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Harry's War

Harry Wu, a Prisoner in Chinese Labor Camps for 19 Years, is Now Your Basic American Suburbanite and an All-Around Pain in the You-Know-What for China

November 17, 1996|SARAH HENRY | Sarah Henry is a San Francisco-based writer whose last article for the magazine was on the white-supremacist group the Church of the Creator

Human-rights activist Harry Wu--dapper in a smartly cut gray suit, blue patterned tie and white business shirt, his black hair neatly slicked down--strolls onto the set of "The Tonight Show." A youthful 59, he exudes a practiced nonchalance that's given away by his closed-mouth smile. Wu, who spent 19 years in China's forced-labor camps, is an unlikely candidate for a Jay Leno laugh fest. On this October evening, he's here to talk about his most recent ordeal: 66 days of imprisonment in the People's Republic for allegedly spying and stealing state secrets. * Leno, Wu confides later, was "very uncertain" about inviting him. After all, what's there to wisecrack about in Wu's detention by Chinese authorities in a remote border area? Or his subsequent confession, trial and 15-year jail sentence before he was expelled in August 1995? Leno telegraphs his concern to the audience by noting--twice--that Wu is "a different kind of guest for us." Wu, though, is clearly pleased with himself. And why not? As China's most famous expatriate dissident, he has faced far greater challenges than proving he's worthy of a spot on late-night TV. He's charming, and he's skilled at working the Western press, so it's not surprising that he scores second billing behind Bette Midler. Dubbed "a genuine American hero" by Leno, Wu acknowledges the audience, greets Midler and takes Leno by surprise when he ad-libs: "Jay, I think you made a mistake--you invited a criminal to your show." Leno flashes back: "It could have been Joey Buttafuoco, but we'd rather have you." * Still, the Leno-Wu patter unfolds awkwardly. Wu's fractured, strongly accented English can be hard to grasp; Leno winds up repeating Wu's comments for clarity. The talk-show host seems relieved when Wu offers up a few bars of "Love Me Tender," the Elvis number he sang to himself while he was jailed. He warbles good-naturedly. Leno cackles, and the crowd eats it up. Now, with captive audience in tow, Wu turns the mood sober. He explains for the umpteenth time why he continues to risk his life by returning to China. "I cannot turn my back to my homeland," Wu says in his raspy voice. "My parents' graveyard, my former inmates' graveyards [are] over there. That piece of land is full of my blood and tears."

It would be difficult to watch Harry Wu in action for even five minutes and not grasp what drives him. An undeniable symbol of a life nearly destroyed by communism, he's the most ubiquitous China basher in the United States. Wu is on a one-man crusade to serve as a voice for the millions of Chinese who have suffered since 1949 under that country's totalitarian regime.

In the decade since he arrived in this country, Wu has proven to be a man of many public faces. He's part politically connected activist on Capitol Hill, part professor guest-lecturing at college campuses, part press-savvy dissident whose China horror stories--the selling of executed prisoners' organs, the export of prison labor products, public executions--are designed to maximize outrage here and abroad. But Wu is also a haunted figure awash in survivor's guilt, a loner who has few friends outside Sinophile circles, whose single-mindedness has alienated even some of his strongest supporters.

"I'm nowhere near as noble as a Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire in the public square to protest an injustice," declares Wu in his account of his most recent run-ins with the Chinese government, written with co-author George Vecsey. "I'm a secular man . . . with no streak of the martyr." Instead, Wu likes to call himself a "troublemaker," a tag he's also chosen for the title of his latest memoir, published by Times Books earlier this month.

His detractors wouldn't disagree. Wu's troubles last year brought front-page attention to the then-little-known activist, turning him into a global cause celebre. It also wreaked havoc on America's already tense relationship with China and almost scotched Hillary Rodham Clinton's attendance at the U.N.-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. At a time when the People's Republic has replaced the former Soviet Union as the stickiest foreign policy wicket for the United States, Wu insists on inserting himself into the thick of the China crisis du jour, mouthing off, as he does, on extremely touchy subjects such as trade, arms proliferation and, of course, human-rights abuses.

Now, more than a year after his release from China, a backlash is brewing against Wu in his adopted country. Critics--and they're not hard to find--include Sino-U.S. policy wonks, overseas Chinese university students and Chinese American businessmen. They charge that Wu is a cowboy who has fashioned a career out of headline-grabbing pronouncements, and that he chooses to ignore reforms in his homeland.

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