Harry Wu, a longtime human rights activist who exposed the abuses of China’s brutal prison labor camps, died Tuesday while on vacation in Honduras. He was 79.
Wu was born into a prosperous Shanghai family that lost much of its property following the 1949 victory of Mao Zedong's Communist Party in China’s Civil War. He first got into trouble with the authorities while in college when he criticized the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. Beijing and Moscow were allies at the time.
For speaking out he was labeled a counterrevolutionary, and in 1960 at age 23 he was sentenced to 19 years in China's prison camp system known as Laogai, or "reform through labor." The Laogai was notorious for the way political prisoners and intellectuals were treated, but the Laogai was virtually unknown to the West until exposed by Wu.
“My whole life had been about testing the system, taunting the system, surviving the system,” he wrote in his book Troublemaker.
Wu was released in 1979 and came to the United States in 1985 with just $40 in his pocket. He became a U.S. citizen and traveled back to China multiple times to further investigate Laogai camps and promote human rights developments in China.
Wu founded the Laogai Research Foundation in 1992 to gather information and raise public awareness of the Chinese gulag. The foundation announced his death. No cause was given.
The Washington, D.C.-based foundation established the Laogai Museum in 2008 to "preserve the memory of the Laogai's many victims and serve to educate the public about the atrocities committed by China's communist regime," according to the foundation's website.
'60 Minutes' arrest
In 1995, Chinese authorities arrested and charged Wu with "stealing state secrets" in apparent retaliation for his efforts to expose human rights abuses in China. Those efforts included Wu’s part in a "60 Minutes" segment documenting China's vast labor camp system for the CBS news program.
For the episode Wu visited 20 prison camps coming away with still photographs, video footage and internal documents as he uncovered the Chinese export of prison-made goods, according to a 1991 Washington Post report.
After much prodding by U.S. politicians, human rights activists, and diplomats, Chinese authorities deported Wu just prior to the beginning of the Fourth World Conference on Women.
While China has formally eliminated the Laogai and a milder version known as Laojiao, or "re-education through labor," forced labor remains a key feature of the Chinese prison system.
Among the books Wu authored are: The Chinese Gulag, Bitter Winds, and Troublemaker.
A Catholic, Wu spoke out frequently for international labor rights and religious freedom, and against the death penalty, forced organ harvesting, and China’s brutal one-child policy. Harry Wu was a strong supporter of the Dalai Lama, a free Tibet, and 2010 Nobel Prize Honoree Liu Xiaobo.
Wu was the recipient of many international awards and honors including the inaugural Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. Wu is survived by his son, Harrison, and his former wife, Ching Lee.