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Prisoners digging irrigation ditches at Qinghe Farm Prison in 1991, the same thing Harry had been forced to do there decades earlier
Prisoners digging irrigation ditches at Qinghe Farm Prison in 1991, the same thing Harry had been forced to do there decades earlier

Labour Camps

Labour camps

Q: Can you explain what was the trajectory of the places you have travelled to as a prisoner. Where did they send you for the first camp and what went next and next?


A: I have been in 12 different camps. The longest time, I was in Shanxi Province in a coalmine for probably more than nine years. The other nine years I was in different locations: a chemical factory, a brick factory, a steel factory, a farm, different situations. But mostly I was in Shanxi province as a coal miner.


Q: What did they force you to do in the coalmine?


A: In the coalmine the first 3 to 4 years I was pulling the cart and digging the coal. In the coal mine there were two 12-12 shifts a day. The rest of the years I was working as safety worker, but I still had to go down to the camp. I had to go test the gas and test the mines. The other years when I was on a farm we were digging a canal, growing rice, corn, wheat, sometimes picking grapes and strawberries. We had to pack it and put it in the truck for export to Japan and Hong Kong.


Q: Can you define the purpose of sending so many people to the labor camps?


A: It’s very simple. The Chinese government said this is a one-party ruling system. Even today, there is only one party in the communist country. From top to bottom, everywhere they have Communist members. Today, China has more than 70 million members of the Party. The Communist Party members are everywhere: they are government officials, workers, and clerks for the whole country. Everyone had to agree that the communist revolution is good. No religion and no other jobs. It was very different in the first 30 or 40 years - everybody lived like a slave. All the jobs were arranged by the government, and all the land (even today) is owned by the government. If you disagree with them, if you have some opinion, of course, if you don’t like it, how will they handle it? Of course they will execute you, because you are a counter-revolutionary. Because the Communist Party said they are revolutionary, and you are the opposition, you are counter-revolutionary. Of course they would not execute all of them. Many of them, just like me, were put in the labor camp, put in the prison. Prison camps in China are very simple, very clear. You have to reform and you have to be forced to labor. Go through the forced labor and reform yourself. The Communist leaders want to see two products out of the prison camp: one product is made by the prisoners - the corn, wheat, strawberries, whatever. If the product, the merchandise can be sold and exported, imported by the international market, then they do it. The other product is the man; he has to reform and agree with socialism and the Communist revolution, and then he is qualified to live in the society. Otherwise, you cannot get out. The captain simply told everybody, “Are you done [reforming]? If you are not done, you stay here.” Even if you are sentenced to five years, if after the five years, he says your thought has not been reformed, your thought is still like it was in the old times, you will still stay in the jail - because nobody wants you. The society and the community will not have a job for you because nobody likes you, because you disagree with communism. You have to stay in the labor camps. It’s quite simple.


Q: What year were you released?


I was released in February 1979…because in 1976 the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong died. Then there was a very serious problem because Mao Zedong’s ideas Mao Zedong policy really made the country into a disaster. The economy was very bad, production never worked, and everybody was fighting each other. So we [in prison] did not know. That kind of fighting and executions not only happened to people like me, but also in the Party system. So everybody hated it. But there was a two-year power struggle at the top levels, meaning that that Mao Zedong’s wife and Mao Zedong’s colleagues fought against each other. Finally in 1978, Deng Xiaoping came to power. Deng Xiaoping had a new policy, saying we want to move on to a new situation- meaning open the society and allow the capitalists to come back and make investments, and we need their technology. So the Westerners and the Taiwanese and Hongkongese went back to China to set up small factories, which then became big factories. The production is going well; even today China has economic development.


They had to combine this together with politics. They said, well we need some new improvements, to show the people in the West that we are improving. So they made some changes, but fundamentally they are still under the Mao Zedong system, the Chinese Communist Party is still there to control the whole country.


In 1979, they made some adjustments. They had to release most of the people. So all of us got released, but actually I want to say that maybe 70% of the people (700,000 people) had died. Only a few people were left. Today I am 73 years old. I am the youngest so-called counter-revolutionary. Most of these people who were labeled as counter-revolutionary rightists in 1957 are around 80 years old today. Maybe only less than 10,000 people were left out of 1 million! Only less than 10,000 survived.


So I got released in 1979. They arranged a job for me in the university. I was 42 or 43 years old. I quite realized that while I was not going to complain or whatever, I was not going to say “Long live Chairman Mao. Long live the Communist Party” either. I was very quiet. I just focused on my studies and tried to recover my professional knowledge. I wanted to become a teacher in the university. I realized I left a small cage, but I still remained in a big cage, because the whole country was still controlled by the communists. Even if I was released from the labor camps, I was not free. Fortunately, in 1985, I was invited by University of California, Berkeley, so I went to the United States as a visiting professor in California, in my major, Geology. I was very very lucky. I am free.


Q: That’s how you got to the US and you stayed there?


At the beginning in America it was very hard. I could not find a place to live because I didn’t have enough money for rent. I could not drive a car, I did not have any family, I did not know who could help. In the daytime I was in the library and classroom as a professor doing things. In the evening I was in the office, but later I had to walk out, and because I didn’t have a place to sleep I went out on the street. The next morning I would return to the office and have a nap. Later I found a job – illegally. I could not work because I did not have the permit to work in America, but used use someone else’s social security number to get a job. So I started working making doughnuts every night from 9 pm to 6 am the next morning. I had a roof over my head, so I didn’t worry about the police arresting me. I could save money even though they only paid me $2.25 an hour. It was good! I believed that in this free country, if I were honest, if I worked hard, if I never gave up, sooner or later I would have a good life.

One thing I reminded myself was to turn over a new page, meaning I would not tell people what happened to me: what was my nightmare, what was my life in the labor camp, why I tried to commit suicide in the camps, about my starvation, my parents life, my brother’s life. I wanted to turn over and close the old chapter. I was fighting for a new life. I wanted to have enough money to rent a house or an apartment and buy a car. I thought maybe I would marry someone and have a family. I did not know.


So I never talked to people about this, until 1990 when the American Congress and Senate invited me to testify in the Congress. They asked, “How many camps have you been in? How many people do you know? How many years? Tell us your life.” I told the people honestly, and everyone went quiet; they were shocked that I spent 19 years there. Later they asked, “How many camps? How many people were there?” I told them, “I do not know.” Even you do not know; today nobody knows. The Chinese government never says how many camps, how many people. How many people they kill every year is top secret.


So I went back to China. I wanted to see what it was like. I went back a couple of times, but then the Chinese found out and put me on the wanted list and I could not go back. They said, “This is your new counter-revolutionary crime. You are stealing our top secrets.” I said, what secrets? I just wanted to see the labor camps in the country. How many people? We estimate 40 or maybe 50 million people had been there in the past 40 to 60 years. But in 1994 I became an American citizen. I had a new passport. I changed my name. I obtained a Chinese visa and went back to China. I also invited a BBC correspondent to go with me and I was very very happy. When we came back BBC and I, we made the report and the Chinese government really hated it. The next year, 1995, at the Chinese border, the Chinese government rearrested me again, even though I had a valid American passport and Chinese visa. They rearrested me and the Americans got mad. My neighbor put a yellow ribbon on the mailbox. And the American Congress passed a resolution saying if they did not release me they would impose economic sanctions. And President Clinton was talking about it and Hilary Clinton was involved. Everybody was mad about it. And then China finally released me. They only put me in jail for 66 days and they sentenced me to 15 years, but they deported me.


Today I am in America as a free man, but according to China, I am still a criminal. I don’t know why they charged me for stealing state secrets. It is not related to foreign affairs, the military, or politics, only the labor camps. How many camps? What are the conditions? What about torture? How many people? This is top secret. Even though today economic development is good (I am not talking about sanctions or rejecting doing businesses there), do you remember that many people are in the camps because they are political criminals? Can you say something about human rights inside China?


A: Religion is not free there. Roman Catholicism is still illegal in China. Every family is controlled by the so-called “population policy”. The government says that every family is only allowed to have one child. Before you marry you cannot get pregnant. After you marry you have to wait for a permit and then you can have your first child. After your first child, you cannot be pregnant again. Forced abortion and forced sterilization are the major ways to control the population. Even giving birth is not a basic right? Every year they execute thousands of people and we do not know. After the execution they remove the organs for organ transplant. This is “government policy”.


Q: This will sound very naïve, but if we go back to the time in the camp did you suffer any injuries or diseases?


A: Oh yes, there are a lot of diseases in the coalmines. A lot of people died and accidents happened all the time. I almost died. I was in a collapse. They reported to the police that I was killed because the coal mine came down. They dug me out and realized I was still alive. They picked me up, that was it.


Q: What were the conditions like? What did you eat?


A: The food is a major method for the police to control you. They always say, “Good labor, good food; bad labor, bad food. If you refuse to labor, there’s no food.” Even in America today after 27 years, I can freely eat all kinds of beef, pork, or whatever. In the labor camp 19 or 20 years I didn’t have beef, pork, or even cooking oil. Sometimes I was starving.


In the coalmine I worked 12 pm -12 am, two shifts a day. On the farm, when the sun rises you get up, gather, and the police escort you out to the field. When the sun sets you come back. We never talk about the hours; it depended on the sun. If it was raining, we didn’t go. Seven days a week, thirty days a month.


Q: How many people were in the camp? Hundreds, thousands?


A: Each camp was different. Some of the camps were large. One of the camps, Qinghe Farm, had maybe 30,000 or 40,000 people there. Some of the camps, like for the coalmine, we had 2,000 maybe 2,300. Some of the farms had maybe 1,000. Some big, some small.


Q: Was there a lot of violence caused by the guards?


A: Oh yes. In my experience in Beijing, the captain would not really be violent, but he would put his hand on your back say to the others, “you have to help this guy,” and the other prisoner would come over and beat you, to show that they were loyal to the police. So it was not necessary for them to do it themselves. But recently, all the police have been involved in torture; it’s horrible.


Q: What was the reason for torturing people?


A: Loyalty is just one of the problems. But if you violate the discipline or commit a crime, they just do it. For example, they broke my finger because when I was on the farm because I picked up some extra branches and leaves and used my bucket to cook it. It was very normal.


Q: What helped you to survive all of those years?


A: I was baptized as a Catholic in 1949. In 1951 or 1952, Catholic activities we banned in China. I was pretty young, 14 years old, and I did really not act as a Catholic. No one else in my family was a Catholic. Some people ask if maybe Catholicism gave me support. I don’t know. In 1960-61 I suffered horrible starvation and there was no way for anyone to help me. My other inmates were dying, every day – one, two, three, four – they died and moved out, and others would move in. I was just waiting for the next. Every day we had only two meals, two buckets of corn. Suddenly I realized I wanted to pray to God for help. Nobody could help. Everyone quietly laid in bed, waiting to move on - to the graveyard. But it seemed that God didn’t help. I yelled to God, saying, “Forget it. You’re not helpful.” Since then, I have never sought for any help from God.


Did I have any ideas about fighting against communism or fighting for freedom? I didn’t. I didn’t have any strong idealism or any love to support myself. How could I survive? I want to tell you, I just lived as a beast. Any life, any animal, including humans, they want to live. Even dogs, even small ants. Everyone wants to live. I just wanted to live. I was looking for food, looking out for my own life. I didn’t care - I robbed for food, because some people robbed me of my food. I could find frogs in the fields; I could eat rats. As a beast, as an animal, I survived.


Q: Do you have any friends who were there with you and survived with you?


A: Yes, some. Today they are still in China.


Q: Mr. Wu is there something that you could say to the young generation everywhere in the world, is there something you would like to share with them?


A: I understand that young people, particularly in Europe, they don’t quite understand this situation. Even the Holocaust and Hitler’s concentration camps, for example, they can´t connect this with their life. They go to the museums and the Dakow camp, Auschwitz camp, and they say, “This is horrible. Don’t let this happen. Stop it. Fight for human rights,” that’s it. But what else? I would also suggest young people read some memories of these people, these survivors’ books. They can describe to you what is the reality. Don’t let it happen again. Particularly, today China is still run by the communists. What is this about? People didn’t want to engage with the Soviet Union communists because they feel this is awful. They said, “We cannot deal with evil. We cannot share our technology with them.” But why today do they share with the Chinese communists? They are still running the Laogai system and still put people in jail because they disagree with the communists. Should I remind people of this? I think so. This is the way we ought to rebuild our society, in thinking about human rights.

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