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Lone Ranger : TROUBLEMAKER: One Man's Crusade Against China's Cruelty. By Harry Wu with George Vecsey (Times Books: $25, 328 pp.)

November 17, 1996|Linda Mathews | Linda Mathews, The Times' first correspondent in Beijing, is co-author of "One Billion: A China Chronicle" (Random House) and "Journey Into China" (National Geographic)

A sensible man who had survived 19 years in the Chinese gulag and then wangled an exit visa to the United States might be content to settle down into middle-class domesticity and keep his distance from Beijing. But Harry Wu is anything but sensible.

Part crusader, part crank, part show-off, Wu has four times tempted fate by returning to China and documenting with hidden cameras that nether world of labor camps, prison farms, mines and factories where the Chinese lock up their worst troublemakers. The Chinese call this penal system laogai, literally "reform through labor." The theory behind it is that working in these state-run enterprises reforms the prisoners, whether they are petty criminals or political dissidents, while boosting the gross national product.

Wu's goal, as set out in this, his third book since immigrating to the United States in 1985, is to make the term laogai "known all over the world in the same way that 'gulag' became synonymous with the horrors of Stalin's prison system." The laogai, he argues, is quite simply "the biggest concentration camp system in human history."

Wu has not yet forced "laogai" into English-language dictionaries, but he has scored other successes. Through congressional testimony and television documentaries produced from his surreptitious videotapes, Wu has alerted Americans to the flow of prison-made consumer goods--toys, clothes, electronics--from the laogai to foreign markets. A daring muckraker in the best American tradition, Wu has also exposed the burgeoning trade, throughout Asia, in kidneys, corneas and other organs forcibly removed from Chinese prisoners on the eve of their executions.

Wu knows the laogai system first-hand, having been shipped off to his first camp as a college student. His offense: criticizing the Soviet invasion of Hungary. That initial three-year sentence stretched into 19 years, as Wu was shuttled from camp to camp, without access to judicial appeal. The son of a wealthy Shanghai banker, Wu learned survival skills from hardened prisoners with names like Big Mouth Xing. When you're starving, he was taught, search for rat holes in the walls of your cell, because rodents neatly put away stores of clean food for hard times.

The tales of Wu's wanderings, Candide-like, through the laogai were told vividly in his 1994 book, "Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag," still the most thorough and compelling account, in any language, of life inside China's forced-labor system.

"Troublemaker," the current book, suffers a bit by comparison. We hear, in passing, some of the same yarns about the laogai, but they have a hurried and twice-told feel about them. As an American citizen revisiting China in the 1990s, he managed to talk his way back into the prison where he had watched friends starve to death and the coal mine where his back was crushed by runaway coal cars. But these stories barely skim the surface, reading like alumni bulletin accounts of class reunions: Wu even dined, amiably, with an ex-guard.

The problem, I suspect, is not simply that he had a better collaborator, Sinologist Carolyn Wakeman, on the earlier book, but that his story then seemed fresh. "Troublemaker" focuses on his latest attempt to enter China at a remote crossing on its border with Kazakhstan and his subsequent two-month detention at a government guest house.

His June 1995 arrest blossomed into an international incident, put the governments of China and the United States at loggerheads and nearly scuttled First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's participation in the United Nations women's conference in Beijing.

Despite the headlines, it's difficult for Wu and his current collaborator, the able New York Times reporter George Vecsey, to disguise the humdrum facts of his latest detention. He had no reason to search hungrily for rat holes this time: The kitchen sent up three ample meals a day. And although the herbal medicine his captors offered for his back pain brought on severe nosebleeds, he did not suffer much physically: There were no round-the-clock interrogations, no beatings, nothing much even in the way of psychological abuse, unless you count the guards' monitoring of his bathroom habits. Mostly, the Chinese seemed bewildered about how to get rid of their unwelcome guest and end the diplomatic impasse.

A shrewd U.S. diplomat, Daniel W. Piccuta, saved the day by decoding the signals Wu was receiving from his guards. They had commended Wu for his "cooperative attitude," and Piccuta realized that meant the Chinese were willing to compromise, if only Wu and the Americans could concoct a face-saving way out for both sides. So he confessed to several offenses, including sneaking his cameras into China, was put through a show trial and deported.

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