When Harry Wu left China in 1979, after 19 years in 12 different prison labor camps, he was eager to begin a new life in the United States. "I told myself, this is my new life. I am 50 years old. I am free," he told students at the HSPS. Even living in poverty—the University of California at Berkeley invited him as a Visiting Scholar in the Geology department, but without an apartment, Wu spent his nights walking or resting in People's Park—had the sweet taste of freedom. After five years, he was invited by the U.S. Senate to tell of his experiences, of "hard labor in the coal mine, working from 12 to 12, twelve hours a day, 30 days a month, with one day off."
His testimony awakened a sense of personal responsibility to return to China to document the human-rights abuses in Chinese prisons—which he visited, posing as a businessman buying prison-made products (in open defiance of U.S. law), or as a policeman or a family member looking for an imprisoned relative, clandestinely filming prison conditions with a secret, hidden camera. His reports were later featured on the BBC and on CBS' 60 Minutes, and were among the first to document vast human-rights abuses in Chinese prisons.
"In 19 years in prison camps, every month, we would have only a small piece of pork," Wu said, when students asked him what it was like to come to America. "There was not enough food. Many people starved to death." But when he came to the United States, Wu said, he was stunned by everyday plenty: "I can eat chicken! I can eat beef! I love it! Every day—banana, milk, donuts. I love it!"
Wu attempted suicide twice as a prisoner. His new life in America "was an awful life," limited by poverty, language, and unfamiliarity, "but it was a wonderful life, because I was free."