Brought up as one of eight children of a Shanghai banker, Harry Wu attended a Jesuit school before enrolling in Beijing College of Geology in the late 1950s. In the throes of a Communist purge, his university was given a quota of counterrevolutionary elements, and relegated Wu to nineteen years in the Chinese gulag, known as the laogai. There, he survived physical and psychological torture, living for a time on only ground-up corn husks. In his autobiography Bitter Winds, he describes chasing rats through the fields in order to steal the grains in their nests, or eating snakes. After his release, Wu accepted a position as an unpaid visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, arriving in the United States in 1985 with forty dollars. After ten days of pursuing research by day and sleeping on a park bench by night, he landed a job on the graveyard shift at a doughnut shop where he ate three meals a day and had a place to stay at night. (To date, he cannot touch a doughnut.) Wu returned, or tried to return, to China a total of five times. While there, twice in 1991 and once in 1994, Wu documented conditions in prisons and labor camps for Sixty Minutes and other news programs, and was placed on China’s most wanted list for his exposés. In 1995, on his fifth trip, he was caught. While Wu spent sixty-six days in detention, awaiting news of his fate, a worldwide campaign for his release was launched, including demands that Hillary Clinton boycott the Beijing Summit of Women. China released him, and his return to U.S. soil was celebrated across the country.
Wu frequently testifies on Capitol Hill about the latest abuses he has uncovered—the for-profit selling of executed prisoners’ organs by Chinese officials, the illegal export of prison labor products (such as diesel engines and Chicago Bulls apparel), the frequency of public executions, the unfair restrictions on reproductive rights and their appalling enforcement procedures. The Laogai Research Foundation, which Wu founded and directs, estimates there have been fifty million people incarcerated in the laogai since 1950, and that there are eight million people in forced labor today. In 2004 Harry Wu took part in Speak Truth to Power activities in Rome, Italy. In November 2008, Wu opened the Laogai Museum in Washington D.C., the first museum in the world to exclusively deal with human rights in China. Harry Wu’s self-proclaimed goal is to put the word laogai in every dictionary in the world, and to that end, works eighteen-hour days criss-crossing the country and the globe speaking with student groups and heads of state to make this present-day horror become a past memory.