On Friday November thirteenth, six students from the prestigious Yale University took the time to embark from Connecticut to visit the Laogai Museum and Research Foundation in Washington D.C.
Their visit included an inspiring speech given by Executive Director and Founder Harry Wu. Mr. Wu illuminated on his privileged childhood, which included carpeting to Cadillac cars, and days as a star baseball player. He was fortunate enough to continue his baseball playing in university, but soon his opinionated views on Soviet Union policies would haunt him and later be the motive for his incarceration into the laogai labor camp.
Mr. Wu enlightened the students on the antecedents of the laogai, which were derived from the Soviet Union gulag system. He then delved into specific experiences while imprisoned. As a coal miner, Mr. Wu extracted a pure coal sometimes for more than twelve hour working periods. Eventually this commodity was sold to the United Kingdom for a steep price because the quality burned cleanly without smoke. The entirety of the profits went to the owners of the camps. Mr. Wu was merely a slave. The only compensation he received was “good food for good labor,” recalling the guard’s motivating mantra.
The students were deeply moved by Mr. Wu’s passionate speech who spoke fervently about his first visit to the United States with only 40 dollars in his pocket. Life was not easy in America, but he was grateful. He was “happy because he was free,” Mr. Wu said with a smile. At first he was reluctant to tell his story. Until in 1990 he was invited by the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to testify.
Yet, today, American politicians at the highest level are averse to talk with China about current laogai networks. A few months ago, President Obama invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to the White House, but their agendas did not include detailed talks on human rights issues.
Each day, basic rights are being infringed in China. Lawyers are being detained and held in “arbitrary jails” for questioning. The lawyers are not looking to change the ruling One-Party system, for example, but vie for minority workers to receive decent health care.
Before the students toured the museum that documents and elucidates the inner-workings of the laogai camps, they were able to personally ask Mr. Wu questions.
At which camp were you a prisoner?
Different. For a few years I was in the northern part of Beijing. Then moved to southern Beijing. I was stationed at one of the larger farms in Beijing toward the east named Qing He, on the outskirts of the coastal city of Tianjin. Later in my sentencing I was transferred to Shanxi Province. The operators of the laogai camps always move prisoners from one battalion to the next. In this way, a prisoner is never comfortable, never stable as all relationships are severed.
Did the initial start-up of the museum ever receive barriers from the Chinese government?
Never. The Chinese government has never made complaints about the work I do. However, they lie about my past. They say I was a thief, a criminal, or endangered women. They say that’s how I ended up in the laogai. They’re slanderous. They do not comment on my words. They refrain from quoting on if I am right or wrong, but create their own narrative.
What is the extent of your contact with Chinese students and visitors after they’ve come to the museum? Has there been a continuous relationship?
Let me reassure you, I have many connections inside China. If I don’t have that connection, I will die. This information (referring to the museum’s statistics and stories) comes from inside [China]. It cannot be acquired from outside.