by Harry Wu with George Vecsey (Random House/Times Books 1996)
Harry Wu is the Chinese American dissident who was arrested trying to enter China in 1995 and held for two months while the United States tried to secure his release. Wu, who spent 19 years in a prison labor camp, or laogai. Although he was ultimately released and permitted to leave China for the United States, he returned to China several times to document the labor camps, hidden away in remote parts of China or in plain view. He has made it his life’s work to expose the laogai system to the world. One might say he is obsessed with this work, and although he insists that he does not want to be a martyr, he keeps placing himself in danger by returning to China, where he is, not surprisingly, not welcome.
Interspersed into the story of the arrest, detention and questioning, release and homecoming are the memories of Wu’s childhood, a young adulthood spent entirely in the prison camps and mines, emigration, his early days in America, his marriages in China and (the one that lasted) the U.S., and his previous trips back to document the laogai. Parts of the book are difficult to read because the reader imagines the feeling of complete powerlessness against the Chinese state, which is portrayed as uncaring and cruel. The most horrific parts of the book deal with the harvesting of organs (kidneys and corneas) from executed prisoners.
Wu wrote in the book that he wanted to establish a museum about the laogai similar to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I discovered that he has accomplished his dream: the Laogai Museum opened in Washington in 2008. Perhaps I will visit it one day!
I heard on the radio today that the United States incarcerates the largest proportion of its population. But China has so many people (including some ethnic groups that Wu claims the Chinese consider to be somewhat less than human) that it does not need to care if some of its prisoners were imprisoned for things that they did not do. I want this not to be true, but reading Troublemaker made me fear that it is.