Obituary: Harry Wu, human rights activist

Harry Wu, former political prisoner who exposed abuses in Chinas prison labour camp system. Picture: AP
Harry Wu, former political prisoner who exposed abuses in Chinas prison labour camp system. Picture: AP
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Born: 8 February, 1937. Died: 26 April, 2016, aged 79.

Harry Wu, a former political prisoner who dedicated his later life to exposing abuses in China’s brutal prison labour camp system, has died. He was 79.

Wu died Tuesday morning while on holiday in Honduras, Ann Noonan, administrator with Wu’s Laogai Human Rights Organisation said.

“He was a real hero,” Ms Noonan added. “Harry’s work will continue, it will not stop.”

Wu was born into a prosperous family in Shanghai that saw most of its property confiscated following the civil war victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949. He studied geology at university but fell afoul of the authorities for his criticism of the Soviet Union, China’s then-ally, and was sentenced in 1960 at age 23 to China’s prison camp system known as laogai, or “reform through labour”.

Released in 1979, Wu moved to the US in 1985. He taught, wrote and founded the Laogai Research Foundation while returning frequently to China to conduct research on the labour camp system.

Having become a US citizen, Wu was arrested during a visit to China in 1995 and sentenced to 15 years on espionage charges. He was immediately deported to the US where he continued his work documenting Chinese human rights abuses and was a frequent speaker before Congress and at academic events.

Wu was the author of books about his prison experience and later advocacy, including The Chinese Gulag, Bitter Winds, and Troublemaker.

He was a strong backer of other political prisoners and critics denounced by Beijing, including exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who is serving a prison sentence in China for advocating political reforms.