John Kamm's Mission: Helping Free China Dissidents

John Kamm i i

John Kamm stands in front of the White House after meeting with administration officials. Frank Langfitt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt, NPR
John Kamm

John Kamm stands in front of the White House after meeting with administration officials.

Frank Langfitt, NPR

Most U.S. companies in China won't touch the issue of human rights, but American businessman John Kamm made it a second career. Kamm has spent the last 16 years helping to free scores of Chinese political prisoners.

John Kamm, with brothers Li Lin and Li Zhi after their release in 1991. i i

John Kamm, center, with brothers Li Zhi (left) and Li Lin (right) after their release in 1991. Dui Hua Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Dui Hua Foundation
John Kamm, with brothers Li Lin and Li Zhi after their release in 1991.

John Kamm, center, with brothers Li Zhi (left) and Li Lin (right) after their release in 1991.

Dui Hua Foundation

Scroll down to read profiles of the Li brothers and other dissidents Kamm has helped gain freedom.

With Chinese President Hu Jintao visiting the White House on Thursday, Frank Langfitt has this story about Kamm's journey from businessman to human rights activist.

In 1990, John Kamm was living an expat businessman's dream. He was head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, where he worked for a U.S. multi-national corporation. The perks included a chauffer-driven Mercedes and an apartment overlooking the South China Sea.

Then, one evening, he kissed that life goodbye.

Kamm was at a Chinese government banquet. Thousands were still in prison from the Tiananmen Square crackdown. A Chinese official was praising Kamm for his help in lobbying Congress.

Kamm just couldn't take it.

"I stopped him, in the middle of his toast. And basically said, 'Thank you very much, but what are you going to do for me?' And the room, it just froze," Kamm recalls.

Kamm said China needed to improve its human rights record. And it could start by freeing a Hong Kong student held in Shanghai.

"Well, this minister... became very angry. He said that this was an act of gross interference in the internal affairs of China and an unfriendly act that had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people," Kamm says.

"That created quite, quite a scene," says Jeff Muir, a U.S. businessman who attended the dinner. He said people were worried Kamm was spoiling U.S.-China relations. "I remember somebody saying to the Chinese official that 'not all Americans are as impertinent as Mr. Kamm.'"

Impertinent? Sure. But the outburst was also effective. After the banquet, Kamm testified in Washington on China's behalf. About six weeks later, the Hong Kong student walked free.

Since then, Kamm estimates he's either helped free or improve the conditions of 400 political prisoners. Kamm presents their cases directly to Chinese officials. He tells them that showing mercy is good PR in America.

"My background was in sales," Kamm says. "I'm selling the Chinese government on human rights."

Some of the Dissidents Helped by Kamm

Phuntsog Nyidron; Photo: Martina Castro, NPR

Phuntsog Nyidron: A Tibetan nun, she was arrested in 1989 for demonstrating in public after the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Authorities added eight years to her sentence after she and a group of nuns secretly recorded Tibetan freedom songs in prison. After her release in 2004, authorities wouldn't give her a passport. Citing Chinese law, John Kamm proved that the regulations said nothing about withholding passports from people who had been deprived of their political rights. Nyidron arrived in the United States last month.

Han Dongfang; Photo: Kin Cheung/Reuters/Corbis

Han Dongfang: A charismatic labor leader during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. Authorities put him in a cell with patients infected with tuberculosis, and he contracted TB. Kamm was among many people who pushed for his release. Han says that without international pressure, he would have died in prison. Today, he is a labor rights leader based in Hong Kong.

Li Lin and Li Zhi: Two relatively obscure labor activists from Hunan Province who were jailed following the Tiananmen uprising of 1989. Robin Munro, a Hong Kong human rights activist, was skeptical about Kamm's work. So, he challenged Kamm to get the Li brothers out of jail. Kamm traveled to Beijing to lobby the Chinese Supreme Court. They were released in 1991.

Rebiya Kadeer; Photo: Radio Free Asia/Handout/Reuters/Corbis

Rebiya Kadeer: A member of China's Uighur minority in Xinjiang, the country's far northwestern province. Kadeer had a business empire, and the Communist Party held her up as a model citizen. Then she began promoting Uighur rights. Authorities are battling an independence movement in the province. They threw Kadeer in prison for more than five years after she sent newspaper articles about the abuse of Uighurs to her husband in the United States. Kamm's foundation, Dui Hua, helped get her released on "medical parole" just before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited China last year.

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