Harry Wu, who was brutally treated in Chinese prison labor camps for 19 years and managed to come to live in Milpitas in 1985, died at 79 last week. He battled all the years until his death to call attention to the human rights violations perpetrated in his homeland. Born to a well-off Roman Catholic banking family, Hongda Harry Wu was arrested at age 23 for protesting the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Charged as a “counter-revolutionary rightist” he was sentenced to life and sent to a series of farms, mines and prison camps where his back, arms and legs were broken.
He came to the Bay Area with just $40 and a promise of an unpaid teaching assistantship at UC Berkeley working nights at a doughnut shop. Milpitas residents became aware of their new neighbor as he managed to return to China undercover to gather information about and expose prison conditions and also to call attention to the “harvesting” of organs from executed inmates. He managed to testify to congress, he held press conferences and he created a foundation and museum named Laogai, a word describing the system of prisons and labor camps resembling the gulags in the Soviet Union and Hitler’s concentration camp system. He became a U.S. citizen in 1994.
After another trip back to China in 1995, he was arrested again and was sentenced to 15 years. Human rights advocates raised a protest that won his release. The Chinese government, these days, is much more interested in trade with the west. The efforts to erase any hints of human rights violations and banish troublemakers like Harry Wu, has also led Americans to believe that this is indeed ancient history. For American companies who move into exploiting opportunities in China, these troublemakers pose an annoyance to them as well as to the Chinese government.
Despite his obscurity in Milpitas and later in Washington, Harry Wu kept the flame of freedom alive for those who are today in the clutches of the Laogai, as well as the millions who have perished in these inhumane systems. In his later years, he continued to advocate for labor rights and religious freedoms in China. He opposed the one-child policies which led to forced abortions, campaigned for a free Tibet and for Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace laureate who is serving a prison sentence for advocating political reforms.
To the extent that Americans still have a serious concern about human rights abuses around the world, as well as the atrocities committed by Beijing against its own people, it is really due to the dangerous, selfless work of people like Harry Wu. He deserves to be remembered.