Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Survivor's Conscience

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Survivor's Conscience

Article excerpt

The only sane way to think about Harry Wu is to consider him insane. After 19 years in the Chinese gulag, after being beaten and so starved that he stole from a fellow prisoner the meager booty of a rat's burrow, he has repeatedly gone back to China to expose its prison system. Now, as was bound to happen, this American citizen has been arrested and charged with capital crimes, and Sino-U.S. relations, already poor, are heading toward an open breach. Blame it on a crazy man.

In Wu's case, that craziness is guilt - survivor's guilt. He has been frank about his motivation, about what has compelled him from time to time to leave California, where he has a wife and a nice life, and return to China and the prison system where he spent nearly two decades.

"I want to enjoy my life," he once said in explaining why he does what he does. "I lost 20 years. But the guilt is always in my heart. I can't get rid of it. Millions of people in China today are experiencing my experience. If I don't say something for them, who will?"

You know Wu. He's the guy who smuggled a hidden camera into the Chinese prison system for "60 Minutes." On account of him, Americans learned that some of what they had been buying from China was made by slave labor. Because of him, we all got a better appreciation of the extent of the Chinese prison system. He is determined that we all learn the word "Laogai": the Chinese gulag.

Who are the people who intrude on our selfish complacency? Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote a letter while in the army voicing a mild criticism of Stalin. For that he was jailed and sent to the gulag. After he was freed, he took on the entire system armed with only a pen. Didn't he know he could be sent back? Didn't he know he could be killed, another victim among the numberless victims? My God, who are these people?

Wu is one of those people. You would think that having gotten out of the Laogai he would make sure he would never go back. Like Solzhenitsyn, he was arrested for a political caprice: suggesting that the Soviet invasion of Hungary was wrong. He was 20 years old and weighed around 155 pounds. …

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