Listen to Harry Wu read from Laogai: The Machinery of Repression in China at the 2009 Human Rights Banned Book Fair in New York:
The day after I returned to campus, a meeting was called. The topic of the meeting, I was dismayed to learn, was Wu Hongda [Harry's Chinese name]. Throughout the three-hour meeting I was accused of being bourgeois, of leaving campus to escape criticism, and told that the opinions I had voiced during the May 2 meeting were “poisonous.” I attempted to defend myself but to no avail. In the end, I was told to write a self-criticism. I reluctantly agreed. Not long afterwards we were dismissed for summer vacation. Back in Shanghai, my parents urged me to cooperate and stay out of trouble.
I returned to school in the fall to find the political atmosphere even more oppressive. More and more classmates and teachers were being labeled as rightists. I was told my previous self-criticism was unacceptable and ordered to rewrite it. I was also ordered to hand over my personal diary. Then on October 20 a banner appeared outside the cafeteria. It read: “Wu Hongda’s Counterrevolutionary Crimes” and went on to list a series of supposed offenses. My name was crossed out with a large red X.
(Read more after the jump)
So now I, too, had been labeled a rightist. I still attended class, but my free time was consumed by mandatory political classes and writing summaries of my thoughts. Those of us who had been labeled rightists were unsure of our fates, but could sense that harsher punishments were still to come. So could our friends and classmates; hardly anyone was willing to speak to me anymore. Even if I’d had the time for baseball practice in between writing thought summaries, my teammates—my closest friends at school— made it clear I was no longer welcome.
In February of 1958, the rightists were given their punishments. I was called into a room with ten of my rightist classmates. We knew one classmate had been sentenced to a term in the Laogai; he had already been escorted off campus. Of the group I was with, five were expelled from school and assigned to hard labor in the countryside. The rest of us were allowed to stay in school but would be “under the supervision of the masses.”
From them on, I was under constant surveillance. Two classmates were assigned to follow me everywhere, even to the restroom. The strict schedule of political classes and thought summaries continued, and now I had to perform various other tasks as well, such as catching flies and rats. I was shunned by everyone; no one wanted to risk being seen as sympathetic to a rightist. I grew despondent. My prospects were bleak; rightists were generally given difficult work assignments in remote areas. Nor would anyone want to marry me, and the Party would not permit such a marriage anyway. I would forever be an outcast, spurned by society and yet under constant surveillance. I lost interest in my studies. I began secretly dating a young woman, a local nurse, sneaking off campus frequently to visit her. I was repeatedly admonished for leaving campus but no
Then on April 27, 1960, I was summoned to a meeting, one of many group criticism sessions I had attended since being labeled a rightist. Scrawled on the blackboard were the words “Meeting to Criticize Rightist Wu Hongda.” I sat quietly, head down, as my classmates took turns criticizing and denouncing me. After twenty minutes I was told to stand, and the leader of the meeting announced I was to be expelled for refusing to reform myself. Suddenly, a uniformed Public Security officer appeared in the doorway. He walked to the front of the room and spoke: “Representing the people’s government of Beijing, I sentence the counterrevolutionary rightist Wu Hongda to reeducation through labor.” My head was swimming—how could this be happening? He held out my sentencing document and instructed me to sign. His hand was blocking the part of the document listing the charges against me. “I want to see the accusation against me,” I said to the officer. “It is my right to be informed of my crimes.” He told me the government had placed me under arrest, whether I signed the document or not didn’t matter. I looked around the room, hoping someone would come to my defense, but no one said a word. Not knowing what else to do, I signed the paper. I was escorted to my dormitory to collect my belongings, put in a jeep and taken to the Beiyuan Detention center. I was twenty-three years old. But the nightmare was just beginning.
The Beiyuan Detention center was dirty and intensely crowded. We woke at 5:30 every morning, splashed our faces with one handful of dirty water from a shared bucket, then sat through hours of political education. We received two meals a day consisting of two steamed buns made of chaff and sorghum, and a ladleful of weak soup. Prisoners were perpetually hungry. At night, we slept in tents in the prison yard because the dormitories were all full. It was so cramped in the tent that we had to sleep on our sides pressed up against one another. Twice during the night, the duty prisoner3 would call out for everyone to roll over. Conditions were so crowded that the only way to turn over was for everyone to do it at once.
I quickly learned my first lesson of the Laogai: labor is simultaneously an obligation, a punishment, and a reward. It was only after I had confessed my “crimes” and proven myself to be obedient that I was allowed to labor in the Beiyuan Chemical Factory. Prisoners who labored were given three meals a day instead of two, and the work, although tiring, was better than the monotony of the political study sessions. Easier jobs were given to prisoners who were well behaved or ingratiated themselves with the guards. Later I would experience the punishing side of labor, but initially I was happy to be given work.
Being assigned to labor also meant I was allowed to write to my family, who for an entire month had known nothing of my whereabouts. They didn’t even know I had been arrested. I crafted my letter to them very carefully, saying I was being treated well and telling them not to worry. I received noreply. A month later my brother visited me. He was furious. He scolded me for hurting our family, the Party, and the country. He said the whole family had denounced me. I was stunned by his words, not knowing what to say. He told me to study Mao and reform myself, then gave me a package containing a towel, and a few hard candies. I asked how our parents were doing, and he began shouting at me, saying I should be ashamed to even ask about them and that he hoped I died in prison. Then he left. At the time I was bewildered by his anger. Only after my release nineteen years later would I learn that upon receiving my letter from Beiyuan Detention Center, our stepmother had committed suicide.