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Dedicated Dialogue: Dui Hua Foundation Pursues Information on Forgotten Prisoners

October 16, 2000


Since 1990, businessman-turned-activist John Kamm has been badgering Chinese officials to provide information about prisoners detained in China for political reasons. Last year he set up the Dui Hua Foundation to continue this work on a more formal basis. Sophia Woodman interviewed him about his work. 


Sophia Woodman: Let's begin with some history. How did you begin advocating for the release of prisoners of conscience in China? 

John Kamm: First, a point of clarification. The work of The Dui Hua Foundation focuses on political detainees, that is, individuals detained by the police pursuant to the investigation of a political case. The Chinese government insists that it doesn’t hold political prisoners, and the official literature on the judicial and penal systems rarely if ever mentions political prisoners, but this same literature is full of references to political cases (zhengzhi anjian). Investigating and solving political cases is the responsibility of the political security sections (zhengzhi baowei ke) of the public security bureaus, and to a lesser extent, the local state security bureaus.

In order to have a dialogue, it’s necessary to arrive at a shared language. Ask a Chinese official to give information on political prisoners or prisoners of conscience, and you’ll get the reply that China doesn’t have any political prisoners or prisoners of conscience. Ask for information about someone detained in a political case or someone convicted of counterrevolution and you’re far more likely to get a useful reply.

The set of political detainees includes those who are eventually convicted of a crime, those who are sentenced to administrative detention, and those who are held in detention centers or other facilities like Party lock-ups and the “old people’s homes” maintained by the religious affairs administration. It includes those who have been detained for non-violent acts, as well as those who have committed or were planning to commit acts of violence. We put a priority on those who appear to have been detained for the non-violent advocacy of their views, but we also look at cases in which the punishment meted out is disproportionate to the actual offence committed (such as life in prison for burning a truck). From time to time, we take up what appears to be a non-political case—say a case of commercial fraud—if it appears that due-process rights might have been violated.

The very first case I worked on was one of a political detainee who was released after being held for a year in a detention center in Shanghai. He was never brought to trial. I asked about him at a banquet held in honor of the American business community of Hong Kong by a senior Chinese official. What I did outraged the business community, and I’ve paid a price for that, but within weeks of the intervention, the detainee was released. I never looked back, and I’ve never regretted what I did.

The form Dui Hua’s advocacy takes is simple: We file inquiries about the situations of particular detainees. Lists of detainees are submitted to the government department or agency concerned (primarily the Ministry of Justice), and we follow up these queries on a regular basis. Information is given to us by Chinese government agencies in a standardized format, one that has evolved over the years.

I began asking about political detainees in 1990, the year I served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. I was among the first people to testify to the US Congress in favor of maintaining normal trade relations with China, a controversial and unpopular position with many Americans in 1990, but a position that was popular with the Chinese government. At that time, I made a public pledge to use the goodwill and trust that I enjoyed with Chinese officials to intervene on behalf of people detained for offenses related to the 1989 protests.

A 1995 notice issued by the Ministry of Justice that I recently uncovered classifies prisoners convicted of June Fourth-related offenses about whom foreigners have expressed concern as “important criminals.” Anecdotal and, to a somewhat lesser extent, statistical evidence suggests that, since 1991, prisoners who are the focus of international attention—the “important criminals” of the notice—are paroled at rates considerably higher than those of prisoners who are not asked about.

Over the past 10 years, I guess that I’ve asked about more than 500 detainees. I’ve obtained information on about half of those I’ve asked about. I reckon that about half of the people on my lists have benefited in one way or another from the intervention.

SW: You have been one of the most forceful advocates for getting business people involved in this kind of advocacy. How successful has that been? What are the barriers?

JK: I have always felt that business people can be effective human rights advocates precisely because they are viewed as friends by the Chinese government. I am not aware of other business people who regularly file inquiries on behalf of detainees. Some others might be doing it, but if they are, they are keeping very quiet about it!

With few exceptions, business people don’t see how getting the Chinese government to talk about their political detainees is good for their businesses. The argument that such an effort promotes transparency, more tolerance for dissenting opinions and greater respect for rule of law has for the most part fallen on deaf ears. I get a better hearing from students in business schools, which gives me hope for the future.

In testimony to the Senate Finance Committee in 1991, I described my effort to secure the release of two Hunan labor leaders, which included a direct appeal to China’s Supreme People’s Court. At the end of my testimony, the Chairman of the Committee, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, had this to say: “I doubt it helps your company much if you appear before the Chinese Supreme Court to get one person released. I don’t see the economic return to your company from that.”

If a political leader like Lloyd Bentsen—someone who supported making China’s MFN conditional on Beijing making human rights concessions—didn’t see the value of such work, how can one expect business people to endorse my activities?

Aside from not seeing the value to their businesses, executives also doubt that intervention will do much good, and they worry that it might hurt their businesses, that the Chinese government might retaliate against them. I think my experience over the past 10 years refutes both concerns. I am certain that my interventions have had a beneficial impact on the outcome of many cases—Chinese officials and the detainees themselves have told me so—and the Chinese government has never acted against my business interests. However, some American companies have severed relationships with me out of concern that my human rights activities might have a negative effect on their business prospects, but Chinese companies and government agencies have not.

SW: What made you decide to set up the Dui Hua Foundation?

JK: In 1993, I began to shift my efforts away from well-known, “high -profile” detainees to those whose names were relatively unknown. Convinced that simply asking about detainees increased the likelihood of better treatment, I resolved to ask about as many detainees as possible, as often as possible.

That year, I came across an account of four people who had been convicted of counterrevolution in Jilin province in 1983. The account had been taken from a radio broadcast, so there was no way of knowing for sure what the Chinese characters for the four names were. I figured that, if the case was described in a provincial radio broadcast, it was possible that there would be an account in a provincial newspaper. Sure enough, there was. It turned out that the Chinese characters for the names were quite different from the romanized versions of the names that appeared in the transcript of the radio broadcast. I submitted the names to the Ministry of Justice and was told that one of the prisoners—Zhao Fengping—was still serving a sentence for counterrevolution as of 1994. (Zhao’s release date was given as December 19, 2002. We have submitted a follow-up request for information on him.)

That experience convinced me that a comprehensive survey of Chinese provincial newspapers and other publications would yield a lot of information on political cases unknown to human rights monitors in the West. In 1998, I began discussing the possibility of a grant from Smith Richardson Foundation to finance such a survey. Grantors almost never give funds to individuals, but rather insist on a non-profit organization to receive and administer the grant, so I and a small group of friends established the Dui Hua Foundation in April 1999. Smith Richardson Foundation approved our first grant a few months later, in July. They recently gave us another grant to support our work for the next two years, and we have also attracted support from the International Republican Institute, the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and other companies and individuals.

Since undertaking the survey of official Chinese publications, Dui Hua has uncovered more than 1,000 names of hitherto unknown political detainees. We have selected more than 200 of these names and submitted them in new lists given to the Chinese government. We have begun receiving information in return.

SW: What’s been the response of the Chinese authorities to this new type of case you’ve been raising? Is it any different to when you brought up people whose cases had already been publicized?

JK: Chinese officials to whom I give our new lists of prisoners are intrigued—amazed might be a better word—that there is so much information on political detainees in publicly available, officially authorized publications. For each detainee we include the original Chinese language account, together with an English translation. I have been told that it is easier for a Chinese official to entertain a request for information if the request is based on an officially authorized account as opposed to an account that appears in a human rights publication.

SW: What sort of information are you given about the people whose cases you raise? What do you do with that information?

JK: The information provided on prisoners consists of the following:
1) correct name(s) and aliases; 2) age; 3) sex; 4) race/ethnicity; 5) address and/or occupation at time of detention; 6) past criminal record; 7) details of trial and conviction, including sentence (incarceration plus deprivation of political rights); 8) any changes to original sentence (such as reduction, extension, good behavior parole, medical parole); 9) location where sentence is being served; and 10) information on behavior and health. A prisoner’s health is described in one of four ways: 1) healthy; 2) normal; 3) average; and 4) stable.

As soon as possible after receipt of the information, we provide it to interested governments and international humanitarian and human rights organizations. If we know how to contact the detainees’ relatives, we make an effort to provide the information to them as well.

SW: Have you had any contact with people whose cases you’ve found out about through your research?

JK: The people whose names we’ve uncovered are mostly lost souls, unknown to all but a few of their loved ones. Their names appear once, maybe twice, in accounts published in a county gazette or a provincial legal newspaper. We have no way of ascertaining their home addresses, and I doubt they know we’ve expressed an interest in their situations.

As for the better known detainees, it is not uncommon for them to contact me after their release. I never accept money for work I do on a case, but I have accepted tokens of appreciation - a scroll, a wood carving, a bottle of wine. Some of these prisoners have told me that my Chinese name - Kang Yuan - is reasonably well known in prisons.

SW: On a practical level, how does this dialogue work? Are you invited to Beijing, or do you just turn up with a list of prisoners? Who do you meet and at what level? How often do you go?

JK: Commencing in 1991, I have traveled to Beijing on average once a quarter. Altogether I have made more than 50 trips to Beijing (and perhaps a dozen or so trips to other cities) to carry out my inquiries. Up until 1994, I was hosted by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, by virtue of my previous identity as the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. They arranged for my meetings with various government departments.

After 1994, I traveled to Beijing without invitations, and tried to arrange my meetings directly with the government departments. After the US State Department issued a visa to Taiwan’s President Lee Tenghui in 1995, however, things became rather difficult for me. Even though I continued to travel to Beijing in an effort to submit lists, very few officials would see me. The “deep freeze” continued for two-and-a-half years, until President Jiang Zemin’s visit to the US in October 1997. Immediately prior to his arrival in the United States, the Ministry of Justice resumed providing information on prisoners in their facilities.

The ministry suspended the program in April 1999 after the State Department introduced a resolution criticizing China at the annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in
Geneva. Provision of information was resumed in March 2000.

In May 2000, I was formally invited to Beijing by the ministry for an “exchange of views” on matters of mutual interest. I received another invitation to visit Beijing in September 2000, and again in December 2000.

I typically meet with officials at the director level and above (i.e. Director General, Assistant Minister, Deputy Minister). In addition to officials of the Ministry of Justice, I have also met with officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Supreme People’s Court, the Religious Affairs Administration, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and a few other departments. Sometimes I meet with provincial officials and obviously, when I visit a prison, I see the warden and his fellow officers.

SW: I understand during your last visit you went to a prison. Can you say something about this? Was this the first time you had been to a prison during one of your visits? Why was the particular facility you visited selected? Are you planning to make this a regular feature of your visits?

JK: In May I visited the Beijing Prison, a maximum security facility that houses prisoners serving 15-20 year sentences, other than counterrevolutionaries and “endangerers of state security” who are residents of Beijing, most of whom appear to be incarcerated in Beijing No. 2 Prison. This was the first time I’d been in a Chinese prison since the early 1990s, when I visited a couple of facilities in Guangdong Province.

The Beijing Prison is a model prison, one of approximately 30 model prisons in the country. Model prisons are the only ones open to foreigners, although occasionally foreigners have been allowed into other prisons.

The Chinese government naturally wants to present its best face to foreigners, so one needs to be careful in drawing conclusions as to how representative conditions in model prisons are. For me, the principal value of prison visits is that I am able to ask the warden and his colleagues for information on prisoners whose cases I’ve taken an interest in and who might be incarcerated in the facility. I also collect information on the prison system, the rules and regulations governing where a particular prisoner is placed, how information is stored and retrieved, and how prisoners become eligible for parole and sentence reduction.

I do not ask to speak with prisoners. That is not Dui Hua’s job, but is rather the mandate of groups like the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the International Committee of the Red Cross. I look forward to the day when the ICRC will be allowed into Chinese places of detention to carry out its mandate.

During my meetings with Chinese officials, from time to time I’ve expressed an interest in making prison visits, and the Chinese authorities have let it be known they’d be willing to entertain requests for visits. If on any given visit they tell me that a trip to a prison is possible, I accept it.

SW: You focus on the positive, and praise China for engaging in dialogue. I notice, for example, that reporting following your May visit concentrated on the fact that 650 counterrevolutionaries had been released, although your statement also said that another 600 people had been convicted of crimes of endangering state security in the same period. Why is this approach important? Do you think other human rights groups should learn from your example?

JK: A characteristic of my unofficial dialogue on prisoners is that information received from the Chinese government is immediately made public in exactly the form that it is received. We do not sit on information, nor do we “spin” it one way or the other. Sometimes the press puts a positive slant on the information. Sometimes it puts a negative slant on it.

What I find so striking about the responses I’ve received from the Chinese government over the years is how accurate the information on the prisoners has been. Usually the information confirms accounts put out by NGOs, but sometimes it contradicts accounts that are circulating in the West. A few examples: an NGO publication suggests that the Shandong labor leader Shao Liangchen was released after serving a relatively short sentence in a Reeducation Through Labor camp. In fact, according to the Ministry of Justice, he is serving a life sentence in prison. Chinese diplomats were earlier this year claiming that two Tibetan nuns had been released from prison. In fact, according to the Ministry of Justice, they are still serving long sentences for incitement and propaganda.

Liang Qiang is a long-serving prisoner who was portrayed as a spy in two accounts published shortly after his arrest, and because of this he is listed as a Taiwan agent in the publications of human rights groups (see sidebar). In fact, Liang Qiang is serving a 15-year sentence for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, making him one of the longest-serving prisoners convicted of non-violent expression following the 1989 protest. In light of the fact that several non-violent counterrevolutionaries from this period have been paroled recently, I hope that the judicial authorities will give consideration to releasing Liang Qiang.

In 10 years of doing this work, the accuracy of the information provided by the Ministry of Justice has been challenged on only one occasion, and when questioned about the discrepancy, the ministry immediately checked and corrected the information.

I don’t think we’ve “praised” the Chinese government for engaging in dialogue. We’ve acknowledged the position that China is willing to engage in a dialogue based on equality and mutual respect. We’ve accepted those conditions, and added another: that the dialogue be based on accurate information.

As for whether or not other human rights groups should learn from our example, it’s not for me to make that judgment. We have developed good relationships with NGOs working on China. Different NGOs have different priorities and each adopts methods it feels are the most appropriate for achieving its goals. Dui Hua’s goals are to increase understanding of how the Chinese and US legal systems define and handle political cases, to enhance transparency and accountability and to bring humanitarian relief to those in need. We’ve adopted methods consistent with achieving those goals.

SW: Generally the Ch

inese government has not been willing to engage in any kind of dialogue with human rights organizations. Why do you think it takes a different approach in the case of you and Dui Hua?

JK: I hope no one has formed the impression that the unofficial dialogue I’ve been conducting over the years with the Chinese government—first as an individual, now as Dui Hua—has been easy or smooth. Far from it. As noted above, it has been suspended on several occasions. I made 10 successive trips to Beijing from 1995 to 1997 and failed to see a single judicial or prison official. I have simply refused to give up. To the extent that the dialogue has been successful, persistence has been key.

Even now, I estimate that for every 10 letters or faxes I send to the Chinese government, we get one in return. Sometimes I make a dozen phone calls over several days before I’m able to speak with the person I’m looking for.

There are no doubt many reasons why the Chinese government decides to talk with us. The reasons change from time to time, depending on the international situation and the relationship between the United States and China. Different departments take different views as to whether there should be an unofficial dialogue at all.

We try to be focused in our work. We pursue information on specific cases, and try to promote transparency and accountability. We avoid taking positions on contentious issues. We are respectful, even when being critical. We are not interested in scoring points and we never make personal attacks on Chinese officials. We base our inquiries on officially released accounts of cases.

The Chinese government has said that it wants the American people to have a better understanding of its developing legal system. I have argued that, since the American legal system is based on precedents within the common law framework, for Americans to understand the Chinese system they need to have as much information on as many actual cases as possible. The Chinese government has also said that it is willing to engage in dialogues on human rights that are based on equality and mutual respect. We are giving them the opportunity of demonstrating that such dialogues can yield results.

Over the years, scores of members of the US Congress—representing both parties and all shades of opinion on China—have let the Chinese government know that they support our work. Officials of the Executive Branch, including President Clinton, have also expressed support for what we are doing.

SW: As part of the dialogue, you are providing Chinese officials with information about prison conditions and laws in the United States. Can you explain your objectives in this part of the exchange? What are the advantages in promoting comparisons between the two countries rather than adherence to international human rights standards?

JK: In both China and the United States, trials of people charged with political offenses (including crimes of endangering state security in China and national defense crimes in the United States) are among the most sensitive and controversial insofar as public opinion is concerned, and the outcomes of such trials have become issues in the relationship between the two countries. It therefore seems appropriate to us to exchange information on how political crimes are defined and adjudicated in the two legal systems, and how people convicted of political offenses are treated in the two countries’ penal systems. We are not making value judgments by doing this - we are not saying that one country is either better than or as bad as the other. We are trying to increase understanding, and in doing so, we hope to promote transparency and help people in need. Discussing how the two countries approach certain questions in no way precludes discussions of international standards.

SW: So have Chinese officials expressed any interest in people detained in the United States for political offenses?

JK: Only in a general sense. I have not been asked to provide information on specific prisoners.

SW: Have you set any goals for the work of Dui Hua? How do you assess its impact?

JK: Our goals are modest. To increase understanding of how political crime is defined and adjudicated, to achieve greater transparency and accountability, to enhance humanitarian treatment. We assess the impact of our work one case at a time. If we can identify and help correct even one injustice, if one person can be helped without anyone else being hurt, I’ll be satisfied.

Dui Hua Foundation, 850 Powell Street, Suite 404, San Francisco, CA 94108, USA: Tel: (415) 982-8949; Fax: (415) 421-5450