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China dissident becomes Tibet's unlikely champion

April 11, 2009

April 9, 2009

WASHINGTON (AFP) -- As China's leadership works
to glorify its rule in Tibet, one of China's most
prominent dissidents is on a very different
mission -- to document his country's atrocities in the Himalayan land.

Harry Wu, who spent nearly two decades toiling in
labor camps as a political prisoner, recently
opened an exhibition at his Washington museum on
suffering in Chinese-ruled Tibet.

"I've heard a few Chinese say that Harry Wu is a
traitor to China," Wu said inside his Laogai
Museum in the heart of the US capital.

"And I right away respond -- yes, I am. I am a
traitor to the People's Republic of China.
Because the People's Republic of China was
established by the communists," he said emphatically.

In a sharp break with China's line that it
liberated Tibet, the exhibition depicts
authorities destroying temples and other
religious heritage of the region and setting up
labor camps -- the exact number of which Wu said is impossible to verify.

The exhibition, which runs until May 30, features
photographs and video footage taken secretly in
Tibet either by Tibetans or their sympathizers.

One image shows stacks of lumber stacked up
outside the new Chambdo prison, with one unnamed
inmate saying conditions were worse than in
Tibet's most notorious Drapchi prison.

"On the outside, it looks very modern and many of
the facilities are new. But inside it is very tough," the prisoner said.

He said that at least in Drapchi prison, "you can
see the sky and sometimes the mountains from the cells."

Wu, 72, is lucid and sprightly. In his 19 years
inside China's labor camps -- or "laogai" he says
he was subjected to torture and near starvation.

The geologist said he was shipped off to 12
different laogai, where he was forced like a
slave to work in a bid to change his views. Wu
had criticized communism, in particular the
Soviet clampdown on Hungary's 1956 uprising.

He was freed in 1979 and later moved to the
United States, where he worked in a doughnut shop
to make ends meet before eventually telling his story.

And as he tried to expose human rights abuses in
China, he found himself opening his own eyes to a new issue -- Tibet.

"I found that of the many different groups of
immigrants to the United States -- Mexicans,
Koreans, Chinese, Japanese or whatever -- you
always have some of them who commit some sort of
crimes and go to jail," he said.

"You don't find any Tibetans doing crime. And you
can easily make friends with them," he said.

Wu, raised to think that the Dalai Lama was a
feudal oppressor, later met the Tibetan spiritual
leader and has since developed views on Tibet
that go even beyond what the Dalai Lama advocates.

While the Dalai Lama says he is seeking only
greater autonomy for Tibetans under Chinese rule,
Beijing brands him a separatist and pressures
world leaders not to meet with the Nobel Peace laureate.

Wu, however, firmly believes that Tibet should be -- and was -- independent.

"Tibet has nothing to do with the Han Chinese,"
Wu said, referring to China's main ethnicity.

He thumped the table passionately as he showed
his collection of Chinese government maps, which
mark ethnically Tibetan areas in a different color.

Wu said that Beijing's argument -- that Tibetans
for centuries accepted Chinese emperors' rule --
was no different from the British saying they
should still control India because they once colonized it.

"They have their own systems, they have their
culture, their religion, their military. They
have a government, they have tax. It is
independent -- totally different," Wu said.

China sent troops into Tibet in 1950 and nine
years later crushed an uprising which led the Dalai Lama to flee into India.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the uprising last
month, China established a new holiday
celebrating "Serfs' Liberation Day," saying
Beijing freed Tibetans from a Buddhist theocracy
that enslaved all but the religious elite.

China has also opened a Tibet museum in Beijing,
which reinforces the official line on the region
seen by most Chinese as an inalienable part of the country.

Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's chief negotiator
with Beijing, sits on the board of Wu's
foundation and said the exhibition provides a useful counterpoint.

"Harry Wu's work at the Laogai Museum is done for
the same reasons that the Holocaust Museum was
founded: to remember and to expose these ugly
truths so that such things will never happen again," Gyari said.

"The Tibetan people need to forgive, but we must not forget."

The Laogai Museum, whose main exhibit documents
China's labor camps, opened in November with the
support of a fund established by Jerry Yang, the
co-founder of Internet giant Yahoo.

Yang donated the money after Yahoo came under
fire for providing data to Chinese police helping
them jail cyber dissidents including outspoken
journalist Shi Tao, who remains in prison.

Wu said his museum attracted a steady flow of US
schoolchildren but few Han Chinese. He said he
hoped more Chinese would visit -- he even sent an
improbable invitation to the Chinese embassy staff.

But Wu believes that instead of trying to
persuade Han Chinese on Tibet, Tibetans can help
the Chinese by fighting the communist system.

"I've told the Dalai Lama -- we Chinese cannot
support you; you, the Tibetans, should support us," Wu said.

"Communist China is like a plate -- not made of
plastic, of paper, of metal but of china. If you
take away part of it, you can break the entire Chinese communist system."

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