Bitter Winds : A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag. Harry Wu.
Bitter Winds, Indeed…. April 20, 2000
Returning in 1994 from China as a Fulbright Scholar, I could not shake China off. It has become part of my consciousness forever. After writing an essay on classical and modern Chinese literature, with Confucius, Tu Fu, Lu Xun, Lu Wenfu, and other classical and modern writers fresh in my mind, I reread the writings of Fang Lizhi and continued to struggle to understand my experience in China. Appalled by the injustices of a political system that could imprison and destroy so many members of its own culture, from all walks of life, I then read in November of 1994 Harry Wu’s Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag.
Arrested in 1960 for reasons no real judicial system in the world would recognize, Harry Wu spent the next nineteen years of his life in one brutally subhuman labor camp after another until he was released in 1979 and eventually given permission to leave China for the United States. The victim of slave labor, starvation, and torture, Wu, at times broken physically and near death, endured with the hope of some day telling the world of his experience:
“My travels in 1991, when I returned to China to film [secretly] the conditions within the labor camps, fulfilled part of a consuming mission. Even though I had found safety in the United States, I had never found rest. Always I recalled the faces I had left behind. Always I worried that while I had escaped, the labor-reform system continued to operate, day by day, year by year, largely unnoticed, unchallenged, and therefore unchanged. I felt urgently the responsibility not just to disclose but to publicize the truth about the Communist Party’s mechanisms of control, whatever the risk to me, whatever the discomfort of telling my story. Each time I revisited my past, I hoped it would be the last time, but I had decided that my experiences belonged not only to me and not only to China’s history. They belonged to humanity.” (285-286)
Like so many accounts of the Soviet gulag, Harry Wu’s is a voice of witness, of moral memory, compelled from within to speak the truth in the hope of finding justice before the universal court of humankind. Without relating the many tragic incidents of Wu’s book, let me just say his words sank into me and left me deeply shaken, struggling further to understand the country I had just visited, struggling further to understand what the African-American writer Ralph Ellison was fond of calling “human complexity.” Fang Lizhi’s own words on Harry Wu’s 1994 book are worth quoting: “The injustices he chronicles are still going on today. His special point of view on history and politics makes it possible to understand why a democratic China is a dream that shall never die.” I was once more deeply distressed when Harry Wu was arrested in June of 1995, while entering China as an American citizen and on an American passport. His ordeal confirmed for me the side of Chinese political reality that I had painfully sensed and observed while there, and which all so unfortunately still continues as attested by the suppression of the Falun Gong and others.
It was while visiting Shenzhen, the city of the new economic policy, that I noticed the assistant to the mayor pick up from the meeting room table a copy of a speech he proceeded to read to our Fulbright group. Well worn, soiled, with the pages curling from repeated reading to one collection of foreigners after another, the paper described in glowing terms the achievements of Shenzhen’s economic miracle. After handling us in apparently the usual way, when someone perceptively asked what the residency status of the three million workers in Shenzhen was, the mayor’s assistant tried to put a good face on the fact that two million were on temporary internal work papers, primarily male, since a proportionate number of women and children are excluded from the “city,” and subject to dismissal at any time back to the countryside. Looking out the bus window as we drove to the train station to Hong Kong, I could not but think of the Soviet Union’s Potemkin villages.
Harry Wu’s 1995 experience further confirms that such injustices as he chronicles are continuing today. In 1994 one of the unexpected sights I saw with my own eyes, by chance, in crowded Beijing traffic, was a man handcuffed and blindfolded, sitting in the back of a jeep with two policemen, on his way somewhere he could not see. A few days later a Chinese friend who grew up in Beijing told me that only political prisoners are ever blindfolded. Far from China needing business now, and human rights later, China needs, as all countries need, human rights and democracy first and foremost and forever.
I remember reading that Eleanor Roosevelt, as chairwoman, served in 1947 on the Human Rights Commission with China’s representative, Dr. Peng-Chun Chang, as vice-chairman. Together, along with members of eighteen other nations, they helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to her own testimony, Dr. Chang repeatedly challenged the Western representatives, reminded them of the importance of the ideas of Confucius on human rights, and argued philosophically for their incorporation along side those of Thomas Aquinas and other Western thinkers. It is historically accurate to say the resulting document is truly representative of the best of China’s own philosophical thinking on human rights, basic human values.
I do not know whether Fang Lizhi or Harry Wu is aware of the contribution of China to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I do know I believe the following words by Fang Lizhi articulate the most profound vision of human life and experience now available to the consciousness of late twentieth-century human beings, East or West, a vision toward which we all must continue struggling to evolve:
“The values that underlie human dignity are common to all peoples. They are the universal standards of human rights that apply without regard to race, nationality, language, or creed. Symbolized by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these principles are increasingly accepted and respected throughout the world.” (“Keeping the Faith” 262)