David Futrelle reviews "Troublemaker: One Man's Crusade Against China's Cruelty" by Harry Wu with George Vecsey.

By David Futrelle

Published November 15, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

China's People's Daily called him "evil" and "morally corrupt," a con man and thief with a heart "full of hatred." But for Harry Wu, this sort of abuse comes as no surprise. After all, Wu first gained his reputation as a troublemaker back in a Shanghai grade school in the 1940s. In 1960, the Communists declared him a "counter-revolutionary rightist" and sent him into China's brutal forced labor camps for nearly two decades. (He emerged from the camps in 1979, and entered the U.S. some six years later.)

It's not only the Communists who've had trouble with Harry Wu. When the self-professed troublemaker was arrested last summer while attempting to enter China on a muckraking human rights mission -- which momentarily held up Hillary Clinton's plans to attend the Beijing Conference on Women -- he soon discovered he wasn't much appreciated by the capitalist running dogs either. A group of Silicon Valley professionals calling themselves Concerned Citizens for Rational Relations With China complained that the inconvenient activist was "dictating" American foreign policy and getting in the way of their business dealings.

If nothing else, this suggests something about Harry Wu's capacity to disturb the peace -- not with incendiary rhetoric or terrorist threats but simply by putting forth the troublesome truth about China's forced labor camps, the laogai. In two previous books, Wu has offered up a harrowing insider's account of life in the Chinese gulag. In "Troublemaker," which tells the story of his various secret fact-finding missions to China, Wu shows just how extensive the gulag system is even today.

The Chinese government says that 10 million people have been sent to the laogai camps since 1949. Wu estimates the real number is five times that -- and that as many as five million of those people have been political prisoners. According to Wu, such camps account for a significant portion of the $30 billion worth of Chinese imports to the U.S., a fact that embarrasses the Chinese government and its business partners in this country.

As Wu cogently argues, the laogai system is effectively subsidized by Western acquiescence in Chinese abuses, "subsidized by corporations, subsidized by the World Bank, subsidized by all the governments that encourage trade with China." We're all implicated, as Wu proves by tracing the path of artificial flowers from slave labor camps to Ben Franklin Retail Stores.

An important book, "Troublemaker" is by no means a great one. It is rambling, unfocused and distressingly slight in its documentation. Wu himself comes across as impulsive, self-absorbed, petty -- indeed, something of a pest. But whatever his personal flaws, Wu has, at great risk to himself, brought some distinctly uncomfortable facts to the attention of the world. We could use more pests like him.

David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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