Catholic Harry Wu Reminded the World of Chinese Communist Brutality

“Fifty million people have been thrown into the Laogai prisons, including workers, religious and students,” Wu said, “and half of them become ashes.”

China is the world’s largest nation, with 1.4 billion people, and is frequently cast in an adversarial relationship with the U.S. as its leadership seeks to expand its influence worldwide. And, although its Catholic population is relatively small, it has been a regular feature in Catholic news, as the Vatican announced it had renewed a controversial two-year deal with the Chinese Communist Party which, although specific details have not been released, gives the government a prominent role in naming bishops in the country.

While the Chinese Communist government attempts to keep a strict control over information that is allowed to be disseminated both within and outside of Chinese society, the testimony of Chinese human rights activists who have lived under the worst of the Chinese Communist system gives ample testimony in the West about the brutality and totalitarian nature of the regime, and the importance of working towards reform. One of the most articulate and outspoken among those activists was Harry Wu (1937-2016), a Chinese Catholic arrested completely by surprise and sent to the Laogai prison system of Communist China for 19 years.

“There are not rights for the innocent in China,” asserted Wu, who from age 19 to 37 was imprisoned in 12 different forced labor camps, surviving beatings, torture and starvation, while witnessing the death of his fellow prisoners from brutality, disease, starvation and suicide.

But such was the life of Wu, who shared his story in many different venues after coming to the United States — including Catholic media, the television program 60 Minutes, and his autobiography Laogai: The Chinese Gulag and Bitter Winds. He was a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, and testified before various U.S. congressional committees, as well as to British, French, German, Australian and European parliaments, regarding his firsthand experience in China. He served as the Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to documenting the Laogai system. He continued his activism until his death at age 79.


Middle-Class Family

Harry Wu was born in China to a middle class family. At age 19, he led an active life as a student at Beijing Geology College. He loved sports and was captain of his school’s baseball team, had a steady girlfriend and loved to play chess. One day in class in 1960, however, the subject of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 ensued, and his life was forever changed. Young Harry was asked for his view, and although he and his family were in the habit of being non-political, he condemned the invasion as brutal and totalitarian.

Several weeks later, the police arrived at his front door and arrested him. Bewildered as to the reason for his imprisonment, a guard explained that his stubbornness had merited him a lifetime prison sentence. A confession for his “crimes” against the state was submitted on his behalf before his mock trial began. The philosophy of the Laogai system is “thought reform by hard labor.”

Wu spent the next 19 years, until 1979, in prison. He suffered from all the brutalities of Communist prison life; once a severe beating almost took his life, and he nearly committed suicide at another time while in solitary confinement in a six-by-three-by-three-foot cell. In the midst of his despair, he kept asking, “Why me? All I wanted was a normal life.”

If you had trouble putting yourself in this man’s shoes, consider that after his release and travel to the United States as a visiting Professor of Geology at U.C. Berkeley in 1985, a place where he was able to live in secure freedom, Wu still had the unmitigated courage to repeatedly return to his homeland, at the risk of his life, in order to research, videotape and document information on the Laogai system. Perhaps you can understand why Wu held audiences captive — especially when he showed his video documentaries, much of it taken with a hidden camera. The videos and talks opened the eyes of many to the ongoing weekly and monthly public executions, gave an inside look at forced labor camps, mass burials and more, all happening presently in mainland China.

“Fifty million people have been thrown into the Laogai prisons, including workers, religious and students, and half of them become ashes,” Wu charged. He estimated that in China in the later part of his life that six to eight million people were held captive in the 1,100 Laogai camps operating throughout China.

“Labor camps in China have two different names. One is on a sign in front for public display (for example, the XYZ shoe factory), but the other inside might read No. 17 Laogai Prison Establishment. Toys, rubber shoes, tea — you name it, it is all made in Chinese forced labor camps.” These goods are sold and distributed throughout the world, including the United States, despite laws that strictly prohibit the import of products made by forced labor.

“The Chinese government entirely controls labor camps, the military and the economy,” noted Wu years before the current Vatican-Chinese Communist Party agreement was approved. “The [visible] Church, too, is controlled by the party. These priests are paid by the government. The real Catholic Church is underground.”

Although the Catholic Church was officially banned in the 1950s, Wu estimated that there are six million underground Catholics. Catholic priests of the underground Church have been a favorite target for persecution. One Chinese priest he met was given a 35-year sentence in the Laogai system (although he was able to escape to New York). The priest was placed in solitary confinement in a four-by-four-by-twelve-foot cell for two weeks. The floor was covered with water so he could not sleep. The priest explained that he was forced to endure such sufferings because he was a Catholic priest loyal to the Holy Father.

Wu also mentioned that the Catholic bishop of his home town spent 32 years in prison because, like Wu himself, he was labeled a counter-revolutionary.


Largest Number of Executions

According to Amnesty International, China has the largest number of executions of any nation in the world. Wu says the executions are an important part of the government’s efforts to hold on to power, keeping the Chinese people in fear and submission. Previously, execution victims were publicly paraded through town before their executions. However, after a 1984 Newsweek article publicized the practice internationally, the high profile parading stopped, as the government feared bad publicity. “But the public executions continue,” noted Wu, “because keeping the people in fear is more important than having a good public image.”

Wu stressed the complete disregard for human compassion on the part of the government, showing footage of prison guards callously poking execution victims to determine if they were dead. One more slap in the face, the family is forced to pay the cremation costs of their executed family members.

Wu explained that a growing business in China is the harvesting of prisoners’ bodily organs. He recalled interviewing 47 kidney transplant patients from Thailand, for example, who were flown to China for their operations. All 47 reported that their new kidneys were taken from the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners. Ninety percent of kidneys, livers and corneas sold by the Chinese government are from executed prisoners. Wu made the harvesting of prisoners’ organs the subject of a documentary.

Regarding a 1990s controversy on the leasing of part of the Port of Long Beach, California, to mainland Chinese government-owned China Ocean Shipping Co. (COSCO), Wu stated that COSCO and the Communist government are one and the same. He also said that a formal agreement was signed with the U.S. government not to inspect more than 1% of all imported goods from COSCO, despite the fact that documentation showed that the Chinese government had smuggled 2,000 AK-47 assault rifles into the United States.

Although he didn’t live to see China pass its 2020 national security law for Hong Kong residents that took away many of their civil liberties, decades ago he warned that the Communist mainland’s takeover of the city-state in 1997 would bring tyranny to its residents. While China temporarily accepted a two-system approach (Communism and capitalism) so as not to “kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg,” he predicted that is would only be a matter of time before Hong Kong would become like the rest of China. Wu added that while Communism is the official policy of the government, in the minds of the people it is a dead ideology. 

Wu was accused of financial mismanagement related to his Foundation toward the end of his life — charges that he denied — and had personality conflicts with some involved in his movement. But no one denied his commitment to raising the world’s awareness of the prisoners brutalized in the Laogai system. He declared, “I am a witness of the countless faces who cannot leave the Laogai to come here and speak to you.”