TOWARD the middle of his book, ``Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag,'' Harry Wu describes one incident of human suffering that above all shaped his life's mission of exposing China's gulag.
It was 1961, and China was in the midst of a severe, nationwide famine. At the Qinghe Farm, a forced-labor camp near Tianjin, Wu and several hundred other emaciated inmates lay listlessly on long earthen beds called kang. Meager rations of gruel had left the men so weak that they were exempt from the drill of heavy labor and political study.
Wu passed much of his time in a stupor, numb to the almost daily demise of prisoners, until one day when a close friend succumbed to starvation. The loss jolted Wu into a show of emotion rare among inmates. He threw himself upon his friend's body, rashly demanding that guards let him to go along for the cursory burial. Later, as he glanced back at the prison graveyard from a moving ox cart, Wu's mind suddenly grew animated.
``Human life has no value here,'' he thought. ``It has no more importance than a cigarette ash flicked in the wind.... If the people mean no more than dust, then the society is worthless and does not deserve to continue. If the society should not continue, then I should oppose it.''
This revelation gave the 24-year-old Wu strength to live through what would be another 18 years in China's labor reform camps, and the determination to challenge that system after his release and emigration to the United States.
Wu, now a scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, has pursued his goal of telling the outside world about China's gulag with courage. In 1991, he returned to China posing as an American businessman. With a hidden camera, he filmed the camps where he and thousands of other Chinese had been tortured.
What is most valuable about ``Bitter Winds,'' Wu's story as told to journalism professor Carolyn Wakeman, is its combination of sharp physical detail with an intimate account of Wu's psychological journey through his labor-camp years.
Wu relates hunger so intense that he and other inmates are driven to vivid ``food imagining sessions'' in a desperate attempt to overcome the emptiness in their stomachs. He tells of his solitary confinement in a cold, damp concrete cell only 6-feet long and 3-feet tall, and of men trussed up like animals until they lose consciousness.
Yet Wu's only ``crime'' was his failure as a Beijing university student to conform to Maoist orthodoxy. Wu's sentencing in 1960 as a ``counterrevolutionary rightist'' epitomizes the kind of political persecution of innocent Chinese that was rampant under Mao and continues today.
A striking aspect of ``Bitter Winds'' is Wu's candid account of the mental and moral twists that enabled him to survive his ordeal in the camps. Against his principles as a well-bred Shanghai intellectual, he learned to fight with his fists, to serve as a ``running dog'' for his police captors, and to act with total, almost unthinking selfishness.
Once, Wu refused to share a cache of grain dug from a rathole with the inmate who discovered it. ``My twinge of compassion disappeared. I acted as if the fittest alone deserved to survive,'' he recalled.
In this way, Wu's account helps readers to better understand the kind of compromise that many Chinese have been forced to make to survive under Communist rule.
``Bitter Winds'' offers enough historical context to let the unfamiliar reader know how China's political climate influenced camp conditions. Rightly, however, the book focuses on Wu's personal experience, which is what makes it unique.
Wu's story, skillfully rendered by Wakeman, is a service to a Western audience that knows little about China's gulag. It has much to offer the average reader and China expert alike.
Stylistically far less accessible is another recent book on China's labor camps, ``Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-six Years In Communist Chinese Prisons.'' The book tells the story of Han Wei-tien, a spy for the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan, who was arrested in Shanghai in 1951 and confined to mainland labor camps until 1977.
The book mainly describes Han's grueling existence as a prisoner in the rugged, snow-covered terrain of China's northwestern Qinghai Province. There, with thousands of other forced laborers, Han toils at gunpoint to build a road linking Qinghai with Tibet, his only tool a handmade pickax. Hundreds of Han's fellow inmates perish in accidents, are shot by callous guards, starve, or commit suicide.
Han's life becomes easier when he is eventually assigned the job of boiling water. Enjoying relative freedom, he meets and falls in love with Yelusa, a Tibetan nomad girl whose wealthy family is encamped nearby. Yelusa protects Han from prison leaders by bribing them with gifts of mutton and saves his life after he nearly freezes when ordered to gather wood in a blizzard. But the romance ends tragically.
Han's story is told by Chinese novelist Pu Ning, himself a veteran of China's gulag. The overblown symbolism and somewhat dreamlike quality of Pu's narrative, however, tend to make Han seem more like a hero in a fictional novel and detract from what could be a more straightforward, compelling account of his stark life.