Shattering Harry Wu's Western Funhouse Mirror
by Fan Shidong
(Sing Tao Daily, 6/24-29/98)
(Fan Shidong is a Chinese dissident from Shanghai arrested and sent to prison for talking to American officials in 1983 and released in 1994. He spent most of his prison life in Xinjiang. He fled to Hong Kong after his release and is now living in the Seattle area. This version is translated and abridged by George Koo and Norman Matloff, and reproduced with permission of Fan Shidong and Sing Tao Editor Wellington Cheng. Non-Chinese readers should keep in mind that the "high decibel" tone of this piece is common in Chinese writings.)
This January, James Seymour, Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University and Richard Anderson published "New Ghosts, Old Ghosts," a work on China's laogai (literally, "reform through labor") penal system. The worldwide reaction has been profound.
Perhaps the world's most interested person regarding this book is the Laogai Foundation's Harry Wu. No wonder, since anyone reading the book would find that the celebrated Wu's claims are in conflict on a number of essential points.
The conflict is draugh to lead to the headline in the Hong Kong English-language daily, The South China Morning Post, that reads "Why Harry Wu Is Wholly Wrong." The March 12, 1998 article covered the press conference on Seymour and Anderson's new book.
Who Has Committed Four Major Errors?
In response, Wu's friend, labor union official Jerry Fiedler, claimed in the March 23 issue of the Morning Post that "New Ghosts, Old Ghosts" contained four major errors. First, Fiedler said that the book falsely stated that Wu had claimed China to have more than 20 million prisoners. Seymour immediately responded (Hong Kong Economic Times, March 30, 1998), producing a London Sunday Times article dated November 3, 1996, in which Wu had made the claim. Wu further stated to the Times reporter that the total has been 50 million since the founding of the Communist government.
Why is it that the world's foremost laogai "expert" can't get his numbers straight? In fact, Wu's claims seem to vary erratically. For instance, Wu also claimed in 1997 that China has 1,100 laogai prison camps, overseeing six to eight million laogai prisoners. He also said that out of every 100,000 people in China, 500-667 are prisoners. Yet in his book, "China Gulag," Wu asserted that there are at least 3,000 labor camps, controlling 12 to 16 million prisoners. On the other hand Wu claimed in the London Daily Telegraph that there are 30 to 40 million political prisoners. With a minimum of research, I came up with four different assertions from Wu. It wouldn't surprise me if more diligent searches than mine were to come up with additional conflicting claims from Wu.
By contrast, Seymour and Anderson say in their book that in the 1990s, the incarceration rate in China has been 166 out of every 100,000; the Chinese government figures are 117/100,000. Fiedler argues that Wu now uses the figure of eight million (South China Morning Post, March 23, 1998), with Seymour erring by a factor of about four.
Wu usually states that his figures are estimates, but it is hard to imagine how he can take pride in his research, given such a wide variation in what he reports from one statement to the next. The Chinese government, during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and so on, used to claim "political necessity" when they lied about statistics. Wu seems to have the same rationale, and it would not be out of line to say that Wu is even worse than the Chinese Communists in this regard.
In the Fall of 1995, upon returning to the U.S. following his arrest and confession to the police in China, Wu said he had deceived the Chinese Communists, that the confession had been bogus. No need for honesty when dealing with oppressors, he explained. But how can he explain to the American people, and especially to Congress, the conflicts between all these different statistics he offers?
"New Ghosts, Old Ghosts" second major error, according to Fiedler, concerns the book's claims regarding the contribution of prison labor to China's national economy. The book focuses on camps in three locations---Xinjiang, Gansu and Qinghai---and finds that their economic contribution is inconsequential. Fiedler disagrees, saying these three camps are not representative. According to Wu, the major camps in economic terms are in Beijing, Tianjin, Shandong, Shanghai, Zhejiang and Guangdong (New Century, March 1998). But if the Xinjiang camp is unimportant, why did Wu go to China's northwestern region several times to collect data for his books, paying particularly attention to the prison economic output there?
Furthermore, any analysis of China's prison economy must consider the relative importance of the economic output from a labor camp to the overall economy of the region where the camp is located. Based on my own experience, while the economic output of camps in the more developed regions may be higher in absolute terms, its relative impact is much less than camps in the remote and economically depressed regions. Seymour and Anderson compare the output of prison camps in remote regions to the the total economic output to evaluate the possible contribution of the prison output to the national economy. Wu chooses prison camps in more developed parts of China and uses their absolute output without regard to relative impact as another means to exaggerate the importance of prison economy.
This is an example of the intellectual tricks Wu proudly engages in. Another example is in Wu's "Chinese Gulag," where he obfuscates the issue by equating statistics of Chinese government data on arrests with a claim of 16 to 20 million "people" in Chinese labor reform camps. He did not use the term "prisoner" but "people. " The reader must wonder whether Wu even includes as "people" those living on prison grounds, such as released inmates that choose to remain, the prison guards, their families and other hired workers at the labor camps.
The third major error of "New Ghosts, Old Ghosts," according to Fiedler, is that the book claims that the Chinese laogai system is not comparable to the gulags of the former Soviet Union. Seymour points out that the per capita incarceration rate during the Stalin era was 12 times that of today's China. This is the book's third error, Fiedler says, because Wu has said the two systems are ideologically the same. But if Wu and Fiedler are correct on this point of ideology, why has Wu not brought up the vastly disparate incarceration rates and tried to explain them?
Equating China's prison system to Stalin's gulag is but one of Wu's many ways of promoting his message to the West. However, Wu does not bother to explain the equivalence with a political analysis nor with a comparison of the per capita imprisonment data, which, in my view, is the most crucial indicator of any national policy towards its prison system. Westerners seeking facts and figures to form their own conclusions will not find them from Wu.
Fiedler says "New Ghosts, Old Ghosts" fourth error is in claming that prisoners who have completed their sentences are not forced to stay and continue to do labor in prison. "New Ghosts, Old Ghosts" says this practice was discontinued more than a decade ago. Some still do stay, but on their own volition. And Seymour says, "Even in the 1960s the released prisoners were permitted to marry, start families and even travel. These are even more common now." Fiedler says all this is false. Yet Fiedler is not Chinese, nor has he spent time in Chinese prisons. How can he make any argument based on a few distant photos of the outside of some prisons? How can he assume that released prisoners today face the same kind of restrictions as Wu faced in the '70s?
In China during the Mao era, did released prisoners who stayed on to work have their freedom? One first must define what the term "freedom" means. At that time, even those who were forced to stay on after their release led lives much different from that of the prisoners. And there was a wide variation of practice. For example some got married, some did not; some got permission to travel and visit families at home and some did not. All kinds of situations existed and no generalization can be made.
I believe Wu when he says he was imprisoned for being a "rightist." In that era, petty thieves and other minor criminals were typically not sent to the laogai camps, so Wu's three years in laogai were probably due to his right-wing activities or comments. Not many of the "rightists" in that era were actually sent to laogai, though many were often groundlessly accused of being "rightist" by others. It is no wonder that Wu becomes embittered by his experience and elects to retaliate in kind.
By Seymour's calculation, a person released from prison but remains at the camp has regained his freedom--to the extent that existed for anyone in China at the time. Then Wu was deprived of his personal freedom for only 3 years. Wu always leads the reader to believe that he was imprisoned for 19 years while actually he merely resided at a labor camp for that period. A subtle difference that Wu knows most Westerners won't notice. Along comes Seymour and Anderson's book whose contents exposes the dubious nature of Wu's carefully contrived set of credentials, to, I assume, Wu's lasting consternation.
Of course anyone that suffered even 3 years of education through labor would have ample grounds to criticize the conditions that existed. Furthermore, it would be even more admirable if the person can relate his experience in such a way as to contribute towards improving the human rights of prisoners in China. There is certainly no need to sneak around and make up stories.
The Laogai Debate as Relates to Deng Xiaoping and Zhu Rongji
In his most recent meeting with the Voice of America reporters, Harry Wu made an interesting comment. He said, "Our difference with James Seymour et al lies in the following. Seymour only refers to those prison inmates that have been sentenced by the Chinese courts. We count as inmates not only those sentenced but also the dependents in prison camps, those forced to remain and work at those camps and juvenile delinquents. Some have served their term but is forced to remain with the prison team and still deprived of their personal freedom."
Wu's comment raises some questions. What does he mean by personal freedom and by what standard? Everybody knows that for a long period in mainland China, all manners of control were imposed. Not just on prison inmates, but during the cultural revolution, the movement of all sorts of people were restricted. No one can leave their place of residence or work place without notifying and getting permission. It was not just those in stockades that were without freedom, even ordinary citizens were subjected to layers of government control.
During the cultural revolution tens of thousands of students were sent to the countryside without any choice; they were no different from those forced to stay and work at the prison farms after release. Individual freedom was taken away to varying degrees. Hundreds of million Chinese, the majority of the population, suffered from loss of freedom. By Wu's standard, nearly everybody in China would qualify as being a laogai inmate. Zhu Rongji in cadre school, Deng Xiaoping under house arrest would qualify as those deserving salute by Wu's Laogai Research Foundation.
Maybe it's not considered an exaggeration to add the years of forced service at the prison camp on top of three years of prison sentence and thus become a 19 year hero and laogai survivor. Why not? Everybody in China has the chance to declare having been a laogai survivor and claim the accolade of a hero.
Is there a limit to Laogai Economics?
A major difference between Seymour and Wu's respective positions is the contribution of laogai economics to the national GDP. Seymour said, "Some claims that without laogai, China's economy would collapse. There is no evidence to support such a statement." Seymours presents economic estimates that show output from laogai is but a tiny part of the national GDP. His calculations are based on incomplete data reported by the Chinese judicial authorities. Are these estimates reliable? I believe there is a high probability that they are overstated. Actual production from the prison system is likely much smaller than reported. While not completely believable, the estimates are at least better than those made up out of thin air.
Even today, filing falsify reports is still common place because it is not considered a crime. The central government and the Beijing municipal government frequently resorts to falsified data to lie and the people also resorts to false data to lie to the government. This is a prevailing condition in China. Even so, there are not many that go to such extremes as turning three years in a prison camp into 19 years of laogai residency.
There are three main reasons why the data from China's prison authority are exaggerated or in error. First, towards the end 1980's, the government began an incentive award system whereby for prisons that meet their production targets, the prison guards and administrators are entitled to share part of the profits as reward. About 10 to 30% of the profit is allocated as bonus. Therefore, the extent of over reporting of their production value and profit directly affect the bonus pool for the management of each prison.
Second, most of the production from prisons are subject to no tax or very little tax. The value reported to the tax authorities is frequently different from the value reported to the central judicial authorities. Both authorities tolerate this practice. The central judicial authorities want to boast about their achievements and the tax authorities have no desire to offend the judiciary.
Third, the promotion of officials within the judiciary is the same as other departments, namely, by their work related performance. Hence another motivation to over report. These reports are consolidated and report up the line. No one is particularly interested in verifying those numbers reported. A direct consequence is the further infringement of the prisoners' basic human rights.
A numerical example would clarify matters. Suppose a laogai team earns an
actual profit of $100,000 but is reported as having a profit of $200,000.
If the prison authorities are entitled to a bonus of 20% of the profit, they will keep $40,000 or double the amount they are entitled based on actual profit. In effect they keep 40%. Part of the remainder is allocated as working capital and for management fees and other expenses. Whatever is leftover is then the budget for the prisoners' meals. Since most of the other expenses are more or less fixed, the additional bonus payment comes directly out of the mouths of the prisoners.
Since the local prison authorities have other ways to increase their take at the expense of the prisoners, the meal budgets of most prisons are only about 1/3 of the standard set by the central judiciary authorities. Virtually all of China's prisons suffer from this hidden deprivation and injustice. Thus the actual living standards of prisoners in China is lower than that set by the Judicial Ministry, and lower than international standards. In some prisons, the prisoners suffer from long term under-nourishment and must depend on supplement from relatives.
Therefore, the data from prison authorities can only be overblown. This tendency is exactly opposite to those profit making enterprises motivated to under report revenue and reduce tax liability.
"China's economy can not do without the laogai's economy," seems to be Harry Wu's mantra. He is saying that China's laogai is an essential and basic part of its national economy. Trading with China is to help China's laogai economy and therefore become accomplices in oppressing China's political prisoners.
It's obvious Wu has powerful backers, but who are they?
These assertions did not originate from Wu. Just like Fiedler, Wu was just a low ranking worker bee and lacks the qualifications and authority to make comments on political matters that rightfully belong to those in power.
There are times when Wu gets so carried away that even President Clinton is dismissed. One source of his arrogance is his powerful supporters in the U.S. Congress. But this did not keep Seymour from single-handedly saying directly to the experts and scholars in Hong Kong, "I believe there are many in the Senate and House that are irresponsible and make statements that are not factual. This approach will not help in improving human rights in China. Not only do the Chinese authorities find justifiable grounds to ignore the criticism but it can be used to argue that China has no human rights problems." Therefore, he emphasized that when criticizing China's human rights problems, "exaggeration is counter productive." (South China Morning Post, 3/12/98) Seymour did not hold back. In his book, he said, "Once the World Bank invested in Xinjiang, the Bank became the whipping boy for Wu and (Senator) Helms."
Mr. Helms is the current Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; what is his relationship with Harry Wu? Is he Wu's patron? No way of knowing. But some things are easy to see, that Wu is no dummy. I believe even the Chinese public security would not deny that Wu possesses exceptional abilities exceeding most cadres and dissidents. He has a quick mind and boldness, and is a highly productive doer. Whether his motivation to make trouble for China has to do with revenge, or to make a living, or to achieve fame with profit, or all of the above, is a question we can defer for now. Whether he is successful in making trouble also can be deferred for now. What's evident is that his tooth-for-tooth mission relies on underhanded, in the gutter approach, the same treatment he suffered under the Mao Communist regime.
There are many former laogai inmates who suffered in the hands Chinese authorities that may have initially applauded Wu's action as striking a blow on all their behalfs. I too had an initially favorable impression of Wu, thinking that after coming to America he is still concerned about the suffering of prisoners in China. Because Wu can do such good deeds, it is small wonder that American politicians like him and pat him on the shoulder. However, when assessing Wu, they are careful not to go overboard. "Courageous" and "capable" type of praise is what bosses customarily give to their workers. Has anyone praised him for being sincere, honest, trustworthy, gentlemanly, not being a liar, upright character, etc.? Who would consider someone that cannot speak truthfully as a trustworthy friend or as honored person worthy of respect? At the same time, Wu would not let them onto his secrets or let them see his sources. He is realistic and knows full well that they do not trust him.
Seymour is, therefore, quite proper in including Wu's Washington supporters when he criticizes Wu. Sure, Wu is not factual, but the world is full of liars. Wu's exaggerations are not subtle, anyone with slightest analysis can see the flaws and inconsistencies. For anyone of average intellect to buy-in is clear indication of other political agenda or intentions. Therefore, Wu should not be the recipient of all the blame.
As the smoke clears from Wu's debate with Seymour, Wu's falsehoods and Laogai Research Foundation's basis for deception are exposed. Perhaps many members of Congress in both Houses choose to believe the falsehoods and innuendoes because of the need to influence American policy towards China from a particular historical perspective, reflecting the U.S. mainstream's distrust and doubt toward China during this period of transition and reform. But then the exchange of visits between Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton marks the conclusion of twenty years of uneasy U.S.-China relationship and the beginning of new chapter of history. In this new era, the bilateral relationship will be increasingly stable and friendly, and witness increasing exchanges and cooperation. Thus, mutual doubt and distrust will gradually decrease.
Clinton recently again emphasized, "Isolation of China will not work." and "Engagement with China is the best way to promote our interest." If Wu and his laogai tales are nurtured by Uncle Sam's previous doubt and suspicions, then to dispel these doubts now would require someone with an impeccable reputation and position. Thus the way is opened for Seymour and his co-author.
I believe, even as US-China relation continues to improve and grow closer, criticism and promotion of human rights in China will remain a part of the U.S. policy towards China. I hope that the criticism will be based on facts and reality. Wu's false accusations should not serve as basis for U.S. criticism. Only criticism based on actual reality will be valid, effective and powerful.
Who is Wu helping and making trouble for?
Even though Wu's recent acts of deception have been effective in attracting mainstream media and public's attention, such acts are not helpful to the West toward understanding and evaluating the real situation about China's prison system and prisoner's human rights. The U.S. government also cannot use false accusations to ask China to own up and thus apply pressure for reform. The Chinese government is not open and frank about many of their human rights problems. They won't even admit some real deficiencies much less admit to Wu's fabrications. Thus Wu not only has not made trouble for China, he also has not help the U.S. cause.
Seymour views this from another perspective. He said, "We not only do not need to resort to gross exaggeration, the adaptation of such approach is counter effective." This statement is indeed profound. Seymour as an American is not only concerned with human rights in China but is even more concerned with the image and reputation of his own country. If Americans continue to remain quiet in face of Wu's exaggerations and distortions, eventually the reputation of the U.S. as the champion of democracy would be damaged.
Seymour is reminding the American public to pay attention to its own image and draw a clear distinction between fact and fiction. Otherwise, the day will come when intellectuals that are guardians of American values and culture will be challenged as to why they ignored the antics of Harry Wu. They will be asked whether America willingly sacrifices their basic integrity and values for certain political positioning. Seymour clearly hopes that such a tainted chapter can be avoided in America's history.
Some feel that by objecting to anyone criticizing China is to help China. Many who can't stand Wu's activity do not take action to expose him because of this concern. Many other so called human rights activists show support for Wu solely to reaffirm their own political position. This overlooks the advantage afforded to the Chinese government. If they are accused of human rights abuses based on fabrications with hostile motives, they are given the opening to take high moral grounds and ignore the criticism and even find justifications to deny any infringement of human rights.
Objectively speaking, Wu's approach of making mountains out of mole hills actually helps the Chinese government maintain the poor human rights record. The main reason is that by exaggerating China's human rights abuses by 100 fold, gradually people will realize that 99% of the accusations have no basis in fact. At that point the anger towards the actual 1% of real abuses will have dissipated and perhaps turn to sympathy for the Chinese government. Ironically Wu's action serves to confirm that a lot of the world's criticism of China's human rights are based on false premises.
One example is the grossly exaggerated head count of prisoners in China and the politics of laogai economics.
Another is the TV program made by Wu and BBC which claims that all the apparel on the stalls in an unidentified street in Xinjiang are made by military laogai there. The reality is that clothes prisoners have to wear are dependent on being sent to them by their family. Wu also said certain cemeteries in Xinjiang contain only graves of prisoners. This of course was false which he himself later admitted.
Consequently, the people of the world will not easily accept any accusations of human rights abuses in China. They will say if Wu, who has done the most authoritative research on China's laogai, can only utter nonsense and lies, how can anyone have any authentic issues to raise? Therefore, Wu's western funhouse mirror has actually helped China and make trouble for the U.S. government. In the end, it's the prisoners in China that are harmed, their human rights conditions will not improve from his action.
Wu leads China's prisoner human rights problem to a blind alley
Even though China's National People's Congress has been making progress legislating laws, human rights abuses and conditions in China's prisons are still terrible. Prisoners do not have enough to eat, with excessive work load, and the crime rate inside the prison is serious--most of which perpetrated by the prison guards. The brutal and tyrannical practices inside the Chinese prison system truly defies accurate description. I am a personal witness to these lawless practices which can be found in Seymour's recent book. These prison conditions are not unknown to Harry Wu who spent over ten years in the Tuanhe prison farm outside of Beijing.
In his earlier books, "586" and "Bitter Winds," he accurately described the dismal conditions of the prison system. I felt he did this very well and accurately identified the essential violations. He was also successful in calling the world's attention to China's human rights problems in their prison system.
However in recent years, his hot button is to stop Chinese made prison goods from exporting to the U.S., to investigate the sale of organs from Chinese prisoners and to disrupt the investment of World Bank in China's backward northwest region. These problems have no direct relevance to alleviating human rights abuses in China's prison; some even hurt the cause of human rights for Chinese prisoners.
U.S. laws forbid import of prison made goods, but export of prison made goods is not restricted by international regulations. The U.S. can rightfully ask China not to export such goods to the U.S. but has no basis to ask China to stop exporting to elsewhere in the world. From the prisoners' point of view, they need to work to eat. They are also looking for more profitable form of labor and certainly are not concerned with whether the goods are exported or not. If markets for prison made goods are taken away, the prisoners are still expected to work and may end up having to take on more arduous work and bear greater hardship. Thus from a long term view, even if the objective is to change the prison economics and stop export of prison made goods, the welfare of the prisoners needs to be dealt with first.
The benefit for sale of organs from executed prisoners is not just for Chinese officials but also for the many patients, so that complete stoppage is not necessarily the best solution. The answer is to ask the Chinese authorities to set the regulations requiring the advanced permission of the condemned prisoners and protection of the rights of the immediate relatives so as to unify the practice according to law and render the procedure public. This matter really impacts very few, around a few dozen prisoners each year so that this is not a crucial question affecting human rights in China. About the same number are murdered by prison guards each year. In the 11 years I was in prison, there were three who were beaten to death by the guards.
Just because China's northwest region holds laogai prison camps, Wu opposes World Bank financing of irrigation projects. This is not justified and can directly harm the welfare of the prisoners detained there. To eat, prisoners need to plant and need to water and need to use advanced equipment and technology to increase yield. Instead of reforming the prison system, Wu's protest will only deprive prisoners of potential benefits.
Wu's three emphases in recent years as described above have directed the world's attention away from the real problems relating to survival and humane treatment. The confusion he causes leads to the world wide impression that the basic problems of surviving and prisoner treatment have been resolved. If Wu could really think about the tragic conditions of the prisoners and expend one-tenth of his foundation income for the direct benefit of the prisoners, I probably would still not feel the need to expose him. But he has strayed too far from work on behalf of China's human rights and even betrayed the Harry Wu of the '60s and '70s who also suffered from beatings and deprivations of a prisoner.
Why break Wu's putrid funhouse mirror?
Harry Wu's greatest accomplishment is no more than creating what the Shanghai people disdainfully call a "western looking glass," i.e., a funhouse mirror. In the hearts of overseas Chinese, the stench of this mirror has been obvious for a long time. So is it worth the effort to expose him? I think so and sooner the better.
If we don't destroy this funhouse mirror, sooner or later the Chinese Communists will. If we let them expose Wu, all the overseas dissidents and activists will lose face. If we do this ourselves, at least we can assure the world that not all are sycophants reflecting only whatever the West wants to hear.
If we don't destroy this funhouse mirror, the Americans will sooner or later realize the truth. When they reject this funhouse mirror, we Chinese will lose face. If we expose this fakery, at least we can send a message to the world that not all dissidents are bullshit artists. America does not lack people like Harry Wu that bullshits with no concern for substantiation. But at least we can then say that we Chinese have no admiration for people of the sort, and would not employ them much less give them honorary doctorate degrees.
Finally and most important of all, only after we break Wu's funhouse mirror can the West truly see and understand the actual conditions of Chinese prisons and human rights needs of the prisoners. The prison conditions are still harsh. Every minute, there will be many prisoners that will suffer from starvation, beatings and demeaning treatment. We need to work hard with not a minute to lose.
The dehumanizing treatment of prisoners will harden their hatred toward society and heighten their criminal tendencies. Upon release they are likely to commit greater crimes and thus increase the harm to society. This is a world wide problem. True prison reform must begin with basic respect for the human rights of the prisoner. We should take action not only for humanitarian reason but for the future benefit of the society as a whole. This is particularly critical for China during its present transitional period with high potential for instability and is the primary reason for my commentary.