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Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in…

Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag

by Harry Wu

Other authors: Carolyn Wakeman

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There's something appealing to me about the bleak and austere. I suppose it is my basically Stoic/Buddhist mindset and its emphasis on daily acknowledgement of life's fleetingness--memento mori--that is the reason for this preference. I've been a keen reader of Shoah/Holocaust histories and memoirs: Primo Levi, of course, but also Lifton's The Nazi Doctors and Browning's Ordinary Men, about the Einsaatsgruppen, and much more. In time I moved on to Solzhenitsyn and the Russian Gulag. Now I'm in China in the political reeducation camps. My first excursion here was by way of Nien Cheng's incomparable Life and Death in Shanghai. That book starts in 1966, at the outset of the Mao's "Cultural Revolution."

Harry Wu's Bitter Winds starts earlier, during Mao's "Great Leap Forward." Mao was a megalomaniac whose ideological boorishness convulsed his nation causing the deaths of tens of million (Seventy million according to June Chang and Jon Halliday in Mao: The Untold Story.)

The Great Leap Forward was the Soviet-style collectivization of China's agricultural sector which produced the famine of 1958-61. Marxist/Leninist theory always had the profound undergirding of an absolute ignorance of market mechanisms. Of course, these mechanisms function whether one ignores them or not. When Mao and his henchmen ignored them he starved to death, just in this 3-year period, roughly (the figure is real but inexact) 40 million of his own countrymen and women.

Harry Wu was a kid in Catholic school in Shanghai in 1949 when the People's Liberation Army defeated Chang Kai Shek and the Nationalists. Harry's father, a rational person, a banker, who could not imagine the reign of wooden-headed ideologues that were about to descend on his nation, decided to stay when Mao took power. Big mistake. Harry's Catholic teachers, seeing the writing on the wall, fled.

In the interregnum, as the Communists took hold of the reins of power, Harry, a smart kid, read in the Party newspaper about his country's need for geologists to discover the raw materials for China's new industrialist future. He was accepted into a five-year program at a new Beijing institute. But academic work, which Harry was very good at, wasn't what was valued at school. What was valued was mindless reiterations of the Party line.

Harry became caught up in Mao's period of Party self-criticism known to us in the West as the "Hundred Flowers Campaign." ("Let a hundred flowers bloom," wrote the Great Helmsman, "and let a hundred schools of thought contend.") This was a trap to get people to incriminate themselves. Millions were so caught and Harry Wu was among them. He was jailed as a counter-revolutionary rightest. No, I'm not sure what that means either. To the Communists in power however it meant that Harry wasn't ideologically acceptable. It meant he had been born into a banker's family and as such was irrevocably tainted.

We in the West have a hard time understanding the Chinese reverence for family. Suffice it to say that millenia of Confucian familial culture, of ancestor worship, and strict adherence to paternal rule had now given way to an ideology in which family was to be jettisoned. Under Soviet-style Communism, which China was busily adopting, breaking from one's family in order to become a true socialist was encouraged. But even In the Soviet Union-- see Orlando Figes's The Whisperers-- the strides made in this direction were piecemeal. In China the neural-cultural hardwiring was too great. It was almost impossible for the average Chinese to discard family connections. Thus, individual "crimes" became family crimes. In Harry Wu's case--as in the cases of millions of other unfortunates--his family, his brothers, his sisters, his father, his step-mother-- suffered for Harry's crimes, which we in fact a reaction to his father's "crimes."

Poor Harry had come to adulthood in a setting, religious though it might be, which was based on reason. The Communist Party was not based on reason, and being so young in this new atmosphere of bootlicking ideologues, Harry could not learn to lie quickly enough. Sad to say, but his innocence, his inability to dissemble--Harry had been raised to speak the truth--doomed him. He spent the next 19 years undergoing an utterly stupid program of corrective labor. He almost starved to death a number of times. There are scenes of prisoners dropping like flies from starvation that are almost unbearably moving.

The book is a harrowing read. It was co-written with American Carolyn Wakeman after Harry was released and managed to get away to the U.S. Later he went back with Ed Bradley of CBS's "60 Minutes" in order to gather footage for an exposé on China's use of prison labor in the manufacture of export products. What we in the West know today about China's long use of slave labor we owe to Harry Wu, this book, and his groundbreaking television journalism.

Highly recommended, but grim, not for the faint of heart or those living sheltered lives.

. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
The book and the author who exposed the appaling human rights violations in Chinese prisons today, and from his own experience of surviving the camps for 19 years in the 1950s and 60s. S ( )
  sungene | Aug 25, 2008 |
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)

Frederick Glaysher
  fglaysher | Apr 2, 2008 |
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Aan hen die hun eigen verhaal niet meer kunnen vertellen: mijn ouders, mijn jongste broer, mijn kampvrienden Ao, Lu en Xing, en miljoenen anderen.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0471114251, Paperback)

In April 1960, Chinese Communist authorities arrested Harry Wu, the son of a well-to-do Shanghai banker. He was cast into a prison camp and, though never formally charged or tried, he spent the next nineteen years in a hellish netherworld of grinding labor, systematic starvation, and torture. Bitter Winds is the powerful story of Harry Wu's imprisonment and survival, of extraordinary acts of courage, and of unforgettable heroism.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:45 -0400)

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