On September 23, 1993, journalist Xi Yang, a reporter for the Hong Kong daily Ming Pao was detained on suspicion of “stealing state secrets.” His detention took place in Beijing shortly after the funeral for his mother, a senior cadre working for the Xinhua News Agency. Xi was tried and convicted on March 28, 1994. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison with two-year subsequent deprivation of political rights.

The state secrets that Xi allegedly stole concerned unpublicized interest rate adjustments made by the People’s Bank of China and China’s international gold transactions. The information was allegedly provided by a PBOC official who was given a 15-year prison sentence.

The detention of Xi caused an uproar in Hong Kong, which was still recovering from the shock of the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing in June 1989, and which eyed with growing apprehension that scheduled hand over of the colony to China on July 1, 1997, less than four years after Xi’s detention. Politicians from all political parties joined in calling for Beijing to provide an explanation. Large protests demanding Xi’s release took place.

American businessman John Kamm added Xi’s name to his prisoner lists. He met frequently with Xi’s family in Hong Kong and Beijing.

On February 9, 1996, Kamm met with Xi’s sister in Hong Kong. The businessman had picked up a rumor that the real reason that Xi was detained had little to do with his acquiring secrets related to interest rate adjustments and gold transactions, but rather concerned articles on Li Peng’s health that had appeared in Ming Pao. The Chinese premier had been hospitalized for a heart condition in April 1993, and though he was healthy enough to be seen in public again by late summer, his illness had touched off speculation about his political future.

Xi’s sister confirmed that the Hong Kong journalist had in fact obtained information on Li Peng’s heart attack. Xi’s mother was in the same hospital for senior cadres as Li Peng, albeit in a different ward. Li’s doctor was also Xi’s mother’s doctor, and he shared information with the Xi family when they visited her. Xi relayed the information to Ming Pao which, based on the information, published an article confirming the premier had indeed suffered a heart attack, but that it was mild and not life-threatening. Li was furious that private information on his health had been leaked and published in a Hong Kong newspaper. The doctor who gave the information to Xi Yang was given a two-year prison sentence.

Following the Taiwan crisis in 1995 – a crisis which saw China launch numerous missiles in the direction of Taiwan and the United States dispatch two carrier groups to the area – Washington and Beijing began looking for ways to mend the relationship. Robert Suettinger, then China Director of the National Security Council, was determined that human rights remain at the center of US-China relations. Over a period of several months starting in March 1996, Suettinger and Kamm worked together to assemble a list of eight “illustrative cases” of Chinese political prisoners. Knowing that Li Peng would play a central role in any rapprochement with the United States, Kamm made sure that Xi’s name was on the eight-name list.

The list was handed over to the Chinese government by National Security Adviser Tony Lake on his visit to Beijing in June 1996. There was no immediate response from Chinese officials with whom Lake met, but separately, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official hinted to Kamm that Xi might be released as part of the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s reversion to China in July 1997.

In August 1996, NSC Director Suettinger came up with an idea that he shared with Kamm. In return for releasing prisoners on the list handed over by Lake in June, as well as taking other steps including signing and ratifying the two United Nations human rights covenants and allowing visits to prisons by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States would drop its sponsorship of a “China resolution” at the Human Rights Commission’s meeting in Geneva to take place in March 1997.

Suettinger’s proposal was presented during the visit of State Department official Jim Steinberg to Beijing in October 1996, and presented again during the November 1996 visit to Beijing of Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Christopher went over the package with senior Chinese officials, including Li Peng. The Chinese showed interest in pursuing the Suettinger initiative.

On January 25, 1997, Xi Yang was released on parole from Beijing Number Two Prison. Despite his deprivation of political rights sentence, Xi was allowed to return to Hong Kong. In a communication from the Ministry of Justice to Kamm, the reason for Xi’s release – more than eight years before the end of his sentence – was that Xi had acknowledged his guilt and demonstrated a willingness to reform.

Xi’s release proved to be “too little, too late.” The United States again sponsored a China resolution at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March 1997, and the resolution was again soundly defeated by China and its allies. But it provides a striking example of how human rights diplomacy can win the release of political prisoners.