'Confessions' by Activist Harry Wu Point Only To Beijing's Insecurity

IT took us a little while to be certain that the man we were watching on the videotape was indeed Harry Wu, the brisk and smiling figure who had worked in our editing rooms on a few prizewinning reports for the British Broadcasting Corporation last year. Mr. Wu, a Chinese-born American human rights activist, was arrested on spy charges when he tried to enter China from Kazakhstan.

One of Wu's reports was about the Chinese authorities' practice of using prison labor to make goods for profit; the other was about the way the authorities take organs from prisoners, dead or alive, and sell them for transplant operations.

As we watched the fuzzy black-and-white video, shot by a camera mounted on the wall in the interrogation room, and listened to the faint, high-pitched voice of the prisoner who appeared exhausted, it scarcely seemed like the same man we worked with. But we knew it was.

The video was being hawked around Hong Kong television stations at a ludicrously high asking price of $50,000. Eventually, though, the salesman said he would accept one-tenth of that price. The salesman's name was Lee Yang, and he apparently was a senior official from Beijing who worked for a quasi-independent company called Five Continental Media. Like his organization, the video he was selling had a not-quite-right English title: Just See The Lies Of Harry Wu.

Some broadcast companies bought the video because they wanted to show the world what had happened to Wu. Others wanted to ingratiate themselves with the Chinese authorities by airing it.

Beijing's aversion to BBC

The BBC is perennially unpopular with the Communist government because its radio and television services have huge audiences in China - larger than those of any other broadcasting organization. And unlike some other Western broadcasters, the BBC refuses to tone down its news reports to suit Beijing's sensitivities. It was for this reason that Wu chose our organization to edit his reports.

The salesman's expensive video intercut brief excerpts from the BBC news reports with ''admissions'' from Wu that either he made up the reports to deceive people or the BBC embroidered them. Other people who were interviewed for the reports claimed on tape that they were misquoted or were edited out of context.

As I watched the video, I was reminded of another Chinese government production, less sophisticated than this one, that appeared in the West shortly after the democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

On that video, some of the people the BBC interviewed claimed their words had been distorted. The video also included some wonderful touches. For example, I was shown handing a piece of paper to some students in the square. Like every other Western journalist during that extraordinary time, I was constantly being asked for my autograph. The scene was captured on videotape by one of the many government spies who were active at the time.

The editors intercut a brief sequence showing the same students unloading a truck full of weapons. The security police had driven the vehicle to the square in order to have something with which to later accuse the students. The commentary over these two sequences - my handing over the piece of paper and the students taking the rifles out of the truck - explained how Western journalists had given the students cash to buy guns.

That particular video appeared at a time when Beijing had its back to the wall and was fighting for survival. Today, although the leadership is strong again, it is still remarkably insecure.

A plan backfires

No one in Beijing seems to have realized, for instance, the revulsion that would be invoked in the West by the sight of a broken, tortured man confessing to self-evident untruths. The result, as it happens, is that it is easier for us to believe Wu's strongest accusations against the Chinese authorities.

A regime that can break down a courageous and clear-headed man like Wu is also capable, for instance, of extracting organs from a living prisoner. Wu's report for the BBC included an interview with a surgeon who had defected from China to Hong Kong. ''I was ordered to take both kidneys from an anaesthetized prisoner,'' the surgeon said. ''The organs were taken away by military helicopter. I can only assume it was for a high-ranking [Communist] Party member.''

As a result, China's future has become a race between the government's willingness to change and its ability to carry on in a world that has effectively discarded communism. The economic changes in China are remarkable; but politically it is still recognizable as the regime that shot down its critics in Tiananmen Square. Above all, it cannot give up its love of the show-trial and the abject confession.

All the signs point to the fact that Harry Wu, like most of the unfortunates who were paraded through Stalin's courts in the treason trials of 1937 and 1938, was forced to confess as a result of sleep deprivation. The hope is that Wu has saved his life, and perhaps has ensured his safe return to the United States, by blaming the BBC for the things he said in his reports. As for the BBC, we will be only too glad to see him a free man again.

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