Human rights activist Harry Wu came to Baltimore yesterday to tell the story of how he was detained for two months by Chinese authorities this summer after he entered the country to document human rights abuses.
Mr. Wu, who was expelled from China on Aug. 24 after being sentenced to 15 years in prison, spoke to about 200 students and others at Westminster Hall at the University of Maryland School of Law. He spoke of his attempts to expose the inhumane prison labor camps in China, where he was imprisoned for 19 years, from 1960 to 1979, by sneaking into them during several visits there and secretly filming.
"This is my second time I regained my freedom. So you can imagine how very happy I am to be here," he said. "Because I'm an American citizen, they were not willing to kill me."
But tempers flared during a question period after Mr. Wu's talk, when several audience members, who described themselves as Chinese citizens, challenged Mr. Wu's credibility, some even calling him a liar.
"The first question is, if everything you say is true, why [is] the Chinese community in the U.S. not supporting you? Rather they disrespect you. They don't like you and [they think] you are lying," Yigong Shi -- who identified himself as a post-doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University and said he participated in the Tiananmen Square hunger strikes in 1989 -- said to loud applause from several dozen audience members.
Mr. Wu answered calmly.
"The motherland -- the country -- and the government are two different things," Mr. Wu said. "For anyone, they don't have a choice about their motherland. But everyone has a right to choose their government."
Hung Dah Chiu, a UMAB law professor who is acquainted with Mr. Wu, said such hostile questioning is not unusual. "It happens every place he goes," he said. "These people were apparently arranged by the Chinese Communist authorities. Which organization, we don't know."
Mr. Wu said that when he applied for a visa to China in March, he was surprised it was granted. "I don't know why, but I got it," he said. "I don't know if this is a mistake or this is a trap. But I went because the truth is on my side."
But he was immediately arrested as he tried to cross a remote border checkpoint into Western China from neighboring Kazakhstan because the border guard checked his name in a computer database.
He said he was treated well during his detention, was not handcuffed and was kept most of the time at a lakeside villa. He described the frustration of his four-day trial, where he was not allowed to provide evidence or witnesses on his behalf. "This is progress," he said. "In 1960, I didn't have a trial."
He eventually was convicted of spying and passing himself off as a government worker. But his detention had strained U.S.-China relations and it became obvious that the Chinese government wanted him out of the country. He was expelled the day after his conviction.
Mr. Wu said he often is asked why he would risk the danger of returning to China to document human rights abuses.
"Because I cannot turn my back to my fellow inmates, to my countrymen," he said. "I cannot turn my back to these suffering human beings. I cannot turn my back to my homeland."