Hongda “Harry” Wu, a tireless defender of religious liberty, human rights, and political freedom in China, died last week. He was 79. More than anyone else, Wu was responsible for exposing China’s vast prison-labor system to the light—and teaching the world a new and ugly word: “laogai.”

Laogai is based on a Chinese acronym for the phrase “reform through labor.” After Mao Tse-tung established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, he created a vast network of laogai slave-labor camps to maintain control over his subjects. Long after Mao’s death, the laogai camps would remain an integral part of Beijing’s tyranny. It’s estimated that 40 million people have been banished to Mao’s version of the gulag over the decades. Hundreds of these camps still pockmark China’s landscape.

Most of what we know about the laogai camps is due to Wu’s work. This humble human-rights activist survived 19 years in the laogai system but refused to be called a hero. “I am a survivor,” he told me during a 2006 interview, “not a hero.”

As a graduate student, Wu made the mistake of criticizing the communist regime in 1960. He was then sentenced to the laogai, where he would spend the next two decades of his life.

“When I was sent to the labor camp,” he recalled. “I could not continue my religious life. I am a Catholic. Nor could I continue with my political views, to complain to or about the communist government. All I could do was engage in labor—hard labor. Sometimes it was manual labor, sometimes in a coal mine, sometimes in a chemical factory, sometimes a steel factory, sometimes on a farm… They would ask ‘Have you given up your political or religious views? Do you uphold communism?’”

Despite the humiliation and the beatings and the broken bones, Wu called himself “lucky,” explaining, “Not only did I survive that hell, but I came to a free country and became a free man again.”

Upon his release, Wu won a ticket out of China when a visiting American professor invited him to lecture at the University of California. The PRC, wanting to get rid of the troublesome Wu, agreed to the request. It would be a fateful decision—for Beijing and for Wu—because only from outside the PRC could Wu tell his story and expose China’s gulags to the light.

By 1992, after stints at Berkeley and the Hoover Institution, Wu launched the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF), which is committed to educating the world about the laogai system. Under Wu’s leadership, LRF won legislative victories on Capitol Hill, raised awareness across the United States and around the world, and cobbled together a disparate coalition of laogai opponents, including human-rights activists, labor groups, religious groups, old-fashioned anticommunists, and trade hawks.

Wu became a U.S. citizen in 1994. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times, Wu even changed our language: After years of prodding by Wu, the Oxford English Dictionary officially included the word “laogai” in its 2003 edition.

“Now I can go to the grave in peace,” he said, plaintively rather than proudly. “We tell people that China is changing, and it has a huge labor market. Yet this totalitarian regime has a system similar to the gulags—its name is laogai. And now the world knows about it.”

Never seduced by the trade über alles caucus, Wu recognized that even as Beijing’s elites profited from the free market—even as China’s capital-ish economy lifted millions from poverty—China’s people remained unfree. “We want to see democracy and the improvement of human rights,” he explained. “Capitalism doesn’t mean democracy.”

To his credit, Wu saw a common thread connecting all regimes that deny freedom of thought. “Just as Stalin had the gulags and Hitler had the concentration camps,” Wu explained, “the Chinese Communist Party has its own system for control—laogai.” Through the laogai system, China’s rulers “intend not only to punish but also to brainwash. The government does not want you to continue to hold a political view that deviates. You cannot keep your religious views. They intend to convert you to what they call a ‘New Socialist Person.’ They aim to reprogram your brain.”

But Beijing went a step further than its totalitarian forerunners. Wu recognized that rather than simply getting rid of the unwanted or smothering independent thought, Beijing’s gulags aimed to produce goods “that can be sold on the international market.”

Indeed, according to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), “prison labor has been used to manufacture, among other products, toys, electronics and clothing. The export to the United States of products manufactured through the use of forced labor in China’s prison system and other forms of detention reportedly continues despite U.S.-China agreements.”

Given the religious reasons for many laogai sentences, it’s sickening to consider that some of China’s slave-labor camps churn out rosariesChristmas wreathsChristmas treesChristmas lights, and other holiday decorations—all for export to the West.

Beijing announced in late 2013 that it would close its network of “reeducation through labor” camps. But this proved to be an exercise in word games. The name changed, but the system remains. “The net effect of this policy shift was unclear,” the CECC concludes, “as reports emerged that authorities increased the use of other facilities.”

Moreover, Beijing continues its crackdown on people of faith, especially Christians. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) provides the details: “The Chinese government continues to perpetrate particularly severe violations of religious freedom…Inde­pendent Catholics and Protestants face arrests, fines and the shuttering of their places of worship.” Amnesty International estimates that “hundreds of thousands of people” are subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention in China, many of them for “peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of belief.”

As America retreats from its commitment of promoting democracy and human rights, Wu’s words of a decade ago are convicting: “The average American needs to tell the media, their congressman and senators, and the president that we have to put human rights and democracy on the table with the Chinese government. We should not only want to see their economy improve, but also their human rights and freedom.”

Harry Wu fought the good fight and finished his leg of the race. The rest of us who believe in human freedom need to take the baton he carried.

Alan Dowd is a contributor to the digital and print editions of Providence.

Photo Credit: Screenshot of Digging A Tunnel: Harry Wu’s Journey Through China’s Laogai System by the Laogai Research Foundation via YouTube.