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Prism Online - November 1995

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(Not) Wild about Harry

by Michael Mattis

Harry Wu is a lying, meddling, cheating, no good opportunist who's out to embarrass the Chinese government and people as part of a tawdry get-rich-quick scheme. Or so Chinese American businessman George Koo and others like him think.

"I think he's a scam artist" says Koo. "He's found a way of exploiting the situation for his own material gain. He's either exploiting the situation by creating tension between the U.S. and China, or there's people who are motivated into China-bashing making use of him. What he's doing is embarrassing his motherland to gain for himself."

"Some people," Koo continues, "would call him a traitor."

Koo isn't alone in his sentiments. In fact, similar feelings are shared by a surprising number of Chinese-Americans, including some very big-time Silicon Valley swells and Chinese community leaders. Not everyone in the Chinese American community is anti-Wu, but Koo's criticisms highlight a controversy within his community that has been overshadowed by Wu's celebrity in the mainstream press.

Koo and three other prominent Chinese American businessmen started Concerned Citizens for Rational Relations with China (CCRRC) specifically to deal with any threats to Sino-American relations caused by Wu's activism. Its membership list reads like a who's who of China-related academics and business people, including U.C. Regent David Lee; former U.C. Regent Lester Lee; David Lam, chairman of Silicon Valley Global Trading Center and U.C. Davis professor Norman Matloff, to name a few.

Wu rose to celebrity status after his fourth clandestine trip to China to film human rights abuses inside the Chinese forced-labor prison system was abruptly halted by Chinese border guards in June. Wu was detained, arrested, charged with espionage, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court. He was then promptly released to American officials . Seeing one of its own in the dock, the American media went wild, transforming Wu from a little known human rights activist into a media whirling dervish.

According to his memoir Bitter Winds, Wu was born the son of a prominent banker in Shanghai in 1937. After the Communist Party seized power in 1949, Wu's father was denounced as a "running dog" of the "western imperialist bourgeoisie" causing his family fall on hard times. As the son of a capitalist, Wu was told by party cadres while attending the Beijing Geology Institute in the '50's that he should denounce his father as a counterrevolutionary. Wu was reluctant to take that step.

During Chairman Mao Zedong's failed attempt to modernize China's backward industry, an era known as the "Great Leap Forward," Wu got into hot water by criticizing the Communist Party during student-held political meetings. Wu himself was "capped" as a "counterrevolutionary rightist." Eventually, after an aborted attempt to escape the country in 1960, Wu was sent without trial to the labor camps, or laogai to "reform through labor."

Wu says he spent 19 long years in what he terms this "Chinese gulag," thrust around from one labor-camp to another, undergoing terrifying exposure, hunger, forced confessions and torture along the way.

But George Koo and San Francisco Cantonese radio talk-show host Edward Liu question Wu's story. They say the Western media has latched onto and glamorized Wu's version of his past and the cause he represents without first having investigated the facts. What Liu terms a "lack of probity."

Liu is disturbed by "the gullibility of the media with respect to whatever originates from Harry's mouth."

"You have an individual here whose words have never been verified," he says.

Liu has a point. Even the weighty Columbia Journalism Review, which ran a short photo essay on Wu's "missions" to China in its September/October issue, culled its information from existing press stories and from press releases released by Wu's organization, the Laogai Research Foundation, without giving any attribution or back-up to the facts as reported.

"Since my angle was more about his role as a sort of surrogate journalist, his life was a small factor in my story," wrote Columbia Journalism Review writer Frank Houston, responding to a query about his sources.

One of the facts Houston lifted from other news agencies was that Wu had originally gone to laogai, for protesting against the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, when Wu was just 19 years old. Yet there is no mention of Hungary in Wu's memoirs. Wu himself attributes the error to "a mistake in translation."

"What is disturbing," Liu continues, "is that the media never took him to task based on journalistic standards. There definitely has to be some corroborative evidence. This guy has to have some footprints left behind during his alleged 19 years of incarceration. He's got to be held to some accountability."

According to an article by Koo that appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of the Chinatown weekly Asianweek, Wu was never a political prisoner at all but a common criminal. According to Koo's source, Wu was sentenced to three years of labor reform for the very pedestrian offense of stealing money from his office colleges. After his release, the article said, Wu went to Wuhan Geology University where he was repeatedly criticized for falsifying receipts and seducing female students.

Koo admits that many Americans will have trouble with his source, the People's Daily. With a circulation over three million the People's Daily is the official newspaper of China's Communist Party. It is the newspaper of record for state socialism in China.

When asked to produce some corroborative evidence of its own version of Wu's life, the People's Daily won't. Or can't.

"Sorry," reads an E-mail message from the Daily's U.S. agents, "We have no comments for you."

Wu eventually emigrated to the U.S. in 1985 and was made an associate at the Hoover Institute in 1988. Since then he has made several documentaries for U.S., Canadian and British television that purport to expose abuses in the laogai. These abuses range from the sale of goods made by forced labor to summary executions and the sale of prisoners' vital organs for transplant into wealthy patients. In 1992, with assistance from the National Endowment for Democracy and the AFL-CIO, Wu founded the Laogai Research Foundation, which seeks to further expose abuses in the laogai system.

Koo's article also points out alleged anomalies in the British Broadcasting Corporation's 1994 documentary Chinese Prisoner Organ Sales and in a BBC expose on laogai produced goods. In Chinese Prisoner Organ Sales, Wu, along with BBC reporter Sue Lloyd Roberts, sneaked into China posing as husband and wife. There they pretended to seek a kidney transplant for a fictitious uncle. They toured several hospitals asking questions and surreptitiously filming inside the hospitals using a hidden video camera.

Koo's article, again using the People's Daily as its sole source, alleges that the BBC falsified some information, deliberately editing shots with dialogue that didn't match the pictures. Before his trial in Wuhan, Chinese officials made a videotape of Wu "confessing" that the BBC had falsely identified some shots in the documentaries.

One documentary, for example, included a pan of a graveyard. Chinese officials say the shot was misleading, making viewers think that executed prisoners were buried there when in fact it was really an ordinary civilian cemetery.

When shown a part of this panning shot at his interrogation and asked to identify it Wu said, "These are the graves of common people." And not, the Chinese say, the graves of dead prisoners.

Wu says that the film was taken inside a labor camp, the Tainan Labor Reform Detachment in Xinjing, but the piece of film he was shown was the tombstone of an ordinary woman that was in the camp's graveyard.

"They would show me a piece of the film and ask me to identify it," says Wu, "And I would tell the truth. Then they clip the film to make it look like I was confessing something wrong."

Wu admits the film he saw was the correct BBC footage but that the BBC erred in editing the film, by including the graves of civilians. The documentary was later corrected to show only prisoners' graves.

But to Wu these are just details meant to distract people from the real issue of human rights in China.

"They take these little things and try to say Harry Wu fabricates everything, that the BBC fabricates everything," says the 58-year-old Wu. "But we have a lot of evidence. We talked to patients and doctors and prisoners who tell us about what happens over there. We have government documents. They can say Harry Wu is a liar. Fine. They can say BBC is a liar. Fine. But what about all the people who have died? What about all the prisoners who have been killed for their organs? This film is not everything."

"Has this George Koo seen the BBC documentary for himself? I doubt it," says Wu who points out that Chinese Prisoner Organ Sales has never been shown in its entirety on American television. "Everything he gets is from the Xinhua news and the People's Daily. He has never even seen it for himself."

Critics of Koo and the CCRRC say that big money is the driving force behind Wu's detractors. Ignatious Ding of Silicon Valley for Democracy in China, a group of mostly Chinese Americans supportive of Wu, thinks the CCRRC membership is "just trying to protect their interests" in China. George Koo is the managing director of International Strategic Alliances, a consulting firm that, Koo says, encourages "business relationships in Asia-primarily Japan and China and mostly mainland China." Koo, who has been traveling to China regularly since 1978, also assists American institutional investors in finding opportunities in Vietnam and China.

Another CCRRC supporter, U.C. Regent David Lee, is the Chief Executive Officer of Cortelco, a telecommunications company that according to the San Jose Mercury News, owns factories in the People's Republic with a Chinese partner.

Wu has repeatedly called for the revocation of Most Favored Nation trading status for China, a step that would hurt Chinese imports into the U.S., and a step that President Bill Clinton has refused to take. Wu says there have been 25 violations of a U.S. law that forbids the importation of forced-labor produced goods since 1991. All of the attempted imports came from China. According to Laogai Research Foundation board member David Welker, one-third of all the tea in China that is produced for export is produced by forced-labor. Other products include hand tools, cloth, silk, planing machines and diesel engines.

Welker, who is also affiliated with the AFL-CIO, says the money produced by the sale of these goods, "is then just recycled into making bigger and better prisons."

MFN was renewed by the Clinton administration again this year. Protecting MFN, say the CCRRC's critics, is the real concern of Wu's detractors, not encouraging democratic change through commerce.

"It's not clear to me that loss of MFN would adversely affect those individuals, " says Michael Zeilenziger, who has written extensively on Far East business issues for the San Jose Mercury News. "Almost none of David Lee's activities would be adversely affected by a loss of MFN, because almost all of what he's doing in China is for the Chinese domestic market."

"You can make the easy leap and say 'Oh, well, American companies are afraid this is going to affect their business,'" Zeilenziger continues. "And for a lot of multi-nationals that would be true. But I would argue that the people most affected by MFN are not Chinese Americans doing business in China."

Another charge leveled against the human-rights/pro-Wu camp says the U.S. has no right to take the moral high-ground with regard to rights violations.

"Prison labor in China?" says Edward Liu. "Who makes the license plates in California?"

Liu says different cultures have differing views about human rights.

"If the cannons were turned around," Liu continues, "to say that you have the moral audacity to tell other societies that they have a problem, that cannon could be turned around and be pointed directly at the American people. If you're going to talk about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, say, then you should talk about the ethnic cleansing that has happened right here in the U.S. with the Native Americans, and that still goes on with alcohol and casino gambling."

Daqing Zhao, a Chinese American scholar at the Molecular Research Institute who emigrated from the People's Republic in 1982, says the Chinese view prisons and prisoners differently.

"In China there isn't this system where criminals go to jail and lift weights and watch television," says Zhao, who says he spent time in a labor camp with his parents as a child. "They have to get up and work."

Zhao says China is changing slowly. He believes such slow change is the only way to avoid the kind of disasters now occurring in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

"There's a stability problem," he says. Zhao admits that people are still jailed for speaking out, but that the only people arrested today are those who "openly want reforms that the current government says are too fast and that are unsustainable and would cause instability."

Even so, the idea that a person can be jailed for speaking his mind is an anathema to most Americans.

"You have to know that the communist regime in China is just a new dynasty-like the Qing dynasty-without the crown," says Wu. "The system is not really new at all. It's a feudalist tradition. I know democracy cannot come right away. Short term economic development is positive, but the political system is still in the old phase.

"Communism as a faith is dead," Wu continues. "Even the communists don't believe in it. But the party cadres want to maintain themselves."

Of his American and Chinese detractors Wu is ambivalent. At first he seems not to care what they think, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. But then, he says, "I would like to meet them face to face to show them the whole BBC tape, show them the evidence."

Wu Hongda, as Harry is called in Chinese, is a passionate man, perhaps bitterly so. In a trembling whisper he holds his anger in check and says, "The word 'gulag' came into the English dictionary in 1974. I want to live to see laogai naturalized into English. I want everyone to know what laogai means."

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