February 1, 1997
Tiananmen Square was peanuts. Millions of people have been lost in the laogai. Every one of those lives was precious. The Chinese people have a saying: ‘We’re not looking for the tree but also for the forest.’ The Chinese preoccupation with the majority has led to abuses by dictators like Mao Zedong. The forest is too important. ‘I speak up for the trees. Each one has a name, a face, a soul, a family. Some of them were my friends.
In Shelly Kagan’s Introductory Ethics, students were recently asked to address the hypothetical question of an ‘organ lottery’: would it be morally reprehensible to kill one individual, say, in order that his organs might be used to save the lives of six others?
A similar question comes up in China. But there, the individual is killed for only one of his organs. There, it is done not with any twisted pretense at humanitarianism, but for cold hard cash. And there, it isn’t hypothetical.
Like most of Harry Wu’s accounts of the practices he has exposed in Communist China, it reads like a horror story.
‘We drive the surgical van directly to the execution site,’ Wu is told by an official. ‘As soon as the prisoner is executed, the body is ours. ‘He has no mind; he is only a corpse, only a thing.’ Another source would report, ‘Basically they look at the prisoner’s body as whatever they want it to be. They would take the prisoner’s skin if necessary.’
It is not uncommon for organs from prisoners executed at 11 a.m. to find their way into the bodies of paying recipients by 2 p.m. Customers come from all over the world; it is a lucrative business. One official who spent years supervising these operations reports that not one of the thousands of prisoners who passed through his hands consented to the use of their organs’that would be repugnant to most Chinese, who believe the body should be buried intact. Three thousand organs are removed from executed prisoners annually: this constitutes some 90% of organ transplants performed in China. It is not a bootleg practice.
How do the Chinese defend it? Said one official to Wu: ‘In the United States, even the minute of death and trivial matters all seem to be tied to the issue of so-called human rights.’
In China, it would seem, they are less fastidious about such trifles.
You remember Harry Wu. He sparked an international incident in 1995 when Chinese officials arrested him at the border’he was then on his fourth trip into the interior to document human-rights abuses. He was finally released after two months of confinement and a mock trial on charges of spying.
Wu was born in Shanghai and spent 19 years in the laogai, or ‘reform through labor’ camps. His crime: speaking out against the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He endured privation, beatings and torture. He saw his friends die under the ruthless demands of the laogai. He saw one friend shot, the brains scooped out and given to the father of an important official, who would eat them to restore his fading mental powers. ‘They were sending the old message that the powerful have always sent the powerless: This could be you.’
In 1985, Wu found a way out. He was offered a one-year research position at Berkeley, and on the strength of it obtained permission to leave China. Because the post’in geology, Wu’s specialty’was unpaid, he worked first in a doughnut shop at $3.25/hour, then in a liquor store and at off jobs before being awarded a grant by the Hoover Institute to study the laogai. Wu now lives in Milpitas, Calif., and directs the Laogai Research Foundation, dedicated to uncovering human-rights abuses in the People’s Republic.
Wu is on China’s most-wanted list, but that has not stopped him from going back four times in search of further evidence of China’s atrocities. ‘I went back,’ he writes, ‘to show the world what is happening in the land of the modern economic miracle. In my books, in my speeches, ion my poor, inadequate English, I am trying to be a witness for millions of others just like me. ‘This is who I am. I just arrived. I want to tell you about the camps in China.’
‘They steal millions of lives’
By now, in the year 1997, only a fool would expect any regard for rights of the People’s Republic. We are, after all, talking about a country which continues to practice forced abortions (and, often to sell the aborted fetuses as a quack remedy). It is a regime under which 30 million died of famine between 1958 and 1960 alone’to say nothing of the millions of others put to death as enemies of the state. It is a regime that still practices executions as a public spectacle. China has sent over 50 million people into enforced labor since 1949; as many as 10% of these are political prisoners. Inmates labor over 14 hours a day: prisoners break stone in quarries in the day and are put to work making artificial flowers at night. On one occasion Wu saw a prisoner forced to climb naked into a vat of chemicals to stir them with his body.
The goods they make find their way abroad’to Asia, to Europe, to the United States. One official boasted that a German purchaser had bought steel pipes made by laogai prisoners and labeled them as having been manufactured in Germany. Wu has found 120 different products on the international market traceable to the laogai, even though international law expressly forbids their trade.
If the laogai were merely a means of putting to work convicted criminals’like the chain gangs of the past’it might not be quite so intolerable. But these people are frequently political prisoners. Often their only crime was to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Some of them were at Tiananmen Square.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this. Josef Stalin sent experts to China to show Mao how properly to run a labor camp; the laogai are merely second-generation gulags. Today, the iron curtain has fallen in Europe, but its legacy lives on in China.
A partner of Wu’s, posing as a businessman, said to a laogai official: ‘Because we want a long-term relationship with this company, we have to be sure about the reliability of the workforce.’ He was reassured: No problem’we’ve been running these factories for 41 years.
‘All you have to do is multiply my experience by 50 million’
People are reluctant to believe Wu’s story, even after seeing the footage he continues to bring back on each of his forays into China. His answer, when skeptics suggest that his might be an isolated case: ‘No, I am not’there are a million more like me. ‘If I had died out in the fields, nobody would remember me. I’m ashes. And now look at me. You think I’m a hero? I’m just somebody who survived.’
Wu on China
One of the most valuable aspects of Wu’s book is to be found in his insights into the Chinese. To him, the key to ending the human rights violations lies in understanding that ‘The Chinese regime is far more impressed by strength than by weakness or even good manners or good intentions. ‘Look, I’m Chinese. Everybody knows you have to be strong with them. You have to threaten them and take strong actions, and they will respect you. But if you try to show a good example and expect them to follow, they will walk all over you.’
This is why a tolerant stand on China, a concession that their way may be not wrong, merely different, is unacceptable. In renewing China’s most-favored-nation status, Wu contends, Clinton ‘[gave up his] best weapon in the struggle for human rights.’ Why, he asks, does the United States willingly blockade Cuba and North Korea’but not China, whose abuses are far worse? Even after Wu’s arrest, our own House of Representatives voted 321 to 107 against canceling MFN status. The pragmatist argument that one nation’s policy cannot make a difference ultimately does not answer the real issue, which is that China is using slave labor to turn a profit; that it continues to torture, enslave, and murder’that, indeed, it does not admit human rights even exist.
‘The Clinton administration, to tell the truth,’ admits Wu, ‘was not happy with my trips.’ He is, after all, something of a loose cannon. But Harry Wu is fighting for what is right, and risking his life in the process. If the Clinton administration objects, is this a reflection on Harry Wu’or on the Clinton administration?
‘Righteous indignation only goes so far’
Wu disparages the widespread belief that capitalism will entail freedom, and as well the patronizing view held by some academics and diplomats that ‘communism is bad’ but maybe not so bad in China. ‘We were the ones who had to live with it.’ Even today, the situation has not improved. Wu was released because he was an American citizen, not because China decided he had the right to life, liberty, and freedom from spurious arrest. And with Hong Kong’s impending return to the mainland, the stakes only become higher. ‘Beijing,’ writes Wu, ‘won’t allow Hong Kong to be special.’ If the West is not careful it will soon see one of the greatest beacons of freedom and free enterprise go under.
Wu’s advice is simple. Revoke most-favored-nation status’if only for a year. Condemn the laogai, and actually enforce laws against slave-labor products. (The laws are already on the books, they’re just tacitly broken every day. A milestone came in 1994 when laogai products were denied entry by a high court: ‘If Washington can do this with diesel engines,’ Wu observes, ‘it can do it with grapes and wine and tools and boots and flowers.’) And, above all, stop letting China get away with murder; for that is what they are doing’with our help. The officers who arrested Wu were using Motorola cellular phones: not only is the West ‘buying goods with blood on them”we are trading for them tools China can use to further its human-rights abuses.
Wu’s memoir’as he would be first to tell you’is less important than his mission. But the two are never entirely separable: Wu’s tenacity, his flashes of humor and ironic insight, his ingenuous tales of singing Elvis in the bath’all tell us as much about the man as they do about his country.
We have as much to learn from Wu as from his experience. ‘I have seen so many people in the camps die,’ writes Wu, ‘flicked away like so many cigarette butts’ [L]ife belongs to you only once. ‘Let it go. Politics is not natural. The place for the human being is with the family. Love. Sex. Food. Music. Literature. Do something good for other people. We are all entitled to this.’
‘Emmy Chang is a senior in Silliman College
A review of Troublemaker: One Man's Crusade Against China's Cruelty, by Harry Wu with George Vecsey