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Remembering Harry Wu, 'Troublemaker' For The Chinese Communist Party


This is FRESH AIR. Longtime Chinese activist Harry Wu died Tuesday at age 79. Earlier in his life, he survived 19 years in Chinese labor camps before emigrating to America in 1985. He became an American citizen in 1994, the year he visited FRESH AIR and spoke with Terry Gross. The crimes for which he had been imprisoned included criticizing the Soviet invasion of Hungary and being an intellectual and a bourgeois.

In 1995, Wu returned to China undercover to expose prison conditions and was detained for 66 days before pressure from human rights advocates led to this release. Wu grow up in Shanghai, part of the Westernized upper-middle-class. His father was a bank executive. Wu was arrested on the day after his college graduation and sentenced to life imprisonment. But he was released in 1979. When he spoke to Terry in 1994, he described how the years of imprisonment, brainwashing and mistreatment had been designed to turn him into a robot.


HENRY WU: I had once been reduced to such a robot, I forgot my dignity, future, freedom, everything. I surrendered. I cooperated with the wardens, and I beat fellow prisoners. I stole food. I begged guard's mercy at his feet while in the solitary confinement. That's how I survived the camp. You know, the heroes cannot survive the camp, the system. They are physically crushed right away.


Your attitude was you would do whatever you needed to do to survive.

WU: Yes. And I think the way is you have to turn yourself into a beast. That's the only way. If you're thinking you are human beings, then you are thinking about freedom, family, future, sex, right and wrong. And those things only cause suffering. And a hungry beast only thinking about grabbing food from anywhere. The police guard use the food control the people.

GROSS: They used food to control people.

WU: Yeah, the police say no labor, no food. You cannot complete your labor quarter, reduce your food, remove away your food.

GROSS: One of the ways you found to get a bit of extra food was to look for rat holes because where there was a rat hole, the rat might've stashed some grains, some corn. What was the best stash you ever found in a rat hole?

WU: I still remember my very lucky times I found rat holes. The rat is a very good collector. They collect same size the soybean. They collect rice, collect the corn. And in the hole, even - you pull the water, you can damage the storage. If one day one of the prisoners can find a rat hole, then he become like a milliner. No, it's really good. And if we can - caught rats and also eat it.

GROSS: And the rats, too. So you ate rats.

WU: I ate - I ate a lot. And also the frogs, snakes, any kind of life.

GROSS: When you would find food, would you try to share it with other people, or was it...

WU: No, never.

GROSS: It's too important to survive.

WU: No, never.

GROSS: Yeah.

WU: Never. I never share with other people and always tried to grab the food from other people. I did it many times. I beat them and robbed their food - if I'm strong, I did.

GROSS: Did people beat you and rob you of your food?

WU: They did to me also.

GROSS: When you were released, you went back to your home in Shanghai. Let's talk about what happened to your family. It turns out your mother - your stepmother had committed suicide shortly after you were imprisoned after she got your first letter. Do you know why she killed herself?

WU: It's hard. Yes. No choice for her, really scared and really disappointed. And she commit suicide. And I never know about it. My family not allowed to tell me about it because committing suicide in China also is a kind of crime, especially for these counterrevolutionary families. Suppose you are using the death against government. So they have to tell the police our mother was dead in heart attack.

GROSS: Because if they knew she'd committed suicide after she got your letter...

WU: Yeah.

GROSS: ...It would be seen as a criticism of the Communist government?

WU: Yes, and then these problems will come to my - the rest of my family.

GROSS: Now, your father was denounced by members of his own family as a stinking reactionary. Who did that to him?

WU: My sister. They have to.

GROSS: And she was forced to do it?

WU: Forced - you have to. In China, if one person become a counterrevolutionary, all your friends and family have to stay away with you, make a clear separation with you. They should not sympathize you. They cannot do that. If they sympathize and stand with you, they also have to - were sent into the camp. Sympathize the counterrevolutionary is also - it's a crime in China.

GROSS: Now, one of your brothers became a Communist. He expressed love for Chairman Mao, but then he was attacked because of his reactionary family. And those blows left him mentally disabled. What happened to him?

WU: My youngest brother didn't become a Communist, but he is - impossible for him to become a Communist because his father, his brother is counterrevolutionaries.

GROSS: I see, so - right, he couldn't...

WU: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Become a Communist.

WU: Right.


WU: But he's really - in his heart, he wanted to become a revolutionary. He want to - he really loved the Chairman Mao, so he want to separate with the family and go to the countryside and so call receive the reeducation for the poor peasants. And he want to serve the people. And he got a job assignment in the far remote area, and he worked very hard. But one day, he found the portrait of Chairman Mao was dusty by someone. And it seems to him this is very bad things, so he report to the Red Guard and the reported police say maybe some people do something wrong to our great leader. And then the Red Guard and the police suspect maybe my brother did it, you know, because you come from the counterrevolutionary family. And they handle him to (unintelligible) and beat him and damaged the brain. So my brother came went back to home under my father's - take care by my father. Finally, my father was gone in and 1980, nobody can take care of him. And he have some kind of recover in It 1980, '81. It was sometimes OK. And then he went to Beijing. He wanted to visit the government and to request to have a job and request to have a rehabilitation. But unfortunately, the police arrested and beat him and torture him to death.

GROSS: So your brother is dead now?

WU: Yeah, died in 1981.

GROSS: A couple of years ago, in you decided 1991, you decided to go back to China to try to document the prison camp system there. And you took a hidden camera with you - you did this for "60 Minutes." They helped, I guess, equip you with what you needed to take pictures and to take video. Why did you take the risk to go back to China and do that?

WU: First of all, the pieces of land in the (unintelligible) we call China, that is my motherland. My parents, my brother, they are still over there and many, many of my inmates, my friends they are over there. I cannot stop thinking about them. The nightmares always come back to me. I am lucky. I survive. I want to enjoy my life in a peaceful land. I'm a very normal person. I want to be loved. I want to love. But I cannot turn back on these people, these nameless, voiceless, faceless people. Forget means betraying. I cannot do that.

BIANCULLI: Chinese activist Harry Wu speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. He died Tuesday at age 79. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new film "Elvis & Nixon." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.