ON June 19, Harry Wu doubtless pleased hard-line Chinese rulers when he crossed the border. As usual, the naturalized American citizen held his US passport and a Chinese visa. But this time, the numerical blur of the Wu families no longer afforded incognito status, as even the border guards at Kazakhstan now have computers programmed with the revelation that Peter H. Wu, a legit name on a legit passport, and Harry Wu are one. He is under arrest.
During previous trips to China, Mr. Wu documented the existence of 1,168 forced labor camps. He made a loud splash in Congress, where he is a well-respected source and hero. On his last trip, from April 1 to May 6, 1994, Wu obtained proof of the trafficking of body parts of executed prisoners. This is not publicity China craves as it presents pockets of incremental social and legal progress it hopes will make Western companies, partners, and markets more comfortable.
The labor camps and political prisoners are part of the laogai, or gulag, that keeps the populace in line. The policy - "Forced Labor is a means, while Thought Reform is our basic aim" - anchors a state and military-owned industrial base that sells cheap labor and products throughout China.
Wu's research is grounded in 19 grueling years spent in prison labor camps after he criticized China's support of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Undoubtedly, there are reformist, or at least wiser, factions within China that are aghast that Wu was arrested instead of merely given the boot at the border.
Wu is an American citizen. He is an unwelcome conscience to segments of the US business community that, seeking to curry favor with China, have often said they are just bit players there, so who are they to tell the Chinese what to do? Not all companies join in. A few, like Reebok, have stressed their ethical imperatives beyond lip service and yet operate profitably in China within moral guidelines. Others, like Levi-Strauss and Timberland, have said they'll stay out until the moral and legal climates improve. Such actions strengthen the hand of those within the Chinese power structure pressing for reform.
Wu's risky attempts to establish whistle blowing in China are invaluable assets for responsible businesses with a long-range view.
American business can do itself a favor with an immediate, across-the-board protest of Wu's arrest. To accept as a cultural quirk an attitude that China has employed while abusing other nations' nationals of Chinese descent - "Once Chinese always Chinese" - would be another signal of how easily US businesses can be rolled.
Intelligence experts warn that Chinese rulers determined to maintain their power and profits are intentionally, methodically stealing technology to modernize China's industrial base, regardless of piracy and intellectual property laws. In China, there is a clear race between chaotic corruption and the rule of law. The US business community can assist the latter with unhesitating support of Harry Wu. Or it can assist the former with silence.