A Prisoner's Journey

The uniformed prisoners with their shaven heads were working in a vineyard under the stern gaze of armed police guards. Watching the scene, I slowed my bicycle, then stopped. We must find a way, I thought, to record these victims of laogai (reform-through-labor) at Tuanhe Farm, a Beijing re-education camp. I switched on the video camera peeking out of the bag on the back of my wife's bike.

"What do you think you're doing?" shouted a guard.

"Just fixing my bike," I called back. I spoke as calmly as I could. But I felt breathless with fear, in danger of being plunged back into the hellish world of the camps-a world I had not so long ago escaped. For I spent 19 years as a political prisoner in China's labor reform camps, five and a half of them in this very Tuanhe camp.

"What are you looking at?" the guard shouted. "Nothing," I cried back. But in fact my eyes were focused on the prisoners bent over in the field, on the red pennants planted around them; I thought of the shot that would be fired if any man so much as stepped outside its perimeters.

"Cut them off ahead!" the guard cried to several other guards stationed in the distance. "Go! Get out of here! Leave me!" I hissed to my wife. As she pedaled frantically north, and I rode south, I could see the guards coming toward me across the field on their own bicycles like two torpedoes homing in on a ship. Suddenly they were on me, knocking me from my bike, twisting my arm behind my back, stomping on my spine with their boots.

"What are you doing here?" one of the officers barked.

"Nothing! I just lost my way," I lied.

"Who was the woman?"

"I don't know. I just stopped to ask directions," I said, hoping my wife had escaped.

"Don't you know this is a labor camp?"

"A what?" I asked dumbly. "I'm from America; what is that?" I showed them my U.S. re-entry permit, which they examined quizzically, unable to read the English. Then I pulled out my money belt and, after some negotiation, peeled off a stack of bills--perhaps as much as $500, more than a year's salary in China. I thrust a wad at each guard and, trembling, picked up my bike and started away. They did not protest or follow. When I was finally out of their sight, I almost fainted with relief.

What would have happened if I were caught? I am not only a Chinese citizen, but a former "counterrevolutionary rightist." Working with the human-rights group Asia Watch, I have dedicated myself to exposing the vile system of penal colonies that still stretches from one end of China to the other, to bear witness to the nightmare that I and millions of other innocent Chinese have been forced to endure. After being released from prison, I had gone to America and tried to feel free. What I wanted most was to forget my past, to erase the brand that had been stamped on my heart. But some things don't go away. The experiences of 19 years in the camps kept streaming into my mind. How could I turn my back on what I had witnessed? I remember that at the Tuanhe Farm, in the late 1960s, one prisoner didn't complete his harvesting quota for the day. Our captain called a "struggle meeting" to criticize him. He had the prisoner tied to a post without a shirt, just as the sun was going down and the mosquitoes were starting to swarm. Soon his body was covered with black mosquitoes. I still remember the sound of his screams. Finally the captain released him and he fell into a ditch, madly tearing at his own skin.

Friends said I was mad to attempt this trip. But my wife, a Taiwan citizen, suggested we go as tourists, like any other overseas Chinese couple on tour. Using my English name, Harry Wu, to throw off the authorities, we managed to get visas. And so, on June 9, my wife, Ching-Li, and I took off for Tianjin; "60 Minutes," hoping to do a program on forced labor, covered the costs.

Nervous about being noticed by the police, we moved quickly. On two separate trips, I visited more than 20 camps, videotaping secretly whenever we could. Sometimes I posed as a tourist, sometimes as a businessman, eager to do business with the prison factories which use forced labor to produce goods for secret export abroad. I had brought one of my old Mao suits, and my old Chinese identity papers, which were invaluable for playing the role of a local. In Qinghai I wore a police uniform so that I could get close enough to prisoners in the fields to film them. And once or twice, I went without disguise-even visiting with a former warden. I switched hotels on a moment's notice, and sometimes changed travel plans at the very last minute just in case we had aroused suspicion and were being followed without knowing it.

Miraculously we passed through Chinese customs without trouble, and the next day I retraced my steps to Qinghe Farm, alias Beijing Number One Reform-Through-Labor Detachment. Posing as family members of guards who lived in the camp, we slipped past the guards at the camp's border.We couldn't see the prisoners' quarters, but on the sprawling grounds, 12 miles wide, hundreds of inmates were hard at work. How hauntingly familiar it all was. It was here that I was first assigned after my arrest. (I was originally detained for criticizing the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary; like countless other prisoners, I was never formally charged, tried or sentenced.) It was in Qinghe in the early 1960s that starvation reduced me to 72 pounds. It was here that I worked for four years, had been confined for days in the "little number" punishment box. It was here that I several times tried to end my despair by attempting suicide.

As my wife and I drove by, prisoners with shaven heads were digging a canal by hand along the road just as I had once done. Then there was the brick wall of Camp 585, only one of the numerous walled compounds fringed with electrified barbed wire and police guard towers. Behind 585 was what we used to call Camp 586. It was an empty field, the burial ground for those thousands of prisoners who died in Qinghe during the famine that followed Mao's collectivization of agriculture. There were few in the camp who did not understand what was meant when someone said bitterly, "He has been transferred to 586."

It was at a camp outside Beijing that I first learned to steal and fight. During the famine of the winter of 1960, we were fed only sorghum and ground maize cobs. The iron mine where I was working had been shut; we were too undernourished to labor. Instead the camp stored cabbage there. I was sent to turn the rotting vegetables and learned how to steal the cabbage hearts without leaving any mark. We used to fight over food. I learned that you need to first punch your adversary in the nose and eyes so he can't see. I fought often after that-you had to, to survive.

From Beijing, my wife and I went to the Wangzhuang Coal Mine, or Shanxi Number Four Reform-Through-Labor Detachment, in mountainous Shanxi province. Here I had spent nine years. Every month, prisoners lost arms or legs or feet when mine shafts caved in or coal gas exploded. These things were normal in the prison mine. Once I had become trapped in a collapsed coal mine and was given up for dead. I emerged barely able to move, to find that they had prepared my coffin. This time, as we approached through the bleak slagheaped landscape, it almost seemed as if I had never left. When I once again saw my old and loyal friends-"counterrevolutionaries" like me-it was hard to enjoy the reunion. Unlike me, who had won release when Deng Xiaoping came to power and pardoned many political prisoners, they were still being detained in this dismal mine as "forced job placement personnel." They lived a life of quasi freedom just outside the prison compound, but surrounded by police and forced to toil inside the mine at wages that were only a fraction of what ordinary workers receive. If they disobeyed commands, they were punished along with the prison's inmates. They were forbidden to go home.

I couldn't help remembering a fellow inmate from 1971. He had completed his sentence but continued to be held as a forced laborer. When he tried to escape, the authorities threw him into solitary confinement. There, in frustration, he wrote four words that cost him his life: "Down with Chairman Mao." After he was executed, we held a "struggle session" to criticize him.

Donning the garb of a prisoner, I went down into the mine itself with forced laborers as my lookouts, just as I had once done day after day. We had worked sometimes more than 24 hours straight--there were no "shifts" of workers-to chisel our way through a whole vein of coal before quitting. This time at the mine, I spoke with a 45-year-old "worker." In 1960, he told me, he had in desperation signed up for a job thousands of miles away from his home in Shanghai. Before he knew it, he had been thrown on a train with hundreds of other youths, sent out to the coal mines of Shanxi province, where he was put "under investigation. " For 30 years, the coal-mine worker has been forced to stay, labeled an ex-con, tied for life to the prison mine. Once, when he tried to flee, the police put him into solitary confinement until he admitted his error. "I want to go home," he begged me. But there was nothing I could do to help.

My comrades even took me back to see the old camp boss, Police Chief Liu, who of course knew nothing about my real mission. The warden was shocked but pleased by my visit. Condescendingly, he told me I showed real revolutionary spirit in returning to visit my former jailer. I lectured him on the advantages of capitalism. Now that I think of it, I must have been mad. He did not answer. He just stared back at me with unblinking, uncomprehending eyes.

We left the mine as quickly as we had come. Armed with name cards and knowledge about the export trade that I had acquired working for an import firm in California, we went to Shanghai.

Like all other such prison enterprises in China, each factory had two identities: one name as a reform-through-labor detachment, and one name as a production unit, the better to mask the real identity of the enterprise from foreign businessmen who might be unwilling to deal products made by forced labor. With prison enterprise managers now as eager for hard currency and bonuses as everyone else in China, I knew they must be engaging in illicit trade. No one had yet managed, though, to get substantive proof. If they were exporting to the United States, I wanted evidence and to find out how they were doing it.

Operating as businessmen gave us extremely good cover. In fact, at the Shanghai Laodong Pipe Works, an alias for the Shanghai Number Seven Reform-Through-Labor Detachment, we were stunned by the warm welcome we received from the managers, some of whom wore police uniforms. My wife had our hidden video camera whirring away in her bag. From our conversations, it was clear that they were not only already exporting goods to the United States but that they were eager for more such trade. We persuaded the managers to show us the production line. In the din of one of their several workshops were hundreds of prisoners all sitting before their machines. As we passed, they bowed their shaven heads. No one dared to make eye contact.

In the Shanghai Laodong Machinery Plant, which made hand tools, where the offices were filled with personnel in police garb, we were also received with great enthusiasm. I had gathered materials on this factory in the past, and former inmates had told me that it was a prison. Though the managers wouldn't let me visit the production line. "Actually, we need to speak quite openly with you," said Lu Weimen, the factory manager, "because in the United States, Congress recently made quite a deal about the special nature of our kind of enterprises." He explained that his factory doesn't export directly: "We always go through the import-export company system." That is China's state-run trading system. They were happy to connect us with the appropriate trading company Beijing's North Science and Technology Co. After my return to America, the company wrote me a letter: "Dear Mr. Wu, We have cooperated with the Shanghai Laodong Machinery Factory on developing high-grade adjustable wrenches for exporting to the U.S. and have been their agents for several years . . . "

That was just one camp. What I discovered in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, China's Siberia, where millions of prisoners have been interned, was a city that had essentially been built around labor camps. Although the situation has improved recently, now that fewer political prisoners are being arrested, the number of prisoners and the severity of life in the province's camps still terrify people. Prison labor has become a mainstay of the region's economy. One of the city's main streets, Nandajie, or South Avenue, is chockablock with the distribution outlet offices for all the factories and agricultural-processing enterprises that are attached to these prisons, Another suburban street, Nanshanjie, is a veritable miracle mile of labor camps. This street had become such a part of ordinary life that hardly anyone seemed to view it as an abomination. But occasionally I was reminded by an armed guard, a watchtower or a sign such as the one I saw on the wall of the Qinghai Construction Materials Factory, whose internal name is the Number Four Labor Reform Detachment. JUST WHO ARE YOU? WHAT KIND OF PLACE IS THIS? WHAT IS IT THAT YOU ARE DOING HERE? it asks. One of these very signs had been inscribed on a billboard at the Wangzhuang Coal Mine, where I had been imprisoned in Shanxi. These questions are supposed to make prisoners reflect on their fallen nature, and on their crimes, both political and otherwise.

Political repression is part of life in Qinghai. One young prisoner on duty in front of the Qinghai Electrical Equipment Works Plant-otherwise known as the Number Five Labor Reform Detachment--said he had been sentenced to five years for his role in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations. In the Qinghai Hide and Garment Factory, where I pretended to be a businessman interested in bartering for sheepskins, I saw a banner in the showroom awarded to the "factory" for its role in helping quell the "counterrevolutionary rebellion," Beijing's name for the protests.

Inside the factory, a uniformed police officer named Wan Xiaohua gave me a tour of his primitive machinery, but I was more interested in the dozens of prisoners, heads shaved, at work processing sheepskins. Several had been ordered to strip naked and work the hides standing chest-deep in tanning vats of toxic chemicals. "Let me explain," said the camp boss, surnamed Gao. "In the United States, they have their own laws and they are out to impose them on China." The managers promised me they could find me an export company, despite the fact that they were a labor-reform unit, and referred me to a state trading company in Canton and another Hong Kong company.

In Hong Kong we sought out the managers from the Winmate Trading Co., where executives told me they shipped skins to Korea for processing. Many of the finished goods are then exported to the U.S. market. "We send our people to keep on cheeking the quality," said the manager, whom we taped secretly. "Once we report to them the quality is not up to standard, the prisoners will have punishment, or beating, or some other thing."

Shortly after the Shanghai sting, I left China. I didn't know when I might see my motherland again. And I had left so many behind in the prisons. But I accomplished what I set out to do. Not long before, I had written a will. "Returning to the mainland holds great dangers for me-not the least of which are the possibilities of losing once more the freedom and happiness that were so hard to come by in the first place," I wrote. "But the crashing sound in my ear seems to keep asking, 'Who will go?' And the answer that comes back to this question is: 'If I don't go, who else will?"'