Headlines Foreign policy - or hypocrisy?

A conversation with Chinese dissident Harry Wu

Harry Wu

Harry Wu was labeled a counter-revolutionary by the Communist Party in 1960, and sentenced to imprisonment in the laogai, or Chinese slave-labor camp. Shortly after his release in 1979, Wu came to the U.S., where he has worked to spread awareness of the laogai system, and promote human rights in China.

Wu is the executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation, the founder of the China Information Center, and author of three books, including Laogai: The Chinese Gulag, Bitter Winds, in which he recounts life in the laogai, and Troublemaker: One Man's Crusade Against China's Cruelty, the story of his return to and extradition from China as an American citizen.

From his home in Vienna, Virginia, Harry Wu talked to the Current about China-Taiwan conflict, the growth of the Chinese economic output, now No. 2 in the world, and U.S. foreign policy in China.

Susan Pagani: Talk about the tension between China and Taiwan.

Harry Wu: The Taiwanese have the right to decide what kind of religion, government, and social system they want. Because they are out of the communist regime, 23 million people have become a prosperous, wealthy people and a free country. Taiwan's democratic system is not very good, but it's in process.

Since 1949, Beijing has wanted to use force to destroy Taiwan's democracy and freedom systems. In the first three decades, we were told by the government that the Taiwanese were suffering under the reactionaries, so we have to liberate them; we are brother and sister. Thirty years later, we Chinese find out that's a joke: The Taiwanese enjoy better living conditions than us. They don't need the liberation, we do.

SP: Why?

HW: The slogan to control the people in China was "socialism, liberation, communism, revolution." Today this is totally bankrupt. The people don't trust Communism, or believe that's their future. So they have to change their slogan: nationalism. We need unification. Taiwan is a part of China; some people want to separate it, so let's get together under one goal and do something.

SP: Is the U.S. taking the right diplomatic approach in promoting stability?

HW: The American policy of stabilizing the current situation is good for the U.S. and good for the people on the Taiwan Strait. In Taiwan, democracy is improving every day and there is a lot of energy in the economic and political systems. In China, however, the economic system is unhealthy and the political system is unstable. That's why you see the slogan "stability is number one political task."

SP: This comes back to China's unhealthy economy ...

HW: As a native Chinese, I want to see the Chinese become prosperous and wealthy, but before that, I want to see China become free and democratic. I don't think that money can convince a tiger to become a vegetarian.

The West did a lot to help the Chinese pump up their economy, but how much did we help the Chinese promote democracy and improve human rights? The state department released the Chinese human rights record; it's worse, but the economy is doing better.

SP: How could the West better promote human rights in China?

HW: If the West withdrew all investments and production, what could happen to this regime? Money makes the people kind of comfortable. If they can offer TV, rice, and vegetables for the family, the people will not take to the streets. If the people have no work and are starving, they will take action, right?

SP: But given western economic interests in China, that's not likely to happen.

Harry Wu

March 24
St. Philip's College
Watson Fine Arts Theatre
1801 Martin Luther King
HW: Nope. Our policy towards the Soviet Union and China has been so different. Even today, Russia is still not a member of the World Trade Organization. Why is China a member of the WTO? Because the politicians create a new political concept: The best way to promote democracy and improve human rights in China is through trade and investment there. If this idea is so great, we should not isolate the Soviet Union. If we believe economic sanctions will hurt the common Chinese, then why do we still embargo Cuba? Nobody answers that question, but the answer is money. When China violates copyrights you hear about sanctions, but with human rights they say "Oh, that's not my business."

In China, the economy is going up, but so is the number of public executions. So, when you are comfortable to do business over there, are you comfortable seeing the government kill the people in front of a crowd?

SP: If not through sanctions, how else might U.S. influence human rights?

HW: I think the Chinese are really at a crossroads. The West has the opportunity to do something, but it is very difficult for the individual company. They could say, Everyone who works for my company, whether in the U.S. or China, we will treat them the same. Not the same salary, but the same rights. I don't think foreign business would do it.

But we should not give the Chinese communist regime legitimacy and warm welcome. If we want to improve human rights and see democracy in China, our politicians have to clearly tell the Chinese, We want to see a wealthy China, but also we want to see a democratic and free China.

And we have to tell the Chinese people, you deserve the freedom to get rich, to give birth, to speak freely, and to associate. The Chinese are not really aware `of these rights`. We have to encourage them tirelessly, because if the Chinese realize they deserve the same rights as the Americans and the British, then they become a very important opposition to tyranny.

SP: Where do you see hope for China?

HW: The people today are very enthusiastic. This is a historic moment to help the Chinese, because the people are deciding which way to go. No one is talking about communism and socialism; everyone is talking about making money and rights.

China only can change by Chinese. The people have the information, if they can learn the truth, then they will make a choice. The great wall is cracking now. Let the people know what has happened, and they will do something.

By Susan Pagani