Laogai Museum in D.C. focuses on human rights abuses in China

June 27, 2011

The faded patchwork coat and pants once belonged to an accused counterrevolutionary named Liu Zhuanghuan, who spent a decade at a forced labor camp during China’s brutal Cultural Revolution.

His son was confined to the same camp but never allowed to see his father. One exception was made: He was allowed to identify his father’s body and collect his belongings after Zhuanghuan committed suicide in 1973.

Zhuanghuan’s tattered clothing — and the human suffering it represents — are now part of a collection of artifacts, photos, videos, books and government documents on display at the recently expanded Laogai Museum in Northwest Washington.

The Dupont Circle museum is intended to showcase human rights abuses in China, particularly the Communist regime’s use of prisons to punish dissenters. It was created by Harry Wu, 74, a human rights activist who spent 19 years in forced labor camps.

Wu’s personal story of starvation, torture and sickness inspired his fight against a system that, according to the Laogai Research Foundation, has incarcerated more than 40 million people since 1949. Millions died in the Laogai, which translates to “reform through labor.”

“I saw many people passing away,” said Wu, now a U.S. citizen who lives in Virginia. “Nobody cried. The brain doesn’t work. China set up the system not only to force people to make the products, to make profit for the government, but also to change people’s minds. Brain change. There is no choice of religion, no choice of political view.”

He maintains that 3 million to 5 million people are still imprisoned for political reasons today — a figure rejected by Chinese officials who question Wu’s motives.

“I’m not aware of those numbers,” said Wang Baodong, spokesman of the Embassy of China in Washington. “This museum is politically motivated. It’s against China and the Chinese government. He hates the Chinese government.”

Wu was a geology student in Beijing who never had been involved in political activities when he was arrested in 1960 as a “counterrevolutionary rightist,” he said. He was forced to sign papers without reading them and taken to a labor camp, a chemical factory in Beijing.

“I had no choice; I signed it,” Wu recalled. “Until today, I do not know what was in that paper. They told me: ‘You’re sentenced to life.’ ”

Every day, twice a day, he was asked three questions that are now written on the black and red walls of the museum: “Who are you? What is this place? Why are you here?” The required answers: “I am a criminal. This is the Laogai. I am here to reform through labor.”

Wu said he worked 12 hours a day on farms and in coal mines and steel mills. Food was scarce, and he sometimes ate roots, snakes and frogs. He tried to commit suicide twice, refusing to eat while in solitary confinement. His weight plummeted to 80 pounds.

Throughout his imprisonment, he was allowed to write a one-page letter home every month. But he couldn’t say much to his parents and seven siblings.Police usually read the mail and censored any attempt to describe his life.

It took him seven years to learn that his mother had died.

“Finally, in 1979, I got a document saying they had rehabilitated me so I could go,” Wu said. “I went back to the university. And I shut up.”

In 1985, Wu moved to the United States as a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. He became a U.S. citizen and created the Laogai Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization financed by the AFL-CIO to educate the public about forced labor in China.

In 1995, he went back to China with a hidden video camera in his bag to document the labor camps. He was arrested, detained for two months and convicted of trying to steal state secrets. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, he was instead deported to the United States.

The camera, a dictionary and the U.S. passport he carried to China are on display at the Laogai Museum.

The museum first opened on M Street NW in 2008. The new space, which opened this spring on 20th Street, cost $1 million to develop, design and construct. Most of the money for the 2,100-square-foot museum came from the Yahoo! Human Rights Fund.

Inside, there are 48 profiles of Laogai victims covering the walls. The story of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is there. His crime: incitement of subversion. Arrested three times, Xiaobo has been sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Four survivors, including Wu, describe their years in the camps. Visitors also can see an array of forced labor products — clothing, footwear, tea, toys, wine, home goods — sold all over the world.

“Are you buying things made in the Laogai?” asks a sign close to a Wal-Mart bag and a Chicago Bulls cap.

Perry Link, the chancellorial chair for innovative teaching at the University of California at Riverside and emeritus professor of East Asian studies at Princeton, said he hopes the museum will educate the world, including the Chinese, about a prison system just as horrific as the Soviet gulag.

“Whether it will attract the attention the gulag has attracted in the Western imagination, I’m doubtful. I don’t think it will,” said Link, who has known Wu for two decades. “The Chinese people today aren’t ready to look squarely at this experience because they tie it too much to their own national pride. The rise of China economically and diplomatically in the world makes them very proud. For both the Soviet camps and the Nazi camps, the populations that suffered were much more willing to press the issue.”

Wu hopes the museum can help him touch the government and the public.

“Have you heard presidents Obama, Bush or Clinton saying China is a communist regime?” asked Wu. “All Americans care about human rights. You can’t only care about American human rights and don’t care about Chinese human rights. This is not right.”

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