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China in the 1950s
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China in the 1950s


Harry WU (WU Hongda) 

 

Harry Wu was born in Shanghai in 1937. The son of a wealthy banker, he was sent to an elite Jesuit boys' school before attending the Beijing Geology Institute as an undergraduate. He was arrested in 1960 and was released from prison in 1979. He accepted an offer to be a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley in 1985 and resettled in the United States. He has lectured internationally about his experiences in prison, has testified before the United States Congress, and was awarded the Freedom Award by the Hungarian Freedom Fighters' Federation in 1991. He has been featured in stories by Newsweek and "60 Minutes," and is the subject of a British ITV documentary about the Chinese prison system. He is currently a resident scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The following is part of his account, pp. 26-28; 31-34; 44-46, Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag, Harry Wu and Carolyn Wakeman,: (New York; John Siley & Sons Inc., 1993)

Counterrevolutionary Crimes

It was June 5, 1957. During that first day back, I learned that a counterattack against the Party's critics was under way in my college. People's Daily had already started to use the term "counterrevolutionary rightist" to refer to those whose independent opinions, previously welcomed and even required, were suddenly judged to oppose the "revolutionary line" and the socialist system. Apparently the volume and intensity of criticism, both in newspaper commentaries and on university campuses, had exceeded Chairman Mao's expectations. With the prestige and authority of the Party and its leaders at risk, an "antirightist" crackdown had begun. Already before I left for Shanghai, a few people had been "capped" as "bourgeois rightists" to isolate them as targets for criticism and censure, and to indicate the seriousness of their political crimes.

  As soon as I took a seat in my classroom on June 6, Comrade Ma began to speak. I had never heard her tone so cold. "Today we discuss Wu Hongda," she declared. "First we ask him to explain his absence. It appears that he stayed away from Beijing for nine days without permission in order to avoid the rectification movement. Now that he has returned, he must be criticized. Second, we ask him to explain the poisonous ideas he spoke on May 3." With a shudder I realized that this criticism meeting was devoted entirely to me.

  The atmosphere in the classroom grew tense. I realized that opinion had turned overwhelmingly against me. No one dared counter the denunciations of the six or seven students trusted by the leaders. The meeting ended promptly at five o'clock with Ma's "conclusion."

  "Wu Hongda," she instructed, her voice tense, "you come from the bourgeois class, and you have many bourgeois ideas and actions to account for. You must be honest and make a serious self-criticism to the Party. In one week you must complete your thought summary in two parts, the first analyzing your escape and the second analyzing your poisonous ideas."

  "Don't use the word 'escape'!" I interrupted.

  Ma stood up from the table at the front of the room, her jaw rigid. "Now is not the time for you to talk," she shouted. I had never seen her face so hard. "Write your self-criticism and turn it in to the Party branch."

  Not wanting to join my classmates heading toward the cafeteria, I walked around the campus for a few moments alone, trying to figure out what was happening.

  At lunchtime on October 20, a week after I had turned in my thought summary, a crowd around the large bulletin board outside the cafeteria pulled back as I approached. The students stared at me awkwardly. No one spoke. Then I saw the banner, written in large characters, proclaiming "Wu Hongda's Counterrevolutionary Crimes." Below this headline, six newspaper- sized sheets of pale green paper itemized my offenses. My eyes kept returning to the large red X crossing out my name, a designation usually reserved for criminals who had been executed. Here the X signaled that I had been removed from the "ranks of the people" and relegated to the political status of outcast and enemy.

  In January 1958 everyone knew that those labeled as rightists across the country would soon receive punishments for their crimes. To prevent incidents before the sentencing, the school authorities exercised tight control over all rightists on the campus. We students could still attend classes in the morning, escorted by a Party member, but during the afternoons and on weekends we were sequestered in a classroom to write summaries of our thoughts and receive political instruction.

  As the Spring Festival vacation approached in early February 1958, a meeting for the 150 third-year students was announced. I saw Wang Jian, the cadre responsible for political education for the Department of Engineering Geology and Hydrology, seated on the platform. Beside him, the Party branch secretary called out one by one the names of twelve of the thirteen rightists in our grade and ordered us to a separate classroom, where perhaps ten Party members and one security guard stood by to supervise us. Not knowing what would happen next, we all felt great pressure. Then they sent us individually to yet another classroom where the deputy Party branch secretary sat at a table. In front of him lay a stack of papers.

  When my turn came, the deputy secretary picked up the top sheet and began to read the accusations against me. "As a representative of the Communist Party, I hereby pronounce your punishment as a counterrevolutionary rightist. These are your crimes," and he read the list. I waited, knowing that to be judged guilty of the most serious rightist crimes warranted immediate arrest. "Your crime is not so serious," he continued, "but your attitude is very bad. Your punishment is to remain at the school under the supervision of the masses." He forced me to sign two copies of the sentence, then ordered me back to the large classroom where the Party branch secretary called us to come forward one by one. He read out our punishments in front of the assembled third-year students. Before he dismissed the meeting, he instructed the rightists to return to the small classroom. There the security guard separated us into two groups according to our punishments.

  Zhang Baofa, the only one of us to receive the most serious sentence of immediate arrest, had already been taken away. One woman student received the mildest of the four sentences, no punishment other than the rightist label, and the Party secretary dismissed her to return to her dormitory. She seemed to tremble with relief and gratitude as she walked out the door. Five of the remaining eleven had received the second-level punishment of expulsion from the school to labor under the supervision of the working classes. The security guard took them away to their dormitories to pack their belongings before they were sent to the countryside where they would do physical labor. Six of us stayed behind.

  On April 27, 1960, Kong sought me out in the cafeteria. With graduation nearing he rarely accompanied me anymore, so I grew wary when he asked politely whether I had finished eating and could follow him outside for a talk. The sky was gray with clouds as Kong clasped his hands behind his back and led me slowly around the expanse of hardened mud that served as a playing field. He spoke predictably, almost casually, about the necessity of reforming my thoughts. All the while I watched the overcast sky and wondered about the reason for this idle talk. I feared that the authorities had somehow learned about the escape plans made the previous fall. After an hour Kong looked at his watch. It was almost nine o'clock when he announced that we had to attend a meeting.

  Over the past two years I had been summoned often to group criticism sessions. Out of habit I took a seat in the back row of the classroom, hoping that this morning would bring merely a repetition of previous proceedings. Then I looked up. On the blackboard, beneath the colored portrait of Chairman Mao, the chalked characters "Meeting to Criticize Rightist Wu Hongda" stared back at me. My stomach tightened. Then Wang Jian strode to the front of the room. Normally Kong and his fellows from the Youth League branch office chaired these criticism meetings themselves. Some people sat stiffly, while others turned awkwardly to look at me. Wang's opening words broke the silence: "Today we meet to criticize the rightist Wu Hongda." A chorus of allegations sprang from the audience.

  "Wu Hongda still refuses to reform himself!"
  "He opposes the Party, he must be expelled!"
  "Down with Wu Hongda, he must now show us his truce face!"

  For perhaps twenty minutes the accusations continued. I stared straight ahead until Wang Jian signaled for me to stand. "According to the request of the masses and with the full authority of the school," he intoned, "I now denounce, separate, and expel the rightist Wu Hongda, who has consistently refused to mold himself into a good socialist student and has chosen to remain an enemy of the revolution."

  Precisely at that moment a uniformed Public Security officer appeared at the doorway. "Representing the people's government of Beijing," he declared as he stepped to the front desk, "I sentence the counterrevolutionary rightist Wu Hongda to reeducation through labor." He motioned me forward and pulled a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. My eyes fixed on the blood- red badge beside his lapel. How could this be happening, I wondered.

  "Sign here," the officer commanded, pointing to the bottom of the form. His hand seemed purposely to cover the body of the document, preventing me from seeing the charges for my arrest.

  "I wish to see the accusation against me," I replied, guessing that my year-old plan to escape had been discovered.
  "Just sign your name," he repeated.
  "It is my right," I asserted, suddenly feeling bold, "to be informed of my crimes."
  "The people's government has placed you under arrest," he countered impatiently, "Whether you sign or not doesn't matter."


Editor's Note:
This is how he began his 19 years' detention in China's Gulag.