Harry Wu, who died at 79 on April 26 while vacationing in Honduras, is to many fellow Americans a human rights activist who survived years in Chinese labor camps to expose the horrors there. Many admire this man who started his life in the U.S. working in a doughnut shop to become a ‘Hoover scholar’ and a popular speaker, win a Nobel Peace prize nomination, make friends among the Congressional community, and attain world celebrity. This writer takes a different view.
When Harry Wu unexpectedly died while on vacation in Honduras, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave him quite a tribute. She said, “With his passing, the world has lost a global champion for freedom and democracy.” Well ahem, in light of more recent disclosures, may be not.
Recent reports, first in Foreign Policy (May 25) then in New York Times (August 14), described a morally corrupt person, not a knight in shining armor. Wu was accused of having absconded with millions that did not belong to him and was to face charges of sexual misconduct in court. The heading from Foreign Policy said it all: “In death, a darker tale of extortion and sexual misconduct threatens to tarnish his legacy.”
These posthumous disclosures hardly surprised those of us in the Chinese American community that had been following his career. We always knew him to be a charlatan and a scoundrel.
But give Harry Wu credit for being a trailblazer. He discovered that he could make a nice living by saying nasty things about China. Sometimes his statements were believable because they were based on facts skillfully doctored or exaggerated. Other times, he simply made them up as he went; the more lurid he made it, the more compelling he became. The western media could not get enough of his stuff and members of Congress were the most ardent members of his fan club.
From a middling salary of a non-profit, Wu came into his financial windfall in 2007 when families of two Chinese plaintiffs sued Yahoo for illegally providing information to the Beijing authorities that led to their arrest and imprisonment. (Illegal that is from a US perspective.) At the House Foreign Affairs Committee public hearing, then chairman Tom Lantos castigated Yahoo as a bunch of moral pygmies. Wu was invited to the hearing as an interpreter for the plaintiffs.
The cowed company agreed to give $3.2 million to each of the two plaintiffs and $17.3 million to a human rights fund as aid for future Chinese dissidents. The fund was to be administered by Harry Wu and his Laogai Research Foundation (LRF). That was a big, big mistake.
A donation becomes his personal fortune
The plaintiffs had to sue Wu later in order to get some of that $3.2 million awarded to them. Other dissidents never did see any of the $17 million. Instead the tax returns for LRF showed revenues of $325k in 2006, which jumped to more than $18 million in 2007.
In 2008, Wu bought a building in Washington DC for slightly under $3 million to house his museum. In the museum were prominent displays of photos of Wu with the who’s who of the world including Margaret Thatcher of UK and Bill Clinton and China bashing members of Congress such as Nancy Pelosi, Chris Smith and Frank Wolf.
Wu was supposed to disburse $1 million per year as aid to dissidents but according to Morton Sklar, attorney for the plaintiffs, Wu never did. Sklar said to New York Times, “But Harry Wu saw the money as his own personal fund, to benefit his own activities.”
Jeff Fiedler, who helped Wu form the LRF in 1992 and should know Wu better than anyone, left the board in 2011. He said, “Harry was uncooperative and saw the money as his alone. He became extremely unreasonable.”
Wu died while vacationing in Honduras and the cause of death has not been publicly disclosed. Perhaps he would still be alive today if he did not come into all that “discretionary” funds for exotic vacations. Rather than speculating on what might have been, I have been following his career and would like to discuss the person that he became. How he lived his life can serve as cautionary tale.
First an important disclaimer: I cannot vouch for the accuracy of anything I say about Wu that are drawn from his public utterances. The reason is because consistency in his public statements was never his strong suit. I stand behind everything else in this piece.
How did he end up in Chinese prison?
Just the explanation of how Wu ended up in China’s labor camp would be reflective of his carelessness with facts. At different occasions, Wu gave different answers. Sometimes he said he was persecuted because his father was a banker and therefore Wu had the wrong family background. But then he was asked why the government would have allowed him to graduate from college in 1959 and did not send him to labor reform during the height of the anti-rightist movement between 1957 and 1959?
Oh then, maybe, it was because he voiced criticism of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt. But that timing did not work either since the failed revolt also took place in 1956.
Another version which Wu had sneeringly referred to as the official Beijing line was that after graduation, Wu was assigned to a government job that would make use of his training in geology. He was caught taking money from a co-worker’s purse and that was how he made his first visit to China’s prison.
According to his own autobiography, Wu was in various prison camps from 1960 to 1979. If so, Wu would have been among the first batch to be released and allowed to return to civilian life as Deng Xiaoping returned to power and China began its reform.
In 1985, Wu came to the U.S. He claimed to have accepted an invitation to UC Berkeley as a visiting scholar; it was a curious invitation that came without any stipend. He frequently made proud reference to the fact that he came to America with just $40 in his pocket. I could not find anyone at Berkeley that would admit to having invited Wu.
As an alternative explanation, Wu had a sister living in San Francisco and it was possible that she sponsored his immigration to the US. Less glamorous than being a visiting scholar but it would explain why Wu was allowed to remain in the America as a permanent resident. He and his sister hadn’t seen each other for 30 years and quickly found that they couldn’t stand each other’s company. He soon left her home and found work at a donut shop in Oakland.
Wu discovers his calling
Somehow the next year, Wu was invited to speak about his prison experiences in China before a group of students at UC Santa Cruz. He gave an emotionally charged presentation that impressed the audience and thus Wu unwittingly found his life long calling. No more making donuts, he could just talk about his experiences in China’s prison system.
Ramon Myers, curator of East Asian Studies at Hoover Institution on Stanford, heard about Wu and met with him. Myers wanted to know more about China’s prison system and gave Wu a small research grant to pursue a study. More importantly, Myers gave Wu access to the archives at Hoover. Long after the research grant had petered out, Wu continued to brandish his affiliation as a Hoover Research Fellow, a business card and title that conveyed priceless legitimacy on to Wu.
Then in 1991, Wu met Jeff Fiedler who was at the time secretary-treasurer of AFL-CIO Food and Allied Services Trade Department. I was not there but I would guess that it was mutual admiration at first sight. Okay, that might be too strong a description but each had something the other wanted.
Fiedler had a personal mandate which was to disrupt trade with China in any way he could. His logic was flawed but simple. Namely, low cost goods made in China took away jobs from American labor force. Wu could provide the ammunition Fiedler needed and Wu craved the cover of legitimacy that big organized labor could offer.
Laogai Research Foundation
They founded Laogai Research Foundation to be based in Washington DC. “Laogai” was Chinese terminology for reform through labor and was the term used in China for a particular kind of prison camps. “Research,” I am sure, was Wu’s contribution having learned the bona fides that came with that word. For the early years, the so-called Washington headquarter of the foundation consisted of an extension with an answering machine in Fiedler’s department located in the AFL-CIO building.
To continue to burnish his credentials, it was necessary for Wu to gather research material by making field trips to China. His highest profile visit was to take Ed Bradley into China for a piece on 60 Minutes allegedly to expose prison-made goods from China. He apparently did the same with BBC.
By the time Wu was ready to make another clandestine visit to China in 1995, he was a known and wanted person by China’s public security. He tried to enter China’s Xinjiang by way of Kazakhstan and was caught at the border entry. A female companion from AFL-CIO was detained with him.
It was hard to understand why Wu brought along a Caucasian woman at a remote border crossing if he wanted to keep a low profile and avoid detection, but it turned out to be a stroke of luck for him. The Chinese authorities had no reason to keep the woman in detention and released her within days. She then told the world that Harry Wu had been arrested.
The timing of Wu’s arrest was also fortunate for him. The International Women’s conference was to be held in Beijing later in the summer and first lady Hillary Clinton was to be the keynote speaker.
Washington’s position was that without Wu’s release, there would be no first lady going to Beijing. Without that negotiation, Wu could have been facing another 19 years in China’s prison. He had become an American citizen a year earlier, so you could say he was three times lucky.
Wu becomes a celebrity
Wu came back to the U.S. a world famous celebrity. Going under cover to China was no longer an option nor necessary; Wu became a popular speaker on the circuit. He appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and was interviewed by Charlie Rose and spoke at schools and universities and of course testified before various sub-committees of Congress (Anytime Congressman Chris Smith wanted to go on C-Span, he would call Wu in for a conversation.) His remarks became increasingly lurid and graphic and his anti-China position more extreme.
Shortly after his release from China, Wu joined the picket line at Boeing in Seattle. He was quoted by the local newspaper as saying, “The strike by Boeing members (of the machinist union) is really a strike against the Chinese government; a strike the American labor movement must win.”
At the time, the union accused Boeing of exporting jobs to China because Boeing agreed to subcontract manufacturing of certain sections of the 737 to China. (In retrospect, Boeing would not have made a fortune in airplane sales to China without the subcontract agreement.)
He led protesters before K-Mart stores claiming that most of the merchandise inside was made by prison labor in China. Cheap goods from China made by prison labor became an important high profile issue for Wu.
To disrupt bilateral trade with China, Wu went around the country claiming that practically everything made in China came from the prisons. This was in the era before Apple introduced iPods made by Taiwanese contractors in China, and Wu could get away with extravagant claims before a poorly informed American public.
In 1998, James Seymour and Richard Anderson published a scholarly study of China’s laogai penal system, “New Ghosts, Old Ghosts.” The book was widely acclaimed for its objectivity and dispassionate analysis.
Their findings disagreed with Wu’s wildly disparate estimates of the number of prison camps in China and the number of prisoners. They estimated that China prison labor could not have contributed more than one-tenth of one percent to China’s GDP. The real difference was that theirs was a rigorous study based on accepted academic practices; Wu would not have known what that meant.
Wu takes on the World Bank
In 1996, Wu led the protest against the World Bank for financing an irrigation project in Xinjiang. Wu charged that the project would benefit the laogai camps in Xinjiang. He found out that a Fan Shidong had been recently released from a Xinjiang laogai and was living in Hong Kong.
Wu flew to Hong Kong to meet him and offered to pay all his expenses if Fan would agree to testify before Congress against the World Bank project. Fan refused saying that the irrigation project would benefit the local Uighurs and had nothing to do with the prison camps. Fan later revealed his encounter with Wu to the ethnic press after he immigrated to the U.S.
As Wu basked in international recognition including Nobel Peace prize nominations and spoke in the European circuit as well as in the U.S., those who knew him intimately became increasingly disenchanted with his actions.
By late 1996, Ramon Myers, who made Wu a “Hoover scholar,” said to LA Times, “We do our work in a very fair, objective way. It doesn’t help us any when Harry Wu is affiliated with us and he’s peddling his stuff in every parliament in the world. I regret, frankly, that he was ever at Hoover.”
Chinese American community upset
On one occasion, Wu visited Columbia University to speak and receive some sort of recognition. While lining up for some refreshments, he was delighted to meet Li Qiang, a student at Columbia, who was originally from Shanghai. Wu said he was homesick for the opportunity to speak in their local dialect.
Li took the opportunity to point out to Wu that contrary to his public remarks, China’s human rights conditions had never been better in the last 50 years. Wu said, “Yes, yes but the Americans know nothing. Let’s just talk between us.”
Even as Wu became more facile with his English speaking ability, he missed the fellowship of speaking to compatriots of his homeland. Ironically, the Chinese American community was increasingly outraged by his public remarks and activities.
One of his best-known publicity stunts was to use a secretly taken video of an operating room in China performing an open-heart surgery and claiming that the video was documenting the process of harvesting of kidneys from prisoners.
Ignatius Ding, a leader of a Democracy in China movement in Silicon Valley, spontaneously organized in response to the visceral TV images of June 4 in Tiananmen, was an early supporter of Harry Wu. By the end of 1996, he offered a rueful observation to the LA Times that Wu had no supporters from his own ethnic Chinese community, just members of Congress.
Later I asked Ding why he made that comment. He said, “I support the cause of helping the Chinese dissidents but I cannot condone Wu’s methodology. He pushed the envelope way too far.”
It was not much later that Wu sold his home in Milpitas and moved to the DC area. Thus he left the largest community of Chinese Americans in the U.S. that shunned him to be near the Congressional community that adored him.
After Wu’s death, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida who succeeded the late Tom Lantos, wrote a eulogy on Harry Wu, “After a hearing on Yahoo’s collusion with Beijing in suppressing Internet freedom, Harry stepped in on behalf of those who had been imprisoned and their families.” She apparently was not aware of the charges that Harry stepped in not for anyone but for his own pockets.
The tragedy of Harry Wu was that he didn’t just soak up all the funds that could have benefited dissident families in financial distress; he also sucked up the oxygen from other dissidents. His distortions and exaggerations corrupted the very issues that the dissidents wanted to raise against the Beijing regime. The truths that could have stood on their own merits and let the society decide were no longer possible as they were covered by the slime from Harry Wu.
Three birds of a feather
There are others that have made a career out of Harry Wu school of China bashing. Two come to my mind. Gordon G. Chang wrote about “The Coming Collapse of China” in 2001. A decade later, China’s economy was on verge of quadrupling, surely not a sign of collapse?
Undaunted, Chang boldly affirmed that he was merely off in his prediction and confidently predicted that the collapse will most certainly take place in 2012.
It is now 2016 and his fellow traveler, Peter Navarro came to Chang’s rescue. Navarro also affirmed that Chang’s prediction was just around the corner, except he was smart enough not to say when, thus leaving room to review the collapse question every ten years or so. It’s no coincidence that Navarro was also the person who produced the video tribute to Harry Wu’s life posted on the LRF website. Three birds of a feather flock together?
Featherweight credentials notwithstanding, their anti-China messages continue to find a willingly receptive audience, and they will continue to be interviewed by the media and invited to testify before Congress. And we Americans will continue to suffer from the endless charade (and parade) of charlatans.
Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.
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