Tiananmen Square was peanuts. Millions of people have been lost in
the laogai. Every one of those lives was precious. The Chinese people have
a saying: “We’re not looking for the tree but also for the forest.” The
Chinese preoccupation with the majority has led to abuses by dictators
like Mao Zedong. The forest is too important. …I speak up for the trees.
Each one has a name, a face, a soul, a family. Some of them were my friends.
In Shelly Kagan’s Introductory Ethics, students were recently asked to address the hypothetical question of an “organ lottery”: would it be morally reprehensible to kill one individual, say, in order that his organs might be used to save the lives of six others?
A similar question comes up in China. But there, the individual is killed
for only one of his organs. There, it is done not with any twisted pretense
at humanitarianism, but for cold hard cash. And there, it isn’t hypothetical.
“We drive the surgical van directly to the execution site,” Wu is told by an official. “As soon as the prisoner is executed, the body is ours. …He has no mind; he is only a corpse, only a thing.” Another source would report, “Basically they look at the prisoner’s body as whatever they want it to be. They would take the prisoner’s skin if necessary.”
It is not uncommon for organs from prisoners executed at 11 a.m. to find their way into the bodies of paying recipients by 2 p.m. Customers come from all over the world; it is a lucrative business. One official who spent years supervising these operations reports that not one of the thousands of prisoners who passed through his hands consented to the use of their organs—that would be repugnant to most Chinese, who believe the body should be buried intact. Three thousand organs are removed from executed prisoners annually: this constitutes some 90% of organ transplants performed in China. It is not a bootleg practice.
How do the Chinese defend it? Said one official to Wu: “In the United States, even the minute of death and trivial matters all seem to be tied to the issue of so-called human rights.”
In China, it would seem, they are less fastidious about such trifles.
Wu was born in Shanghai and spent 19 years in the laogai, or “reform through labor” camps. His crime: speaking out against the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He endured privation, beatings and torture. He saw his friends die under the ruthless demands of the laogai. He saw one friend shot, the brains scooped out and given to the father of an important official, who would eat them to restore his fading mental powers. “They were sending the old message that the powerful have always sent the powerless: This could be you.”
In 1985, Wu found a way out. He was offered a one-year research position at Berkeley, and on the strength of it obtained permission to leave China. Because the post—in geology, Wu’s specialty—was unpaid, he worked first in a doughnut shop at $3.25/hour, then in a liquor store and at off jobs before being awarded a grant by the Hoover Institute to study the laogai. Wu now lives in Milpitas, Calif., and directs the Laogai Research Foundation, dedicated to uncovering human-rights abuses in the People’s Republic.
Wu is on China’s most-wanted list, but that has not stopped him from going back four times in search of further evidence of China’s atrocities. “I went back,” he writes, “to show the world what is happening in the land of the modern economic miracle. In my books, in my speeches, ion my poor, inadequate English, I am trying to be a witness for millions of others just like me. …This is who I am. I just arrived. I want to tell you about the camps in China.”
“They steal millions of lives”
The goods they make find their way abroad—to Asia, to Europe, to the United States. One official boasted that a German purchaser had bought steel pipes made by laogai prisoners and labeled them as having been manufactured in Germany. Wu has found 120 different products on the international market traceable to the laogai, even though international law expressly forbids their trade.
If the laogai were merely a means of putting to work convicted
criminals—like the chain gangs of the past—it might not be quite so intolerable.
But these people are frequently political prisoners. Often their only crime
was to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Some of them were at Tiananmen
A partner of Wu’s, posing as a businessman, said to a laogai official: “Because we want a long-term relationship with this company, we have to be sure about the reliability of the workforce.” He was reassured: No problem—we’ve been running these factories for 41 years.
“All you have to do is multiply my experience by 50 million”
Wu on China
This is why a tolerant stand on China, a concession that their way may
be not wrong, merely different, is unacceptable. In renewing China’s most-favored-nation
status, Wu contends, Clinton “[gave up his] best weapon in the struggle
for human rights.” Why, he asks, does the United States willingly blockade
Cuba and North Korea—but not China, whose abuses are far worse? Even after
Wu’s arrest, our own House of Representatives voted 321 to 107 against
canceling MFN status. The pragmatist argument that one nation’s policy
cannot make a difference ultimately does not answer the real issue, which
is that China is using slave labor to turn a profit; that it continues
to torture, enslave, and murder—that, indeed, it does not admit human rights
“Righteous indignation only goes so far”
Wu’s advice is simple. Revoke most-favored-nation status—if only for a year. Condemn the laogai, and actually enforce laws against slave-labor products. (The laws are already on the books, they’re just tacitly broken every day. A milestone came in 1994 when laogai products were denied entry by a high court: “If Washington can do this with diesel engines,” Wu observes, “it can do it with grapes and wine and tools and boots and flowers.”) And, above all, stop letting China get away with murder; for that is what they are doing—with our help. The officers who arrested Wu were using Motorola cellular phones: not only is the West “buying goods with blood on them”—we are trading for them tools China can use to further its human-rights abuses.
Wu’s memoir—as he would be first to tell you—is less important than his mission. But the two are never entirely separable: Wu’s tenacity, his flashes of humor and ironic insight, his ingenuous tales of singing Elvis in the bath—all tell us as much about the man as they do about his country.
We have as much to learn from Wu as from his experience. “I have seen so many people in the camps die,” writes Wu, “flicked away like so many cigarette butts… [L]ife belongs to you only once. …Let it go. Politics is not natural. The place for the human being is with the family. Love. Sex. Food. Music. Literature. Do something good for other people. We are all entitled to this.”
—Emmy Chang is a senior in Silliman College
Joseph A. P. De Feo
Return to Top