September 11, 1995 12:00 PM

HARRY WU’S COZY MILPITAS, Calif., home is abuzz. Phones are ringing. Fax machines are whirring. His publisher is on the phone. Sitting shoeless on the white leather couch—his loafers left at the door in the Asian custom—Wu takes the call, but only for a minute. “Hi, Bob,” he says quickly. “I’m quite busy.”

To say the least. On Aug. 24, after spending 66 days under arrest in his native China, Wu was hauled into a Wuhan courtroom, convicted of espionage and hustled aboard a plane to the United States, his home since 1985. Since then, Wu, 58, has conducted nonstop press conferences and interviews. The pace has been exhausting, but it has allowed Wu, a naturalized U.S. citizen who spent 19 years as a prisoner in the Chinese gulag—or laogai—to achieve his fiercest desire: to shine a spotlight on China’s dismal human-rights policies. “Harry will do anything and everything to tell the world about abuses in China,” says Sue Lloyd-Roberts, a BBC reporter who has worked with Wu.

Indeed, for the past few years, Wu has been a one-man crusade. Adopting various disguises, he has smuggled video cameras into China’s forced labor camps to document the horrors there. Sen. Jesse Helms praises Wu as “one of the bravest souls I know,” and he is credited with helping the U.S. Customs Service enforce the ban on prisoner-produced imports.

Wu’s gadfly tendencies have earned him critics as well. Some U.S. business interests complain privately that his obsession with the camps has helped undermine U.S.-China trade. And his arrest June 19, while he was trying to slip through one of China’s remote border posts to document more prison abuses, nearly put the kibosh on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s trip to the U.N.’s World Conference on Women this week in Beijing.

For Wu, his latest trip seemed doomed from the moment he and research assistant Sue Howell, a law student at North Carolina Central University in Durham, arrived at the border checkpoint. “We saw them holding our passports and looking at a computer screen,” recalls Howell, 45, who was freed four days later. “Harry said, ‘I think we’re in trouble.’ ”

After several hours of waiting, Wu and Howell were forced into a police car. Escorted to a compound in Wuhan, a city in east-central China, Wu was not allowed to contact the U.S. consulate for 22 days. Despite an outcry from Washington, Wu was charged with espionage—punishable by death. On reflection, he considers himself lucky. Says Wu: “Without my U.S. citizenship, I’m sure I wouldn’t have come back.”

His life has been shaped by the prisoners who went before him, most of whom had no such lifeline. Born Wu Hongda, the third of a prosperous banker’s eight children, Wu grew up in a family of privilege, attending a Jesuit school in Shanghai (where he acquired the nickname Harry) and the Beijing Geology Institute, where he became politically outspoken. But days before his graduation from the institute, China’s Communist government branded him a “rightist” and sentenced him to “reeducation through labor.”

Wu spent the next two decades in prisons and forced-labor camps. Faced with starvation, he learned how to catch snakes and skin them with his teeth and how to dig up rat burrows to raid their meager hoards of grain. “He had terrible experiences in the laogai and sometimes still cries when he thinks about it,” says Wu’s wife, Ching-lee, 50, a Taiwanese executive secretary whom he married in 1991. “Seeing his friends die is what made him feel he has a mission to expose this terrible system to the world.”

Wu was released in 1979, given a job teaching geology and eventually granted permission to attend the University of California at Berkeley as a visiting scholar. Arriving in 1985 with just $40, he slept in parks until he got a job at a doughnut shop. By 1988 he was a resident scholar at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution. From there, he founded the Laogai Research Foundation to expose the labor camp practices and began his secret trips back to China.

In the wake of his imprisonment and trial, Wu is eager to catch up with Ching-lee, who, in his absence, proved to be a passionate human-rights advocate herself. “[I thought] Ching-lee was kind, very pretty but middle level in intelligence,” he says, with a laugh. “I was very surprised for her to have such amazing capability. The first thing I said to her [when I got back] was, ‘Will you marry me again?’ ”

Wu refuses to rule out returning to China in the future, though he faces a 15-year prison sentence if recaptured. “I cannot turn my back on my former inmates or my suffering country,” he says. “I won’t give up. No way.”

CYNTHIA SANZ

GABRIELLE SAVERI in Milpitas, LINDA KRAMER in Washington and bureau reports

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