The Complicated and Contradictory Legacy of Harry Wu
In life, he was one of China’s most respected dissidents. In death, a darker tale of extortion and sexual misconduct threatens to tarnish his legacy.
Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu’s legacy might have been very different had he died before one pivotal event. For Wu, who passed away at the age of 79 on April 26 while vacationing in Honduras, according to a press release from his Laogai Research Foundation (LRF), that event was a high-profile battle against Yahoo. Wu’s alleged mismanagement of the huge windfall the LRF received from Yahoo alienated many who once admired him. Wu’s supporters, who gathered at the Library of Congress for his May 25 memorial service, dispute this characterization. “Harry was a great man,” said Mia, an LRF staff member who asked to be identified by her first name only, the morning after news reports of Wu’s death emerged. “[But] I sometimes think he had a pitiful life,” she added through tears. “Always giving, always giving.”
Wu’s story is the stuff of movie biopics. Arrested in 1960 for reasons that remained unclear to Wu — he said he was later accused of the “counterrevolutionary” crime of criticizing the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary — Wu spent 19 years in prison labor camps, in a part of China’s vast penal system known as laogai, or “reform through labor.” During that time, he survived solitary confinement, starvation, and constant beatings by guards and other prisoners. He was released in 1979, three years after the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s longtime leader Mao Zedong died.
In 1985, Wu received a lifeline: The University of California, Berkeley, offered him the position of visiting scholar, allowing him to leave China. Shortly after he moved to the United States, however, Wu started making trips back to his country, posing as a businessman interested in using prison labor in order to film evidence showing the world the horrors of the camps. His report with CBS’s 60 Minutes on imprisoned Chinese laborers forced to work in factories that supposedly manufactured items destined for the United States led to a huge outcry in Congress and across the country. His trips emboldened him, and while trying to prove how graphite being made in Chinese labor camps was being exported to a New Jersey company, Wu was caught in July 1995 after sneaking into a remote part of China’s northwest. His arrest, by complicating a trip that then-first lady Hillary Clinton had planned to Beijing, became a huge international news story.
In 2008, he established the Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C., dedicated to examining China’s checkered human rights record. Photos of Wu with some of the Western world’s most powerful leaders — including Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and George W. Bush — line the walls: evidence of how successfully he lobbied for more attention to China’s human rights violations and a testament to his influence. Wu was a “great humanitarian,” Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, wrote in an April 27 statement following his death. “With his passing, the world has lost a global champion for freedom and democracy.”
But the same tough spirit that compelled Wu to take action against China’s authoritarian regime may have also translated into a general disregard for authority. Wu was a polarizing figure: Even supporters admitted his determination could make him difficult to work with. Those who sympathized with Wu believed he had the best intentions — the kind of relentless activist who never gave up and who was willing to offend a few in order to achieve a greater good.
Wu’s reputation began to change in 2007, after he helped two Chinese plaintiffs settle a lawsuit that accused Yahoo of illegally providing information to Beijing that led to the imprisonment of Chinese dissidents. The plaintiffs were the dissidents’ relatives. Yahoo selected Wu, the most well-known Chinese activist at the time, to administer a fund that Yahoo established to help Chinese dissidents. Wu was also supposed to help facilitate the transfer of money from Yahoo to the plaintiffs.
But in January 2011, one of the plaintiffs, Yu Ling, and her husband, the then-imprisoned Chinese dissident Wang Xiaoning, sued Wu. According to the 2011 case complaint and confirming sources — an interview with Morton Sklar (the lawyer who brought the 2007 case against Yahoo), an interview with Tienchi Martin-Liao (who was the director of the LRF from 2000 to 2010), and Yu’s testimony (which Liao emailed to Foreign Policy) — Wu demanded a kickback of $1 million for LRF from Yu for his help in settling the 2007 lawsuit.
“Harry said, ‘We have helped you, you have to give us’” the money, Liao told FP in late April. The case settled out of court in April 2012: Wu returned the money, so Yu agreed to withdraw the lawsuit, said Liao. But the case continued to dog Wu, who felt compelled to publish (in Chinese) an April 2015 open letter on the LRF’s website in which he denied the charges against him. Wu wrote on the site that the $1 million was a donation that Yu gave willingly and that afterward, “Yu took the entire sum back.”
That lawsuit, and the criminal accusations by other parties that followed, tarnished Wu’s legacy as a tireless advocate who revealed the atrocities inside China’s massive system of labor reform camps to the world. It also alienated many in the human rights community. Chinese activist Shi Qing, who served a seven-year prison sentence for his activities in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in China, first heard about Wu in the late 1990s. Shi and other activists “really admired him for his work exposing the horrors of the laogai to the outside world,” he told FP. “But the Harry Wu of the later years, I pity, grieve for, and even loathe.”
According to Liao, who now runs the nonprofit Independent Chinese PEN Center, Wu “had two sides. He had this very adventurous spirit,” she said. “That means he was ready to break rules or even laws.” Ann Noonan, a spokeswoman for the LRF, declined to comment on a list FP submitted of the many allegations against Wu. “In light of the passing of Harry Wu, the Laogai Research Foundation is undergoing a careful review of all past and current matters,” she wrote in a May 3 email. “We are grateful for the messages of condolence that people all over the world are sending in loving memory of Harry Wu.”
Much of what really happened between Wu and Yahoo remains shrouded in mystery; the details are locked in confidential legal documents and in the memories of Yahoo’s lawyers and executives. But a review of publicly available information, as well as interviews with several people intimately familiar with the negotiations among Wu, Yahoo, and the plaintiffs, paints a picture of Wu’s alleged mismanagement of a massive windfall. Above all, it was his handling of millions of dollars from Yahoo that embittered some members of the Chinese human rights community. (A Yahoo spokesperson, citing confidentiality, declined to comment on the agreement or the negotiations.) After Wu’s death, U.S.-based Chinese dissident Li Hongkuan wrote on Twitter that Wu’s later years “bear witness to the hugely corrosive effect of renown and money to one’s morality.”
In the early 2000s, Yahoo complied with requests by Beijing to hand over the contents of the email accounts of two Chinese activists, Wang and Shi Tao, among others. In 2003 and 2005, respectively, Chinese officials used email messages as evidence to sentence both men to 10 years in prison: Shi was convicted of disclosing state secrets and Wang of state subversion. Family members of Shi and Wang then sued Yahoo for sharing the contents of their email accounts. Wu acted as an interpreter and advocate for the families. (Wang and Shi were released from prison in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Reached through email, Wang and Shi both declined to comment. Yu did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
According to interviews with Liao and Sklar, as well as Wu’s April 2015 open letter, Wang received $3.2 million from Yahoo in a November 2007 settlement. Both Sklar, who ran the now-defunct nonprofit the World Organization for Human Rights USA, and Liao say that Shi also received $3.2 million from Yahoo. According to Liao and Sklar, the settlement also included a roughly $17 million fund, called the Yahoo Human Rights Fund (YHRF), which allegedly went to the LRF to disburse. (The LRF’s 2006 tax return shows a total revenue of $325,704. In 2007, that number jumped to $18,822,665.) A Yahoo press release dated Nov. 13, 2007, says the fund was intended “to provide humanitarian and legal support to political dissidents who have been imprisoned for expressing their views online, as well as their families.” According to Liao, who claims to have been present during the negotiations, that settlement was reached privately.
According to Sklar’s contemporaneous handwritten notes seen by FP, there was a roughly “$1 million annual disbursement requirement” to Chinese families impacted by issues of Internet freedom and a “requirement that reports be provided to Yahoo on the use of funds previously disbursed.” Sklar said that Wu gave out a “grossly insufficient number of grants” to deserving Chinese families. “I remember Harry saying to me, ‘These people do not need that much money,’” Sklar said. “‘A thousand dollars in China goes a long way.’” Sklar said that he decided to go on the record for this story in part because of his disappointment over Yahoo’s unwillingness to intervene after all these years. “Why didn’t [Yahoo] demand changes in the way Harry was mismanaging the fund?” In an email, a Yahoo spokesperson, who declined to be named citing company policy, said that “promoting human rights and freedom of expression is core to Yahoo’s mission. Although we did not serve on the board that oversaw operations or set grants to dissidents, we supported these values by consistently advocating for expenditures that served the organization’s educational and human rights activities.”
Sklar, Liao, and Yu are not the only ones to have formally accused Wu of mismanagement of the Yahoo fund. A joint letter published in English and Chinese after his death claims that “of the approximately $14-15 million of the YHRF that has been spent from 2008 to 2015, only about $700,000 was used to provide humanitarian aid to Chinese dissidents.” The letter, which was signed by seven former Chinese political prisoners, expresses consternation at Wu’s alleged activities. It states that the abuse and misuse of the money “is not only shocking, but inflicts direct damage on the Chinese dissident community.” (LRF board member and spokeswoman Noonan declined to comment on these allegations.) In an interview, Diana Liu, the LRF’s Washington director, denied Wu had engaged in any financial wrongdoing. Instead, she suggested that other human rights activists were simply envious and greedy. “Wu had a big cake,” she said. “And everyone wanted a slice.”
Tax declarations by Wu’s organizations provide scant information and show some ambiguous activity, especially from his supporting company, the Laogai Human Rights Organization, an entity separate from the LRF. “The interesting thing is that you just can’t tell what the organization is doing,” said Marcus Owens, formerly the director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division, which administers the tax law regarding charities, private foundations, and other entities that are federal income tax-exempt.
But according to Liu, “The IRS checked Harry for half a year. They didn’t find anything. He was clean.” (Reached by phone, an IRS spokesperson said the service does not comment on ongoing investigations or even whether investigations have taken place.)
Wu’s alleged crimes were not only financial. In a March 2015 open letter published on the Chinese website Boxun, Wang Jing, a 47-year-old woman who lives in Virginia, accused Wu of sexually assaulting her and three minors. In the open letter, Wang claimed Wu sexually assaulted her in late 2013 and that he groped three minors — the daughters of Chinese human rights activists, of whom, Wang says, she is the legal guardian. In an email, Wang confirmed that she wrote the open letter. Edmund Rowan, a lawyer who represents Wang, said in an interview that the case is ongoing and that the “allegations are serious.” According to the civil records division of the Fairfax County Circuit Court, where the case was filed, Wu’s lawyer is a man named Shaoming Cheng, and the trial date is set for Jan. 23, 2017, at 10 a.m. Cheng, reached by telephone, confirmed he’s Wu’s lawyer but declined to comment further.
Following the publication of Wang’s March letter, a defiant Wu denied the allegations in three articles he published on the LRF’s website. Addressing specifically Wang’s claim that he “took advantage of a situation to grope three girls,” a mocking Wu wrote:
“Did I grope them all at once or just one? Did I grope the face and the buttocks at the same time, or did I grope them separately? ‘Took advantage of a situation’ refers to when and in what place? As [these three girls’] guardian, what did you do at the time or after? Why didn’t you admonish me after such a serious incident?”
Criminal allegations aside, it’s rare for prominent dissidents to stay credible — both among other Chinese human rights activists and with their U.S. supporters — after they leave China. The same qualities of character that are required for something as arduous as defying the authoritarian Communist Party don’t necessarily equip dissidents with the finesse, flexibility, and patience needed to thrive as human rights activists in the United States.
Not long after Beijing deported the pro-democracy activist Wei Jingsheng to the United States in 1997, he “alienated nearly everyone with whom he … had contact,” according to a 2000 Wall Street Journal article, which ran under the title, “A Chinese Dissident Turns Freedom in U.S. Into a Prison.” Wei had spent 18 years as a political prisoner in China, and the paranoia and confidence that helped him survive there didn’t suit him in the United States. “The biggest criticism of me is that I don’t listen to anyone else’s opinion. But why should I, when my opinion is right?” Wei told the Journal, in that profile. “All people with great achievements share this trait.” (In a rebuttal, published in the Journal in 2001, Wei said he “adjusted quite well to life in the United States.”)
A more recent example is Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights advocate, who catapulted to fame in 2012 after a daring escape from house arrest in a Chinese village to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. (In a probably coincidental echo to Wu’s 1995 arrest, Chen entered the embassy just days before a visit to China by Hillary Clinton, then-U.S. secretary of state.) But several months after obtaining a visa to come to the United States, Chen began publicly squabbling with New York University, which had sponsored a fellowship for him. He ended up joining the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank, in a move that dismayed many of his supporters. “As soon as dissidents leave China, they lose their influence,” Han Dongfang, a Chinese dissident living in Hong Kong, told FP in 2013. “It’s like cutting off your legs and putting you in a wheelchair.”
It was Wu, however, who was supposed to be the dissident who had those adaptable skills. He knew how to work the halls of Congress, how to cultivate influential friends in Washington, how to unify groups with disparate interests in the struggle against Beijing’s overreach. “Harry was fearless, tenacious, and completely committed,” the actor Richard Gere, who’s also the chairman of the board for the advocacy organization the International Campaign for Tibet, said in a statement following Wu’s death. But the decisions he made later in life have caused much anger and pain within the Chinese human rights community in the United States. “It’s a shame that he’s been in this position for so long, with so many resources under his control, and most [of it has been] squandered away,” said Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and co-founder of the advocacy group Humanitarian China. “Just imagine how much it could have helped the political prisoners in China with proper stewardship.”
FP began reporting this story on April 26 and did not have the chance to reach out to Wu before his foundation announced that he had died. Wu gave hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews in his life, though interest in him had waned in the last few years. “You should be careful,” he told journalist Sidney Leng in a January 2014 interview for the publication Medium, one of the last interviews he gave to a general interest publication. “Getting close to me is dangerous.”
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, June 8, 2016: Based on an examination of his organizations’ tax declarations, Wu earned $131,200 in the 2013 fiscal year. A previous version of this article mistakenly reported that Wu paid himself two salaries of roughly a quarter-million dollars total.
Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish