The dissident spent 19 years in a "re-education through labor camp". Released, he fled to the United States from where he began a decades-long battle against the laogai system. Thanks also to his commitment and his courageous witness, Beijing was forced - at least on paper - to close its slave labor camps. As a Catholic, spoke out on many occasions in defense of religious freedom in China.
Washington (AsiaNews) - Harry Wu, one of China's best known dissidents on the international arena, has died at 79 years of age while on vacation in Honduras. His passing was announced by the managing director of the Laogai Human Rights Organisation, Ann Noonan, who collaborated for a long time with him. The causes of death arenot yet clear: His son Harrison and his ex-wife Lee China are traveling to Central America, for an autopsy and to bring the body back to the United States.
Born into a wealthy Catholic family in Shanghai, subjected to Maoist requisitions after the Communist victory of 1949, Wu experienced the brutality of the Chinese regime first hand. Arrested by the communist authorities in 1960 - while studying geology at university - on charges of being a "counter-revolutionary" and "belonging to a group of dissident Catholic students", he was released in 1979 after 19 years of detention. In 1985 he managed to reach the United States and since then began his fight for the restoration of human rights in his country.
The tragic story of those 19 years is collected in Bitter Winds (1994), the memoirs of his experiences in the laogai. The book was translated and published in Italian in 2008. The text was presented by the author at the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Milan.
After taking American citizenship, he became Professor of Geology at the University of California, Berkeley. Here he began to write about his experiences in the laogai and in 1992 he gave up teaching to devote himself exclusively to activism and the condemnation of human rights violations in China. To do so, he set up the Laogai Research Foundation, a public research, education and non-profit organization on Chinese labor camps.
The forced re-education system devised by the communist government since its birth is divided into laojiao (short form of "laodong jiaoyang" reeducation through labor) and laogai. Both were implemented by Mao Zedong in 1957 to "reform the mind of the counter revolutionary and right-wing conservative".
In the first case, sentencing is left to police discretion and could not last more than six months; the second is imposed with a judicial sentence and can last decades. According to the Laogai Research Foundation in China, to 2013 there are at least 1,045 laogai, with about 4 million prisoners. Industrial or agricultural laogai are a real production system that contributes to the economy of China. The prisoners of the laogai are not paid.
Wu has testified before United States Congress, parliaments in the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, the United Nations and the European Parliament, achieving the pledge that these states ban the distribution and sale of products from laogai.
He continuously visited China to collect testimonies and reports on the actual social situation: As a direct result of this he was again arrested in 1995 and sentenced to 15 years on charges of espionage. Thanks to an intense diplomatic work he returned to the United States without serving his sentence.
In 2008 he opened a "Laogai Museum" in Washington: in his words, the museum "will serve to preserve the memory of the many victims of the system of reeducation through labor, and will help make the public aware of the atrocities committed by the Chinese communist regime" .
Thanks to his efforts, in 2013 Beijing announced the closure of the laogai system. Although the announcement did not follow immediately with concrete facts, in the space of two years the camps have in fact been abandoned. "He was a real hero - said Noonan - and his work will continue. It will never stop".