From left: Li Jengtian, John Kamm, and Wang Xizhe

In the 1992 presidential campaign, Democratic challenger Bill Clinton attacked incumbent President George H. W. Bush for “coddling” dictators from Baghdad to Beijing. He endorsed the use of trade sanctions to force China to improve its human rights record. After Clinton won the election in November 1992, China’s leaders grew increasingly concerned that Clinton would make good on his promise. They turned to American businessman turned rights advocate John Kamm for advice.

Shortly after the election, Kamm flew to Beijing for meetings with senior officials. On November 16, 1992, Kamm dined with Zeng Jianhui, Director of the State Council Information Office (Zeng later served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress.) Kamm reminded Zeng of the positive reaction in the United States to the release of Tiananmen Square and Catholic prisoners, and suggested that China release prisoners from the Democracy Wall movement, namely Wei Jingsheng, Xu Wenli, and Wang Xizhe.* Kamm told Zeng that China had never released a prominent Democracy Wall prisoner, and opined that releasing one or more of them would have a positive impact.

Wang Xizhe was a member of the famous Li Yizhe group that had put up a wall poster in Guangzhou in 1974 that called for democracy and rule of law. Wang had served five years in prison for his bold move, and, upon release, resumed his activism. He became a leader in the Democracy Wall movement, was detained in April 1981 and subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison for counterrevolutionary incitement and propaganda and establishing a counterrevolutionary group. He sent to Huaiji Prison in western Guangdong Province to serve his sentence.

Wang was released on February 3, 1993. Media coverage, especially by the Hong Kong press, was heavy.

In early March 1993, Kamm returned to Beijing for meetings with senior officials including Zeng Jianhui and representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Justice, and Supreme People’s Court. He told officials with whom he met that he wanted go to Guangzhou and meet with Wang Xizhe. No objections were raised.

On March 26, Kamm took the through train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. That evening he was hosted to a banquet by Guangdong vice governor Zhang Gaoli. In his notes, Kamm recorded that 48 year old Zhang was a “high flyer.” He is currently a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China. The focus of the discussion was Clinton’s looming decision on whether or not to extend China’s Most Favored Nation trading status.

Having gotten the go ahead from both Beijing and Guangdong, Kamm went to the coffee shop of the Jiang Nan Hotel in Guangzhou’s Henan District. He found Wang Xizhe and Li Jengtian, another leader of the Li Yizhe group, waiting for him.

Li, by then a successful businessman who ran his own art gallery, was dressed in an elegant suit. Kamm found Wang’s appearance disconcerting. Kamm wrote in his notebook: “His time in prison must have been very difficult. He is trying to tint his hair back to brown from snow white. Most of the teeth on the upper right side of his mouth are gone.” Wang, Kamm wrote, is a proud and dignified man, determined to have his verdict reversed. He gave Kamm a copy of his 40th petition to the Supreme People’s Court; none of his petitions had been answered.

The conversation covered many topics. How did Kamm become interested in Wang’s case? What did Kamm think of Wang getting into business to promote capitalism and democracy? Wang told Kamm that his future was in China, and that he didn’t want to go abroad.

As the conversation grew animated, the tables around the small party in the coffee shop filled up with muscular young men in black leather jackets. These were officers of the state security bureau that Kamm had been told by officials in Beijing and Guangzhou to expect.

Soon it was midnight. The small group was surrounded by a dozen agents. Gesturing towards them, Wang said “Although I am not in a prison with walls, I am not free. I am in a prison without walls.”

Suddenly, Wang stood up and bowed to Kamm, declaring that this is how Chinese people show respect. Kamm then stood up and asked him to sit down, saying he didn’t deserve such respect. Wang would have none if it. He bowed a second time. ” My first bow was to say thank you for what you did for me, this bow is to say thank you on behalf of people who would like to thank you, but cannot.”

After taking photos and settling the bill, the group went their separate ways. Kamm promised to return to Guangzhou in June to attend a children’s art exhibition at Li Jengtian’s gallery, and to see Wang.

*The Democracy Wall movement, sometimes referred to as Beijing Spring, lasted from November 1978 to December 1979. Thousands of people aired their grievances on a wall near a bus stop in Beijing’s Xidan District. Elsewhere around China, demonstrations, petitions, and unofficial journals flourished. Wang Xizhe assisted in the publication of the April Fifth Forum and edited his own journal, Study Bulletin.