By Ann Noonan, Executive Director, CUSIB
Today marks the birthday of my friend, Harry Wu, who would have turned 80 years old. We were planning to hold a great birthday fundraiser for the Laogai Research Foundation to honor this occasion, had Harry lived. While there may be some who would like to try to destroy his legacy, for many of us who were touched by Harry Wu’s hard work and selflessness he will always be a part of us.
Like many American women who were planning to attend the 1995 World Conference on Women Beijing, I knew I wasn’t going unless Harry Wu was released from prison in China. And like my UN friends, I read the papers carefully to follow the plight of this total stranger, who had returned to China to document its vast slave-labor prison system, the laogai.
After Harry Wu’s eventual return to the United States, visas were approved and Harry Wu was no longer in my thoughts. But as fate would have it, in February, 1996, I met Harry at a forum about the Catholic Church in China.
I remember leaving that meeting with an overwhelming sensation that I had just met an incredible person who would go down in history for his greatness. Someone whose “power of one” would make a tremendous difference in his lifetime. I was right.
After the forum, we stayed in touch and became friends. I helped to organize several speaking events for Harry in New York with Mayors, elected officials, labor leaders, schools, and religious leaders. I arranged for him to speak at the Bronx High School of Science, and visit their Holocaust Museum, and also to speak at an International Catholic Organization event at the United Nations. When he asked me to serve as his New York Coordinator, I gladly accepted.
Through the years, Harry got to know my children, my husband, and my Mom, and from time to time, we would have a chance to see each other in either New York or DC. We spoke a lot by phone.
Harry always had a new idea or goal. He wanted to hold hearings, meet with Members of Congress, get the word “laogai” into the Oxford English Dictionary, and open a Laogai Museum. Nothing deterred him, and I watched my friend blaze forward, sharing his story with anyone who asked, and always letting people know that it wasn’t about him, but about those who were left behind. He gave a voice to the millions of laogai prisoners.
One quality that I loved about Harry was his respect for all human life. His efforts to speak against China’s brutal one-child policy was relentless. I was equally proud of Harry to hear him speak at the “Hands Off Cain” event at NYU School of Law. I remember his speech that evening, about all of the injustice that he had witnessed, and how killing people is never the answer.
Harry Wu was never shy about letting people know that he was a baptized Catholic, and he even wrote in his book, Bitter Winds, how his suffering in China’s laogai system tested his faith. In 1995, Harry Wu was honored by the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation. He always made a point to meet with Catholic clergy and Catholic laypeople from China’s underground church who were persecuted in China for being Loyal Roman Catholics.
While he never denounced his Catholic faith, Harry frequently discussed how disappointed he was, when Pope after Pope didn’t pay enough attention to the martyred Roman Catholics in China. It was as if they didn’t merit the same attention as Catholics who were persecuted by other governments. In fact, one of our last conversations was about how upset he was that the Vatican would establish diplomatic ties with Beijing. He asked me to consider whether all of the clergy and persecuted Chinese Catholics suffered in vain.
It was a great and personal honor for me that Harry Wu accepted my invitation to become a Board Member for the Committee for US International Broadcasting. We appreciated any advice he provided.
During the last couple of years, I watched Harry get old, but age would not stop him. His accusers may say that he didn’t do enough, but he never stopped working for justice, and bearing witness to human suffering.
If Harry Wu had a chance to live for one day, and picked this one, I cannot imagine how desperately sad he would be to see that the doors of the Laogai Museum in Washington, DC have been closed since November 1st, that his staff was fired and that since his death, the photo exhibits and projects Harry had in the works were cancelled, no students from American University were able to attend a Fall 2016 lecture at the Laogai Museum, and the website Harry had worked so hard to create and maintain, Laogai.org, is not functioning.
Although I miss Harry very much, I know that my life, and the lives of many were blessed by knowing him. Happy Birthday, Harry. I pray that you are resting in the arms of the Lord.
For any inquiries, please contact Ann Noonan, Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting Executive Director at (646) 251-6069.
The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) is an independent, nongovernmental organization which supports free flow of uncensored news from the United States to countries without free media.
For further information, please contact:
Ann Noonan, co-founder and Executive Director
Ted Lipien, co-founder