Wednesday, November 13, 1996

A Troubling Review of Harry Wu's Latest Book

"You can fool some of the people all the time, all the people some of the time but you can't fool all the people all the time," according to Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most famous of all advocates for human rights. Nonetheless, judging from his latest book, Troublemaker, Honest Abe's admonition has not deterred Harry Wu from trying to pull the wool over the public's eye. Written in collaboration with George Vecsey, a New York Times reporter, the polished prose is an interesting read in the tradition of a potboiler. Unfortunately, the book is supposed to be a factual account of Harry Wu's latest adventure in China--not a work of fiction.

Wu takes obvious pride in his self-acclaimed label as a trouble maker, hence the title of his book, and he sets out early in his book to stake his claim. Wu confesses that even in grade school he was "a bit of a troublemaker." His biology teacher had asked the class to go to the school yard and bring back any randomly selected plants for the teacher to identify, and thus show off his knowledge. Wu stuck a small piece from one plant into the stem of another in an attempt to fool the teacher. He was spanked for his troubles, by the teacher at school and then by his father at home, but apparently the lesson did not stick. Perhaps that was a prophetic indication of the kind of person to come. At his trial in Wuhan, Wu was accused of yihuajiemu, i.e., splicing a flower onto another stick--a Chinese saying for someone skilled at embellishing the facts and telling plausible lies.

Indeed, Wu's book is full of careless and florid statements without any substantiation and consequently raised more questions than answers. For example, he says that the Beijing government admitted to China having 1.2 million prisoners in 685 camps in 1995, but he counters with 1155 camps and 6-8 million prisoners as being more accurate. Wu offers no explanation or evidence for his numbers, but expects the reader to take his word for them. Of course, depending on his mood and the venue, I have seen Wu publicly proclaimed as many as ten million prisoners in China. So, why the embellishment? According to an article in the New York Times (11/7/95), there were more than 1.4 million inmates in the American prison system in 1995. Perhaps Wu feels it unseemly that a country with five times the U.S. population should claim to have fewer prisoners. He may have felt compelled to boost the numbers so as to reinforce America's preconceived negative image of China.

In Troublemaker, Wu reiterates his claim to having protested the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary as "a violation of international law." A young student journalist from San Francisco State University interviewed Wu in 1995, after Wu's release from Wuhan, and asked him about his alleged protest of the invasion as the original cause of his being branded a trouble maker by the Chinese authorities. The reporter asked why there was no mention of Hungary in his earlier memoir, Bitter Winds. Wu's response was to blame the error on "a mistake in translation." (Prism, SFSU, November 1995)

I among many others have pointed out that Wu was only 19 at the time of the invasion and graduated from college three years later, apparently uneventfully. Wu has been portraying himself as an undergraduate activist majoring in geology with expertise in international law. An alternate explanation that I believe to be more credible, is that Wu became aware of the West's sympathy towards the Hungarians after the first book was written. He proceeded to burnish his credentials by adding the protest to his resumé. In my view, it is another example of pinning on a flower to dress up a plain stump.

Unfettered by the need to provide footnotes and citation of sources, Wu's book is full of provocative but dubious statements. If he had any documents to prove that "Zhou Enlai had gone scurrying to Moscow to convince Nikita Khrushchev to send tanks and troops to Budapest to crush the Hungarians," Wu does not share them in this book. Later in the book, Wu claims, "Some hospitals advertised their kidney transplant operations in Hong Kong and other cities. You could even express interest by sending a fax." Given Wu's self proclaimed wide network of supporters in Hong Kong, I am surprised that the book contained not one example of such advertisements nor a list of fax numbers.

Many of Wu's statements are designed to deceive, even if for gratuitous reasons. He begins one of the chapters with "On July 10, I was one meal into starving myself to death when the guards announced a surprise." A dramatic statement indeed. Careful reading reveals that what Wu meant was that he had missed one meal before ending his fast that might have led him to his maker. Elsewhere in the book, Wu provides his analysis of the "pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen." He concludes by the reassurance that "I had nothing to do with Tiananmen Square," as if anyone could make such a mistake and identify him with the student-led protest of 1989.

Name dropping is another of Wu's favorite techniques. He wastes no time linking himself with Hillary Clinton in the second chapter and a page later with Wei Jingsheng. He has never met Wei and has nothing in common with Wei. In fact he admitts, "I do not have the courage of Wei Jingsheng, speaking his mind, writing stinging criticisms of Deng Xiaoping." Yet the one name he mentions most frequently throughout his book is Wei, as if frequency could substitute for intimacy, for the linkage he craves. Wu sprinkles Wei's name liberally throughout the book down to the very last page.

Wei is the best known name in the West for his pro-democracy advocacy, for speaking his mind and for openly standing on his beliefs. Whether one agrees with all his views or his approach, few would question his integrity or his sincerity. Wei has not been known to lie or distort. Wei has not been known as a master of splicing facts and rumors and outright fabrications into plausible lies. By making this unauthorized and obsessive association with Wei, I believe, Wu hopes to gain some trickle-down legitimacy to his own position.

Wu needs to invoke Wei to partly compensate for the conspicuous lack of empathy for him from the community of students and scholars from China that are residing in the U.S. Many were given the opportunity to remain in the U.S. by the Bush Administration in response to Tiananmen. Some were activists and protesters. As a group, they are at best neutral and hardly sympathizers of the Beijing government. Yet they hold Wu in disdain and do not rally to his cause. Wu explained the phenomenon this way, "I suspect that the Chinese government is mobilizing all its students who are in the States. I don't mind. Let's have an open debate--no holds barred." To my knowledge, he has yet to accept any invitation to public debates where his views would be subject to scrutiny and challenge.

The most amusing passage is Wu's account of the interrogation during his incarceration in Wuhan in 1995 prior to his release and return to the U.S. The Chinese authorities apparently used a documentary from Taiwan as basis for their accusations which Wu claimed was spliced from various sources. "Look at it carefully," Wu told the interrogator, "Why do they put Chinese characters on the script, have outside people making comments? Don't you listen? The original was in English. There's no sound in this one. No dialogue. How can it become evidence? The Taiwanese translation is different from the British original. You better get the original Yorkshire film. You want to use Taiwan rumors?" At last I find in Wu's plea to his interrogator something with an authentic ring. Discerning viewers will find the very same techniques that he was protesting in Wuhan used in documentaries on China produced by Wu. Obviously Wu is trading on insider knowledge.

At least from Troublemaker, the reader can find a logical explanation for Wu's actions. Wu arrived in the U.S. on a fluke based on his alleged expertise in geology. Supposedly, he published a paper on a paper he read on "a very advanced French design for a drill that would transmit information into a computer." The paper caught the eye of someone at Berkeley, that Wu did not identify, who extended him an invitation to come to the U.S. After his arrival, Wu was eking out an existence by staying with a grudging older sister in San Francisco that barely tolerated his imposition. He gave his first talk on China at U.C. Santa Cruz in 1986, and his break came when he received a $18,000 research grant from Hoover Institution. In 1991, with the help of Jeff Fiedler, secretary-treasurer of Food & Allied Services Trade department of AFL-CIO, Wu founded Laogai Research Foundation and discovered his pot of gold.

Wu proudly states that he now owns a house in Milpitas with a swimming pool and two cars. There can be no doubt that becoming a professional China basher has been extremely lucrative for Wu personally. Readers may wish to buy Wu's book and supplement his income but should only expect entertainment value in exchange. This is not a book where one can readily distinguish facts from fiction, and therefore Wu's book cannot be considered a reliable commentary on today's China.