Big brother on campus

International | Pro-Beijing student hecklers follow Harry Wu on the lecture circuit, attempt to undermine his credibility

Issue: "Just say clean needles," May 9, 1998

In the three years since Harry Wu returned from his most recent imprisonment in China, his reports on the abuses of the Beijing regime have been gaining credibility. Fellow Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, released from prison last year and now exiled in the United States, confirms Mr. Wu's description of a still-thriving "reeducation through labor" program for political prisoners in China; the system is known as the laogai. Mr. Wei has joined the board of Mr. Wu's Laogai Research Foundation based in Washington. World Bank loans to an agricultural project in southwest China have been held up ever since Mr. Wu pointed out that the project is actually part of the laogai and is run by the Chinese military. And, lending credence to one of Mr. Wu's most fantastic and long-standing charges against the Chinese government, federal officials in New York in February arrested two Chinese citizens on charges of conspiracy to sell organs for transplant from executed Chinese prisoners. The FBI arrested Wang Chengyong and Fu Xingqi in Manhattan after they offered to sell an undercover agent, posing as a representative of a dialysis center, corneas and other organs from executed Chinese prisoners. U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, together with the FBI, is preparing a criminal case in anticipation of a trial that could begin later this month. The two defendants have pled not guilty. In spite of the corroboration, Mr. Wu faces criticism and open hostility when he travels through the land of the free and home of the brave. Mr. Wu is a popular draw on college campuses because of his own experiences in China's prison system and daring clandestine returns to document prison-camp abuses. But at a recent speaking engagement on the University of Iowa campus, he faced stiffer opposition than usual. Student protesters handed out leaflets critical of Mr. Wu just prior to the evening event. They peppered the 61-year-old dissident with questions and accusations after his speech, suggesting Mr. Wu lied about his own prison sentence in China and has fabricated his subsequent research into the Chinese government's abuses. A third-year psychology student, Xu Zhice, called Mr. Wu "a liar" during the question-and-answer period following his speech. He said Mr. Wu actually had been imprisoned on rape charges and served only a three- or four-year criminal sentence rather than 19 years as a political prisoner. "I have very solid evidence he was a criminal prisoner," Mr. Xu later claimed to WORLD. "And it was really three or four years." About six other students joined Mr. Xu in loudly protesting Mr. Wu. One dared Mr. Wu to return to China. Another said Mr. Wu only wanted revenge for a deserved prison sentence. Mr. Wu had a swift response. Pulling a camera from behind the lectern, he took several snapshots of Mr. Xu and shot back, "Leave your address, leave your name. We will see you in court." The protesters are an ironic emblem for Mr. Wu because his own arrest in China first came after speaking out as a college student. "The Communist Party told us that, in the socialist garden, everybody is just like a flower," Mr. Wu told a rapt audience in Iowa City. "They said, 'You are free. Offer your opinions. Express your mind. Say whatever you want to say. We are not going to blame you.'" Doing so, however, led to charges that Mr. Wu was a "counterrevolutionary." He was ultimately arrested. "I lost my future. I lost my freedom," Mr. Wu now tells college audiences. Protests in the United States, where he has been an American citizen for 10 years but only a public figure since his 1995 arrest and detention, don't bother Mr. Wu, in spite of his threats of litigation. Lewis Harper, who directs the Washington office of Laogai Research Foundation, told WORLD the Iowa City incident has been repeated elsewhere. So, too, has his response with the camera. To a standard American student protester, that may not mean much. For a protesting student from communist China, the picture-taking is loaded with significance. Student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989 were systematically rounded up and "disappeared" after their photos appeared in newspapers. Mr. Harper said that in January, speaking at Rice University, Mr. Wu was heckled and asked similar questions about his time in prison. He photographed his accusers then, too. "In a way, Harry takes it as a compliment," said Mr. Harper. "To him it is kind of funny to have the same accusations follow him in this country. But it is annoying, too. Harry does not think it's a huge deal, though." Those who criticize Mr. Wu publicly are nearly always Chinese students or Chinese-Americans, noted Mr. Harper. "It's not inappropriate to use the expression 'party line' to describe what they say," he said. "It's all the same message." Mr. Xu comes from an area 40 miles outside Shanghai and plans to return as soon as he finishes postgraduate studies at the University of Iowa. He has not seen his parents in the three years since he has been studying in the United States. Mr. Xu is one of more than a quarter-million students who have studied abroad since China allowed student exchanges beginning in the 1970s. Some of those exchange programs are operated through large state universities with an emphasis on agriculture, like the University of Iowa and Iowa State University in Ames. With growing concern about how few of those students return to China, state authorities in China now attach requirements to state-funded degrees to combat the brain-drain. Most graduates are not permitted to leave China for further study without first working for the state. Mr. Xu told WORLD he first learned about Harry Wu from Shanghai newspapers three years ago, during Mr. Wu's detention for trying to reenter his native country. He said he based his claim that Mr. Wu is lying on an article from The Peoples Daily (a state-run paper) faxed to him by friends. He said he could document his allegations about Mr. Wu's criminal record, but he was not able to produce any documentation. Mr. Xu said he was not worried about Mr. Wu's threat of legal action. "When he talks about the Red Guards, he gives the impression this kind of thing still happens today," complained Mr. Xu. "Actually, this occurred almost 15 years ago. He twisted history and lied and lied. That's why we want to stand up and speak against him." Leaving the Iowa City event, a visiting professor at the University of Iowa, who is also from China, said he was more saddened by the reaction of Chinese students than by what he heard from Mr. Wu. "They were caught up in their own propaganda," said the professor, who declined to be named for this story. Another professor, Yinyu Ye, said he disagreed with Mr. Wu. "My father was also jailed for a period of time during the cultural revolution by the Red Guards. I was sent to the countryside to work the rice fields for two years.... If I were like Wu, I also feel I have every right to hate the government, to hate the Communists and take revenge. But I don't feel that way," he said. Mr. Ye, who for 10 years has taught management modeling at the University of Iowa, was born in Wuhan and came to the United States in 1982 for doctoral studies at Stanford University. Mr. Ye says conditions in China are improving, in contrast to Mr. Wu's account. "I went there every year. I saw change year by year, even for my family. My sisters, each of them have their own apartment. They are happy about the reform in China, even on the political front." Mr. Ye said his wife has become a Christian since living in the United States; he says he has studied the Bible but not proceeded further. His wife, he says, "feels very strongly that what Harry Wu did doesn't help religious freedom in China at all. She's very, very upset." Harry Wu is too busy with his cause to be upset by his critics. He provided the initial documentation and contact with the two Chinese "organ brokers" that led to the FBI's sting operation in New York. He will likely be asked to testify in the trial of Wang Chengyong and Fu Xingqi. At least one of the defendants, Mr. Wang, professes to be a government worker, a prosecutor in Hainan Province. Beyond bringing down a couple of organ peddlers, however, Mr. Wu wants to bring an end to a system that sanctions horror-movie schemes. "To kill someone and to make their body parts for sale is one of the grossest human-rights violations," he said. No amount of economic improvement or free trade, he feels, can compensate for those injustices. A recent Laogai Foundation report on the organ trade includes a Chinese government document that allows for the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners. It says, "Use of the dead bodies or organs from condemned criminals must be kept strictly confidential and special attention must be paid to this objective." Mr. Wu says the alleged activities of Mssrs. Wang and Fu would be impossible if there were not a national policy in China allowing it, since all hospitals are state-run and most medical personnel work for the government. Mr. Wu says student protesters have arrayed themselves against him because he published that government document. Now that Chinese citizens-and perhaps one Chinese official-have been implicated in exporting a trade in human organs, the United States will be forced to face the issue as well. "I am an individual, a small person," said Mr. Wu. "But I do not give up." With reporting by Michael Mallie in Iowa City.

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