China

Harry Wu: Chinese human rights campaigner dies aged 79

Harry Wu speaking to reporters during a human rights news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on 10 May 2000 Image copyright AFP
Image caption After 19 years in labour camps, Mr Wu spent the rest of his life campaigning against forced labour

Harry Wu, who has died aged 79, was a respected campaigner for human rights in China.

Born in Shanghai, Wu was just 23 when he was given a life sentence in a forced labour prison camp after he criticised the Soviet Union, then an ally of China.

Mr Wu spent 19 years inside 12 different camps, an experience he said turned him into an animal, fighting over scraps of food so he would not starve like millions of others.

"I intended to commit suicide twice, because I felt that death was better than life," Mr Wu told the BBC in 2011.

"I was working in a coal mine, 12 to 12, two shifts a day. Then in a chemical factory, 12 to 12, two shifts a day. Then on a farm.

"When the sun was rising, we would go out and when the sun went down, we would come back."

His release came one day after the death of Chinese ruler, Mao Zedong. After he was freed, he went to the United States to work in geology, his chosen field, but quickly turned into a human rights campaigner.

Exposing China's camps

Mr Wu devoted the rest of his life to speaking out against China's continued use of forced labour as punishment.

He said he wanted to introduce the Chinese word "laogai" into the English language, the name for China's harsh labour camp system.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The system Mr Wu battled ended in 2014

He went back to China four times, going undercover as a prison guard, to document conditions in labour camps.

On his fourth attempt, he was caught and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was deported following international pressure.

Mr Wu founded his own organisation, the Laogai Research Foundation, to keep the spotlight focused on the use of labour camps.

Due in part to his efforts, the laogai system was closed in 2014, and substituted with a milder form of punishment, known as "reform through labour".

The foundation continues to expose human rights violations in China's prison system.

"The Laogai Research Foundation Board, employees and supporters remain committed to carrying on Harry Wu's efforts," spokesperson Ann Noonan told the BBC.

"We are grateful for the loving messages that people all over the world are sending in memory of Harry Wu. He will be greatly missed."

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