RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
President Bush welcomed China's president to the White House today. With President Hu Jintao at his side, Mr. Bush said the U.S. and China share many strategic interests.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The United States and China are two nations divided by a vast ocean, yet connected through a global economy that has created opportunity for both our peoples.
MONTAGNE: For his part, President Hu said, through an interpreter, that the two countries should respect each other as equals and work to promote closer ties.
President HU JINTAO (President, People's Republic of China): (Through translator) This will enable us to make steady progress in advancing constructive and cooperative China-U.S. relations and bring more benefits to our two peoples, and people of the world.
MONTAGNE: President Hu's comments were interrupted by a protestor, who was forcibly removed by uniformed officers. And demonstrators gathered outside the White House to protest China's human rights record. It's just one of the thorny issues the two leaders are expected to discuss, and it's a source of tension between China and the U.S.
One American businessman who has made human rights in China the focus of his career is John Kamm. And he's spent the last 16 years helping to free scores of Chinese political prisoners, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
The year was 1990 and John Kamm was living the dream. He was head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, where he worked for a U.S. multinational. The perks included a chauffeured-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 lobbying Congress. Kamm just couldn't take it.
Mr. JOHN KAMM (Former President, American Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong; Founder and Chairman, The Dui Hua Foundation): And so I stopped him in the middle of his toast. And basically said, well, thank you very much, but what are you going to do for me? And the room, you know, it just froze.
LANGFITT: Kamm said China needed to improve its human rights record, and it could start by freeing a Hong Kong student held in Shanghai.
Mr. KAMM: Well this minister went--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.
Mr. JEFF MUIR (U.S. Businessman): That created quite, quite a scene.
LANGFITT: That's Jeff Muir, a U.S. businessman who attended the dinner. He said people were worried Kamm was spoiling relations.
Mr. MUEIR: I remember somebody saying to the Chinese official that--that not all Americans are as impertinent as Mr. Kamm.
LANGFITT: Impertinent? Sure, but 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 improved the conditions of 400 political prisoners. Kamm presents their cases directly to Chinese officials. He tells them that showing mercy is good P.R. in America.
Mr. KAMM: My background was in sales. I'm selling the Chinese government on human rights.
LANGFITT: At first, some were skeptical about Kamm's success. So Robin Monroe, a longtime human rights activist, gave him a test: a pair of obscure political prisoners, the Li brothers.
Mr. ROBIN MONROE (Author; Human Rights Activist): I kind of went to John's office and sort of threw the gauntlet down at him. I said, okay, let's see what you can do with this case. I was very dubious about whether he could do anything.
LANGFITT: Kamm flew to Beijing to lobby the Chinese Supreme Court; the Li's went free. Kamm met them afterwards at a Hong Kong restaurant.
Mr. KAMM: And they came in, these two emaciated young men, bones were sort of sticking out; they were just thin as rails. And you could still see the marks where they had attached the electrodes, the burn marks, on their skin.
LANGFITT: For political prisoners, outside pressure can be a lifesaver. Kamm was among many who worked the case at Han Dongfang, a Tiananmen Square protest leader. Han was dying of tuberculosis. He said knowing people were trying to get him out kept his spirits up.
Mr. HAN DONGFANG (Former Protest Leader and Prisoner, Hong Kong): The greatest fear in prison is the loneliness. And you are on your own.
LANGFITT: What would have happened if people hadn't been pressing for your release?
Mr. DONGFANG: If there are nobody internationally putting my name in a campaign and helped me have international attention, I think I would be a dead person. I don't think I can have the chance to talk to you.
LANGFITT: In 1999, Kamm started a private foundation called Dui Hua, which means dialogue in Mandarin. His researchers dig for cases in Chinese police records. Kamm travels to china four or five times a year to present prisoner lists and lobby for releases. His most recent case was Phuntsog Nyidron, a Tibetan nun. She had spent 15 years in prison. Among her crimes, secretly recording songs with fellow nuns celebrating the Dalai Lama.
(Soundbite of Phuntsog Nyidron and fellow nuns singing)
LANGFITT: Nyidron was released two years ago, but couldn't leave the country. So, in typical fashion, Kamm studied the Chinese law. Then used it against the government to get her out.
Mr. KAMM: I've been trying for two years to get the Chinese government to give her a passport. And, you know, I was told that we can't do that because of Chinese law. Well, I went to the law. And lo and behold, there's nothing in those regulations that says someone whose political rights have been deprived can't get a passport. And I brought that with me and I showed it to officials. And they said, oh, okay.
LANGFITT: Nyidron arrived in the U.S. last month. Several weeks ago, the International Campaign for Tibet held a cocktail party for her in Washington, D.C.
Unidentified Man: Welcome to America.
LANGFITT: Nyidron spoke to guests through a translator.
Sister PHUNTSOG NYIDRON (Formerly Jailed Tibetan Nun): (Through Translator) I would like to thank you, and to continue to pay attention particularly to the human rights situation in Tibet, and to support the Tibetan people.
LANGFITT: Kamm was also in Washington recently, keeping up his U.S. contacts. He caught up with James Lilly, a former American ambassador to China. Over lunch, Lilly lamented that so many businesses ignore human rights.
Mr. JAMES LILLY (Former U.S. Ambassador, China): And the Chinese have been very effective in manipulating businessmen in China: If you want to do business in China, you play by our rules. An amazing number of people do this.
LANGFITT: Among the most recent examples is Yahoo!. The company gave up email information that helped Chinese authorities arrest a democracy activist named Shi Tao; he's now serving 10 years. Kamm's organization learned about the verdict and helped publicize the case in the West. Yahoo! said it had to follow Chinese law. Kamm says Yahoo! is being shortsighted.
Mr. KAMM: The next time it might not be Shi Tao. It might be another businessman who's involved in a very sensitive negotiation. And the police, if there are no restrictions on what they can do, what's to stop them from getting information on your deal, and giving it to a competitor in China? What's to stop them?
LANGFITT: Sixteen years have passed since that banquet in Hong Kong. Kamm still struggles to explain why he spoke out that night. He cites his idealism as a college student in the late 1960s. And like others who've had life changing epiphanies, he cites Scripture, in this case, the Gospel of Matthew.
Mr. KAMM: "You will be brought before governors and kings to testify on my behalf before the Gentiles. Give not a thought to what or how you will speak. It will be given to you in that hour what you will say. It is not you who speaks, but the spirit of the Lord who speaks through you." And that's what it was. It really was an out of body experience for me.
LANGFITT: Kamm is now 55. He suffers from diabetes and plans to retire in a few years. He's disappointed that, after all this time, no other U.S. businessman has taken up the cause of working to free prisoners. When Kamm steps down he'll pass the torch to someone in his foundation.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.