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The Outlook for China, Human Rights and the Laogai Gulag
March 27, 1996
Hongda Harry Wu


Introductory Remarks

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux, I am the president of The Independent Institute, and I am delighted to welcome you to our Independent Policy Forum program today.

As many of you know, The Independent Institute regularly sponsors programs featuring outstanding experts to address major social and economic issues, especially as they may relate to important new books. And, today is certainly no exception.

For those of you new to the Institute, you will find background information on our program in the packet at your seat. The Independent Institute is a non-profit, non-politicized, scholarly public policy research organization which sponsors comprehensive studies of critical public issues. The Institute’s program adheres to the highest standards of independent inquiry, and the resulting studies are widely distributed as books and other publications, and are publicly debated through numerous conference and media programs, such as in our forum today.

Our purpose is a Jeffersonian one of seeking the truth regarding the impact of government policies, and not necessarily to just tell people what they might want to hear. In so doing, we will not take the public pronouncements of government officials at face value, nor the conventional wisdom over serious public problems. Hence, we invite your involvement, but be prepared for new and challenging perspectives.

Neither seeking nor accepting government funding, the Institute draws its support from a diverse range of foundations, businesses and other organizations, and individuals, and we invite you to join us with your tax-deductible Institute Associate Membership. Also in your packet, you will find information on the benefits in becoming a Member including receipt of new Institute books, our new quarterly journal, The Independent Review, discounts to future Institute events and much more.

The Twentieth Century has been described as, “The century of the Total State and Total War.” Collectivist ideologies of Left and Right have been used to justify unprecedented state power over any and all aspects of human life. From welfare to warfare, states have proclaimed their historic right to roll over the values, civil and economic liberties, and private institutions of free people. The all-powerful police states of fascism, Nazism and communism with their concentration camps and Orwellian oppression of individual choice, dignity and dissent have dominated and decimated the lives of billions of people.

In his best-selling book, The Road to Serfdom, the late Nobel laureate economist F. A. Hayek traced this totalitarianism to the collectivist ideologies of the West, where in the name of the “public good,” “national security,” “fatherland,” “proletariat,” and “social welfare,” governments have been exalted by people, both well-intentioned and not, to transgress the peaceful choices of individuals in the private domains of civil society and to replace the Rule of Law by the power of brute force.

Hayek was saying that communism, fascism, theocracy, and other tyrannies are only tyrannies because they require the submission of individual rights to the power of the state. In dedicating his book to “the socialists of all parties,” he was critiquing all flags regardless of color (left or right) so long as they are instruments to collectivize and trample civil society into submission for some power elite’s purposes. In short, we should not be surprised that when governments are empowered to centrally plan, control, and otherwise dominate human endeavor, state edicts can only be enforced by subduing the public by official propaganda backed up by the means of police power. Are societies to be based on mutual cooperation, free exchange, open markets and choices among free individuals or are they to be based on the regimentation and militarization enforced by a garrison state?

The history of China in this century is largely one of human suffering on an unprecedented scale. Even former Chinese Communist Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang calculated that about 50 million people have been killed since 1949, 30 million of whom perished during Mao’s Great Leap Forward and another 5–10 million during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. However, although the world largely understands the collectivist horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag, almost no information has been available on the world’s largest, existing, forced-labor camp system, the Chinese Laogai, now incarcerating 16-20 million people including over a half million political prisoners.

In April 1960, Chinese authorities had arrested the then 24-year old Harry Wu. Though never formally charged, during the next 19 years, he was imprisoned in a hellish netherworld of crushing labor, starvation, and torture. Harry Wu survived by realizing he must live on to work for the demise of the Laogai’s network of 5,000 slave-labor reform camps that, despite recent economic liberalization, remains the Chinese government’s most doggedly-guarded secret, and perhaps, its greatest shame.

On June 19, 1995, Harry Wu was again arrested, this time on charges of espionage by Chinese government officials. Triggering worldwide protests, his plight became a cause célèbre and the critical link in Chinese-American relations, attracting bi-partisan support for his release. Sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, he was finally released only when world opinion became intolerable for Chinese government officials, who then also desired to host a United Nations conference on women.

Based on his bestselling books, Laogai and Bitter Winds, Harry Wu has tirelessly worked to reveal the truths behind China’s slave-labor camp system and its linkage to the political system it serves, a system stripped of individual rights and the Rule of Law. Harry Wu’s experience is the epic and deeply moving story of personal triumph over de-humanization and systematic brutality. His imprisonment, extraordinary acts of courage, and survival bear indelible witness to the power of the human spirit.

In this Independent Policy Forum, we will address many of these issues. To say that Harry Wu has become something of a bombshell is beyond understatement! Some have compared his work to that of American revolutionary Samuel Adams, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Nobel laureate author Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, pacifist Mahatma Ghandi, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

With the recent military intimidation of the Taiwanese people by mainland China, the presidential election in Taiwan, and next year’s occupation of Hong Kong by the government in Beijing, the issues of freedom and self-determination will simply not go away despite the politics of special interests who would wish otherwise.

Harry Wu is Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation and a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. A graduate of Beijing College, he was formerly Visiting Professor of Geology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has repeatedly addressed the United Nations Human Rights Commission and has testified before hearings of numerous Senate and House Committees and the legislatures of Australia and England.

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Wu is the recipient of innumerable awards as well as honorary doctoral degrees from Syracuse University and St. Louis University. He has further been the subject of documentaries on TV networks in the U.S., Japan, Canada, Brazil and around the world. It gives me great pleasure and I know that you will join with me now in welcoming Harry Wu.

Harry Wu

Ladies and gentleman, before I begin I would like to say a few words of personal thanks. Many people in this room worked very hard last summer to free me. For this I am most grateful. Thank you very much. This is my second time regaining my freedom. It took about sixty six days—quite short. But the first time it took nineteen years, so you can imagine how happy I am. I lost my freedom, but I got it back.

Sometimes people ask me, “What are your fighting for?” And my answer is quite simple. I want to see the word laogai in every dictionary in every language in the world; I want to see the laogai ended. Before 1974, gulag did not appear in any dictionary. Today it does. This single word conveys the meaning of Soviet political violence and its labor camp system. Laogai also deserves to become a word in our dictionary.

Our twentieth century has witnessed many catastrophes in human society: killings during the two world wars; mass destruction by atomic bombs; the rapid spread of AIDS; and so on, which, put together, are far dwarfed by the experiments in bringing about the “ideal of communism.” In politics, economics, culture, morality, human rights and human life, the costs have been too high to count.

In 1848, Marx and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party began with the words, “A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Communism.” Sixty-nine years later, in 1917, the specter landed in Russia and took root. Another thirty-two years passed, until 1949, when it blossomed in Mainland China. In the middle of the twentieth century, communism usurped power in one country after another. In certain Western democracies, communist parties were strong enough to come to power, and the saying “the old world shall be replaced by the new world” was causing a temporary outcry.

However, before long, beginning in the 1990s, a series of communist powers—big and small—like fallen leaves swept away by the wind, simply disappeared from the horizon. All those communist specters had struggled briefly before they were washed down the big river into the sea. Facing crises, they all tried in a thousand and one ways to survive. Except for Ceaucescu, who resorted to brute violence, most of them tried to stay in power through political and economic reforms. Did they succeed?

The disaster of the Soviet Union—ringleader of the socialist camp and the communist bloc in East Europe—should be attributed to a number of factors, like the existence of the opposing Western value of democracy, and the emergence of such pagans as Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Havel, Gorbachev and others. The crucial factor is, of course, the absurdity of the communist system itself, which, based on “absolute truth,” rules through totalitarian ideology and stubbornly resists everything from without, be it favorable or unfavorable, justified or unjustified. Any such “reform” can only be superficial and partial. More likely, the “reforms” are fiercely rejected by the regime itself. Politically and economically, the communist system lacks flexibility; it lacks a mechanism of self-renewal and self-improvement, to say nothing of plasticity. As a result, it either dies out or takes the old path.

What about China? Such is the problem of global magnitude in the last years of the twentieth century, especially now, when Deng Xiaoping, who came to power after Mao Zedong’s demise and is famed as the chief architect of reform, is now but a candle in the wind. What is the future of the largest communist state in existence? Opinions differ. Everybody is speculating about the “reforms” said to be capable of lengthening the communist power.

The present situation in Mainland China can be summarized with Lenin’s words: “Those at the top are no longer able to rule the old way; those at the bottom do not accept being ruled the old way.”

Actually, this situation began shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when Hua Guofeng, supposedly trusted by Mao Zedong and appointed by his Imperial Order, came to power and, adhering to everything taught and instructed by Chairman Mao, went on carrying out the Maoist line without Mao. It was only natural that he found himself deadlocked. Deng, who replaced Hua, had no choice but to turn back the clock of socialist revolution, to go back from Mao’s socialism with complete public ownership as its core towards the Deng-styled “primary-stage socialism.” In the name of “reforming and opening up,” Deng is trying to raise socialism from the dead by transfusing capitalist blood into it.

A country is like a bird with its two wings: politics and the economy. The bird cannot fly with either of its wings tied. The Soviet bird could not fly with either of its wings tied. The Soviet bird, its economic wing tied, desperately tried its political wing, but crashed. What about the Chinese communist bird? The Chinese communist system is characterized by totalitarianism, bureaucracy and public ownership of the means of production. True, due to economic and social alterations the last two are showing signs of slight slackening. Output value of the non-public ownership sector is soaring and approaching that of the public ownership sector. State-owned enterprises are talking about how to file for bankruptcy and how to sell themselves to private or foreign businessmen. Transformation to private ownership is happening very slowly, however. In Mainland China, land, industrial and mining enterprises, communications and transportation, banks, and educational facilities are all placed under the absolute control of the Communist Party. Hence, any economic boom and development are but like farming in the desert. You could reap a bumper harvest with high-tech, but it’s not natural. Genuine transformation can only be achieved through the transformation of ownership of means of production. How to transform public ownership as a whole into private? These days, “counter-revolutionary restoration” is advancing. The Chinese bird is still struggling. It could gradually fly upwards if the economic wing, while fluttering forcefully, unties the political wing. It could also die of exhaustion if the political wing is prevented from joining the economic wing.

“Without the policy of ‘reforming and opening up’ we could not have stood up to the test of June 4th.” This was Deng’s comment on the Tiananmen Square events of 1989. Deng also said: “Economically, countries and regions around us develop faster than we do. If we cease developing or develop slower, people will compare and things will go wrong.” Deng is seeking for ways that allow the communist system to survive. He understands that the consequences of introducing capitalism into China are unpredictable. But what could he do in the face of the general trend?

With its emergence from the shadow of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the dark cloud hanging above China since 1989 has been fading and dispersing without much concern. The highly charged emotional events of June 4th are being replaced by reports of an economic boom in China. The West is very much drawn to and interested in the tremendous economic growth in China these days, which is in sharp contrast to the stagnant economy here in the West. Its ample supply of cheap labor and the potential of its vast market demand are just too tempting to let such an opportunity pass by. Capital and technology are what the West rush to offer.

Despite all the changes in China over the past decade, two things are still true: China is ruled by the Communist Party, and China is not a nation of laws. China’s basic political and economic superstructure remains based on public ownership. The peasants have no land of their own. Finance is tightly controlled by the government. The vast majority of basic industrial enterprises are state-owned. Capitalism requires respect for individual rights, but this does not exists in China today. Private ownership, as we know it in the West, does not exist on any meaningful scale, and the Communist Party has not come to grips with the issue. Until private ownership is allowed on a wide scale, a real and permanent economic boom will not happen. Deng’s economic reform really has no bearing on the fundamental problem facing China today. The basic issue of the economic system—ownership—remains unresolved.

The economic boom made possible by capitalism makes profits for the both the West and China. But despite the huge profits earned by China’s external trade, ordinary people enjoy only a tiny part. The communist government puts most of the profits into upgrading its weapons systems, into internal and external political activities, and into maintaining the nation’s political stability. It has created a “Communist bourgeois class.”

The argument that capitalism brings democracy has numerous problems, not the least of which is that there are no historical precedents to point to.

With the advance of senility, Deng Xiaoping’s role as the glue of the political power is failing. In the Communist Party’s 70-year history, internal power struggles have always been vicious. In the face of changed political beliefs and the varied demands of local forces—due to the varied pace of economic development—the next court struggle could quite possibly result in violent surges sweeping and splitting the whole nation in civil war, completely crumbling production and social order. All of these factors, and many more such as corruption; the social impact of millions of migrant workers; and the continued repression of religious believers and peaceful dissidents, combine to make China a very risky climate in which to do business—even without Deng’s death.

Over the past 40 years, the Communist Party’s rule encountered several major crises. In particular, the 1960-62 famine resulted in the death of 40 million; the Cultural Revolution inflicted immeasurable and indescribable sufferings and hardships to all strata of China’s people. Curiously, the communist regime has escaped unhurt from these crises, partly because of the high tolerance level of most Chinese people—thanks to Chinese culture and traditions—and partly because of their trust in the myth that “Communism is China’s only future.” The superstructure of the communist regime is heavily damaged, but nevertheless remains stable.

Today, a specter is hovering over Mainland China—capitalism. Communism is dead; it is no longer believed in by the Chinese in general nor even by the majority of Communist Party members. The “capitalistic” economic boom has made the superstructure of the communist regime appear pretty on the outside, but its pillars are heavily damaged. Looming in front of China are some huge crises.

At the core of the human rights question in China today is China’s fundamental machinery for crushing human beings physically, psychologically and spiritually: the laogai camp system, of which we have identified 1,100 camps. It is also an integral part of the national economy. Its importance is illustrated by some basic facts: one third of China’s tea is produced in laogai camps; 60 percent of China’s rubber vulcanizing chemicals are produced in a single laogai camp in Shenyang; the first and second chain hoist works in the country to receive direct export authority are laogai camps in Zhejiang Province; one of the largest and earliest exporters of hand tools is a camp in Shanghai; an unknown but significant amount of China’s cotton crop is grown by prisoners. I could go on and on and on. The reach of Laogai business was recently brought to light again, when it was revealed that auto components from the Beijing laogai were being used at the Beijing Jeep joint venture with Chrysler.

The laogai system’s fundamental policy is: “Forced labor is a means; thought reform is the basic aim.” The Communist Party’s economic theory holds that human beings are the most fundamental productive force. Except for those who must be exterminated physically for political reasons, human beings must be utilized as “productive forces,” with submissiveness as the condition. Submissiveness can be achieved through violence, but psychological and spiritual submissiveness are preferred. The laogai is not simply a prison system, it is a political tool for maintaining the Communist Party’s totalitarian rule.

Not only did President Clinton—who had condemned despots from Baghdad to Beijing in 1993—reverse his moral position, he has also de-linked human rights from U.S. trade policy in 1994. As a matter of fact, the human-rights issue as a tool of the U.S.’s China policy is being thrown away.

We do remember that on May 28, 1993, President Clinton signed an executive order placing human rights conditions on the renewal of Most Favored Nation status (MFN) for China. On September 9, 1993, Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord said: “This Administration has a commitment to human rights and enforcement of the prison labor MOU [Memorandum of Understanding]. China’s MFN status is conditioned on it. It will not be extended if there is not satisfactory implementation of the MOU and overall progress on human rights.”

However, the fact is there is a large number of different laogai products that continue to enter the United States markets. There is evidence that chain hoists, tea, steel pipes, artificial flowers, hand tools and graphite from the laogai camp’s many operating enterprises are still being exported to the United States. The fact these goods are still coming into American ports clearly shows that the Chinese government is lying.

Furthermore, one of the conditions in the President Executive Order is: “ensuring humane treatment of prisoners, such as by allowing access to prisoners by international humanitarian and human rights organizations.” I was told by Red Cross International senior officials in February, 1995 in Geneva that they were pessimistic about reaching an agreement with Beijing government to visit laogai camps in China. The other conditions in the President’s Executive Order are: “releasing and providing an acceptable accounting for Chinese citizens imprisoned or detained for the non-violent expression of their political and religious beliefs.” The President’s order specified that China must make “overall, significant progress” in these areas.

At different times, and including during the visit of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, some of China’s most important dissidents were released. Many are being re-arrested. Democracy Wall activist Wei Jingsheng, who had been released in September 1993 after nearly 15 years in the laogai has been sentenced another 14 years.

On May 4, 1995, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the use of executed prisoners’ organs in China. The testimonies and BBC News report indicated that the practice in China is little different from those of the Nazis.

We must understand that the Chinese Communist government lies all the time. It lies to its own people, it lies to other governments. They are small lies and big lies. But they are lies. Once they said that communism was heaven and Mao was the God. They lied and said there are no political prisoners in China; they lied and said there is religious freedom in China; they lied and said they do not export missiles and nuclear weapons to Pakistan. They lied about me and to me.

We must understand that the end of the communist system does not mean the emergence of a democratic society. In China, it is a “long, long path leading to an unforeseeable future.”

David Theroux

Thank you so much, Harry. We have something we want to present Harry with. And to do so I want to introduce three more people. The first is Thomas Marsh, who is the sculptor of the replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue that was unveiled a couple of years ago here in San Francisco; Frank Wong, who was one of the major people who made that project possible financially; and Nick Liang, who is one the key students in the Tiananmen Square protest, where the Goddess of Democracy statue was originally unveiled. It gives me great pleasure, Harry, to present this small token of our appreciation for the work you’ve done, and we hope the world will learn its lessons.

Harry Wu

The Communist Party tried to destroy the statues; they did in Tiananmen Square, maybe sometimes in other places, but the statues will last forever.


Mr. Wu, in view of what you said, how is the issue of Taiwan best handled by the United States? What should our attitude be and how can we help to relieve what I think is probably a desperate situation.

Harry Wu

In Chinese history, this is the first time that people have their rights. This is the first time people can select their leaders by vote. In China through out its history, including Mainland China today, the number one crime has been political crime. You’re never allowed to criticize the leaders. But today you can do it in Taiwan. So this is significant progress. Taiwan is a part of China, but there is no reason to force 21 million people back under communist rule. Taiwan’s people have the right to choose what kind of future they want, what kind of society they like, what kind of religion, what kind of political system—just as the people of Quebec have the right to choose.


What are your feelings are about how the national news media in the United States covers the issues that you’ve been so involved with? Last week right here in the Bay Area, one of the best Asian-American journalists in the United States, William Wong of the Oakland Tribune, who has written about your plight, was fired by the Tribune for his viewpoints. Hundreds of people have called the Tribune. It’s an outrage. William Wong had done front page stories for the Wall Street Journal. To me, if there is no freedom of the press here, and we’re not told the truth about what’s going on in the People’s Republic of China, we’re all doomed. I’d really appreciate your comment.

Harry Wu

I’m very depressed to hear about this, because Mr. Wong is my good friend. I thing that they really have made a mistake, a historical mistake. I feel that today the economic power is forcing everything to doing that.

Everybody is talking about China in the next century becoming an economic giant. But they fail to mention China’s mistakes or dishonesties. An economic giant is also political giant and military giant. And this is a communist giant. In the West you feel kind of relaxed from the Cold War having ended and the Berlin Wall peacefully torn down. If in the next century there is another communist giant in the East—and you have the experience from the Korean War and the Vietnam War—how would you handle that? Some people try to create a kind of political idea: “What can we do as a huge population country? Do business with them? Trade with them, helping them develop their economy system and help them strive for capitalism? Capitalism will beat socialism and communism; and China has a good future.” If that kind of idea is correct, why didn’t you apply the same idea to the Soviet Union? Why didn’t you do any business with the Soviet Union? Why did you never allow any Soviet military companies to operate a business in the United States? The Soviet Union was seen as an evil empire, as an evil communism, and never received the Most Favored Nation trading status. Why do Chinese communists enjoy that? Because China is an angel communism, an angel empire? Tell me about it. Why? Money. The people want to make money and the money becomes the fuel, fueling the tank of the Chinese communist vehicle.

I was on CNN’s “Larry King Program,” and one scholar said, “Harry, we have many things to do with China, not only human rights. Yes, there are lots of issues, include weapon proliferation. I said, “Tell me one thing. Ten years ago you wanted make a deal to stop the weapons from China. What kind of weapons systems? And now what kind of weapon system do you want to sell to China for them to sell?” A couple weeks ago Henry Kissinger said, “You have to know, China is the only country that can launch the continental missile to our Los Angles.” I said, “Oh my God, you just realized that?” What do you want to do, do business with them? Capitalism does not mean democracy. Iran, Iraq are capitalist countries with no democracy. They’re talking about the people becoming rich in China. It is true. Living conditions are much, much better than before. Freedom of speech and freedom of association are much better than before. Because the communists have withdrawn, backed up, given some space for the people, they realize, the people learn from their suffering. The people want to totally go to another direction. But the communists intend to survive. The so-called bourgeois class today in China—most of them are members of the Party. All of them have a relation with the Party. Do you expect those kind of people to be interested in democracy?


Harry, I have one question for you that I hope will clarify some of these things for this audience, that is the issue of money. Isn’t it really true that the money that is being made doesn’t even come from China, but comes from the United States, through the banks, through the government, through the IMF, and the World Bank? Because China has no money of it’s own. It has no tax system. It doesn’t even figure a national cost of goods. So when it sell goods, it’s selling them for less than it actually cost to run the plants and take of the people and build infrastructure, and so forth. Am I correct in this? Is there an enforceable tax system among the upper class the Communist Party that own the factories and so forth, among the upper middle class and so fourth, that was given the licensing for privatization. Is there any means that China has of actually having viable currency to pay for goods?

Harry Wu

So far as I know, you have mentioned about the new capitalist system, so-called, and the new capitalist class in China, something like that. I can tell you one thing. Today, the Western countries try to put the cash in Chinese production in Chinese hands. In the past five to eight years, about five hundred billion has left China and come to the United States, Hong Kong, everywhere. China has the money, the money is coming out and Western money is going in. What they have in China is a political crises. Now, what about your money? Take care of it.

David Theroux

Thank you Harry. And thanks to all of you to have taken the time to join with us in making our program a great success. Harry has kindly offered to autograph copies of his books, which are available for purchase in the front. I want to thank each of you for joining with us today, and we look forward to seeing you again soon at another Independent Institute program.


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