Harry Wu, Reconsidered

On May 8, I posted a story about Harry Wu, an innocent man who survived 19 years in brutal Chinese labor camps and spent the rest of his life forcing the world to take notice.

These facts remain, but a New York Times article this morning indicates that his work in the United States is more complicated. You can find both articles in the citations below.



For those who want an executive summary (and who doesn’t these days?) here are some pieces of the Times article.

His close relationship with lawmakers helped Mr. Wu secure a $17 million grant
from Yahoo in 2007 to aid families of persecuted dissidents, when the tech giant was
facing withering criticism for assisting the Chinese authorities in identifying activists
who had used the company’s email service. . . .

He provided just $1.2 million to dissidents’ families, while spending more than $13
million of the Yahoo money to operate his own foundation, which runs a website and
a small museum. . . .”

“American politicians think of Harry Wu as a hero, but the truth is he is an immoral
person who betrayed the very people he was supposed to be helping,” said Wang Jing,
47, the wife of a dissident. . . . “

In an interview two weeks before his death, Mr. Wu brushed off allegations of financial
impropriety and defended his decision to largely discontinue giving grants to Chinese
dissidents and their families. He said that foundation employees, unable to obtain visas to enter China, found it hard to verify the financial information provided by aid
applicants. But he made little effort to hide his disdain for Chinese human rights activists who sought grants, describing them as greedy, deceitful and ungrateful. “Some of them lie to us,” he said. “We are frustrated by these Chinese victims.”

What seems to have happened is that Wu was given the money to expiate Yahoo’s corporate guilt for its exposure of dissident refugees and that he used the money instead aid to further his personal goal of forcing public awareness of the cruel system that imprisoned him and many others.

Some specifics:

Mr. Wu’s role as administrator of the money proved problematic. In 2011, Yu Ling,
the wife of one of the jailed activists, filed a lawsuit claiming Mr. Wu had pressured
her to turn over the $3.2 million settlement and then purchased a $1 million annuity
in his name. Mr. Wu eventually returned the money but a litany of grant applicants
would later cite other irregularities. Some say they never received the money he had
promised; others recalled signing blank disbursement forms but receiving only partial
payment. A review of the organization’s financial disclosure forms reveals at least
$190,000 that is unaccounted for.

There are other creepy allegations — wife-beating, never prosecuted; and an unresolved legal action for harassment of three teenage girls. Wu and his wife were divorced. They had a son whom I tried to locate through social media, without luck. My guess is that he does not want to be found.

The Yahoo donation to Wu’s foundation arose after Yahoo allowed Chinese officials to learn the names of Yahoo users who wrote posts criticizing the Chinese government. The government retaliated and prosecuted those users, and the revelation of this exposed Yahoo to international shame. In addition, Yahoo executives sat on the foundation’s board and apparently allowed Wu to use the money for purposes that Yahoo had not intended.

The article also mentions other tech companies’ relations with the Chinese government.

The controversy underscores recurring issues of corporate social responsibility and
unintended consequences as Silicon Valley executives, eager to tap into China’s vast
market, seek to win favor with the country’s authoritarian rulers. In 2014, the social
network site LinkedIn agreed to censor its results in China, and last year IBM provoked
concern in the White House after it began allowing Chinese officials to examine
proprietary source codes for its products. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has courted
Chinese leaders in hopes of gaining access to the country’s 700 million internet users.

These situations are fraught. Years of abuse can harden people and mangle their inborn ethics. The promise of access to a market of more than 1 billion potential customers can lead corporate leaders to commit acts that would be unthinkable in our country.

I don’t regret what I said about Harry Wu and his very hard life. But I can accept that he was — like all humans — flawed and perhaps seriously so. We must do the best we can to find truth and not flinch from its consequences.

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