Saturday, 30 April 2016

Remembering Harry Wu

Harry Wu was a tireless critic of China after he became an American citizen
I read in the International New York Times yesterday that human rights activist Harry Wu had died last Tuesday. He was 79.

Wu had a very compelling story -- at the age of 23 in Shanghai he was accused of criticizing the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and being insufficiently supportive of Mao Zedong's regime.

He was forced into hard labour in farms, mines and prison camps for 42 years and was released three years after Mao died.

A picture of Wu paraded on TV in 1995 after he was arrested
In 1985 Wu moved to the United States and after becoming an American citizen in 1994, he began exposing the laogai or "reform through labour" system. He compared them to the Soviet gulag and Nazi concentration camps, claiming hard labour caused the deaths of many political prisoners.

A year later he returned to China undercover many times to expose prison conditions as well as the sale of organs from executed inmates. He was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, but thanks to pressure by human rights advocates and then First Lady Hillary Clinton, Wu was released after 66 days.

Soon after he was released, I was in Vancouver trying to bide my time as my Hong Kong employer applied for my work visa. To keep myself occupied, I tried to pitch the odd story and one of them was an opportunity to interview Wu.

I called long distance to ask my colleague if someone would be interested in the story and I could hear him relay the message to a senior editor.

One of two books Wu wrote about China
That editor said something to the effect that Wu was not a big deal -- that even he had Wu's number in his wallet and could call him at anytime.

I just remember my heart sinking, because I had thought it would have been a good story, and it was shot down as a silly notion.

Was it because Wu was overexposed in the media? Did he make comments that people considered were outrageous and over the top?

And so reading his obituary, I remember wanting to do a story on Wu, but was denied the opportunity. It's one of the few times I regret not being able to talk to him.

Wu may have been what journalists call a "media whore", for doing whatever it took to get press attention, but no one can deny that he made the world more aware of human rights violations that happened then and are still continuing in China.

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