose and abolish China’s Soviet-style work camps.

He survived 19 years in a Chinese gulag after being labeled a counter-revolutionary during the Mao Zedong-era purges of outspoken intellectuals of the 1950s and was sentenced to life in prison. In a 2013 interview, Wu said that when he was handed his sentence he felt “like an iron gate had closed behind me”.

Rehabilitated with many former rightists in 1979, he tried his hand as a geology professor. An opportunity to move to California in the 1980s also opened the door to his life’s work — exposing the conditions behind that iron gate.

Wu sneaked back into China several times to document the conditions endured by those sent to labour camps, before being caught and briefly imprisoned once again in 1995. But his persistence and courage were rewarded when China in 2013 ended re-education through labour — laojiao — under pressure from activist lawyers advocating the rule of law from within China.

His exile prevented him from reaching the broader public back home. Instead, Wu found a ready audience in the US Congress and among American trade unions in the aftermath of Beijing’s bloody 1989 crackdown on student and pro-democracy demonstrations — before China began its rapid rise to one of the world’s largest economies.

A relic of the ideological Communist courts of the Mao era, laojiao gave police broad powers to imprison people who were not accused of specific crimes for up to four years without charge or trial. The related system that Mr Wu specifically opposed, laogai — reform through labour for petty criminals and political dissidents who were never formally tried — was integrated into the formal prison system in the 1990s. Official Chinese figures put the number of inmates in re-education through labour at more than 100,000 in 2009. Millions of people are estimated to have lived and died in the labour camps over more than six decades.

Accounts by former prisoners detail terrible conditions, torture and excessive work requirements. In the camps Wu fought loneliness and starvation, while fellow inmates taught him to survive by digging into rat burrows to find seeds and grain secreted there.

US congressional supporters brokered his release from prison and deportation to America in 1995, after Wu was captured during one of his trips to China and sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing state secrets.

He died while on holiday with friends in Honduras, his US-based Laogai Research Foundation said on Tuesday. He is survived by his son Harrison.

Even at the height of his influence, some of his claims — that prisoners were forced to produce goods for export, and that executed prisoners’ organs were harvested for transplant — were dismissed as exaggerations. But Chinese officials have since acknowledged their system’s reliance on prisoner organs, as they try to encourage more civilian donations.

The formal abolition of the laojiao and laogai systems has not been a complete victory. Security forces still deploy ad hoc measures (sometimes termed “legal education”) to deter and punish Chinese citizens they deem troublemakers, and greater use of the formal court system still results in long sentences.

Pu Zhiqiang, the most prominent of the mainland lawyers who led the charge against re-education through labour, is currently imprisoned for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “disrupting public order”.

This article has been amended to clarify the distinction between laojiao and laogai

Reported by Lucy Hornby in Beijing on April 28, 2016

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