After surviving 19 years in a Chinese prison camp – part of the Laogai system – Harry Wu stressed that he did not want to be thought of as a hero. Instead, he made it clear that the continued human rights violations in China are not only devastating to people’s physical will, but also to their psychological well-being.

“No hero can survive in the Chinese Laogai system,” Wu said. “I was an animal because if you think about other people, you think about your own dignity.”

The world-renowned human rights activist informed the UR community of human rights violations in China and why he continues to fight for them. “If I turn my back on them, I betray them. I betray myself,” Wu said. Although facing imprisonment, Wu has returned to China several times after his initial 1979 release from the Chinese prison system to gather information for the international human rights community.

Wu stressed that this is an important time for China, especially in terms of human rights. “China, today, is at the crossroads of history,” Wu said. “Over the last two decades, a lot of things have changed. In the human rights area, it is true there are improvements.”

However, Wu also warned that the Chinese government still controls every aspect of life, from religious worship to jobs to reproduction. “Until today we don’t know how many labor camps there are in China. Where are they?”

His personal story began with statements made at a class meeting at his university. He made statements against the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union and soon found himself labeled as a counter-revolutionary. Although Wu tried to profess his innocence, he found himself being ridiculed by everyone.

“Everyone – your girlfriend, your mother, father, your brother, sister – all stand against you with the government and denounce you,” Wu said. He was then sentenced to 19 years in the prison system where, he explained, the goal was not only forced labor, but also to brainwash people. “One day you have [a] new brain and maybe you can live in the socialist system – as a newborn [person].”

Even after his release, he felt as if he was trapped living in communist China. “I left a small cage, but was still in a big cage,” Wu said. Wu escaped his entrapment, by moving to Berkley, Calif. He spoke of his work in a doughnut shop and of his belief in the United States. “I believe in this country [that] if I work hard I will have a good life because I was free,” Wu said.

Wu made a new life for himself in the United States, but went back to China in the ’80s and ’90s to gather footage of the conditions in the Laogai system.

During his 1995 trip, he was captured by the Chinese government and sentenced to 15 more years in the prison camps. After much international pressure he was released, due to his status as a U.S. citizen.

“Today, I stand in front of you, according to the Chinese government, as a criminal,” Wu said. “They want[ed] to remove 34 years from a human’s life. Why? What for? Am I in the Mafia? A murderer? A drug trafficker? A terrorist?”

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