Orrin Hatch speaks at Utah Valley University on August 31, 2011. Image credit: Michael Jolley/ CC BY 2.0

In October 1997, American businessman and human rights activist John Kamm flew to Hong Kong to start a two-week business and human rights advocacy trip that would also take him to Dalian and Beijing. On the flight to Hong Kong he was in the same cabin as the late Michel Oksenberg, the Stanford University scholar who played a key role in normalizing US-China relations when he served on the National Security Council.

Kamm and Oksenberg discussed why they were heading to China. Oksenberg advised Kamm that he would be accompanying Senator Orrin Hatch, then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on a weeklong visit to Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. Senator Hatch was visiting China 10 days before President Jiang Zemin’s state visit to the United States hosted by President Bill Clinton. Hatch and his wife Lois were due to arrive in Hong Kong the following evening, accompanied by aides, and the Stanford scholar invited Kamm to join the small party for dinner at the Spring Deer Restaurant in Kowloon.

Kamm put together a file of material on his work, and showed up at the restaurant on time. When he arrived, Oksenberg told him that, due to a bad weather delay in Washington DC, Senator Hatch had to cancel his trip to Hong Kong and instead fly directly to Beijing. Oksenberg took the file from Kamm and promised to hand it to Senator Hatch. If there were an opportunity for Kamm to meet Hatch, Oksenberg would contact Kamm in Beijing.

Kamm and Oksenberg went their separate ways, Oksenberg to Beijing, Kamm to Dalian. After business meetings in Dalian, Kamm flew to Beijing where he settled into his hotel. The morning after he arrived, Kamm received a phone call from Professor Oksenberg.

“Are you sitting down?” Oksenberg asked. “You’re not going to believe this, but you and Senator Hatch are related. He insists that you are his cousin. His mother was a Kamm, and her family came from the same part of New York as your father’s family.” Oksenberg asked Kamm to come to the China World Hotel right away to meet Senator Hatch and his wife.

Upon his arrival, Senator Hatch stood up, looked at Kamm, and turned to his wife: “The spittin’ image of grandpa!”

Kamm and Hatch sat down for a friendly conversation. Hatch asked if there was anything he could do to help Kamm’s work on political prisoners. Kamm advised Hatch that Kamm’s prisoner information project had been suspended since 1995, and that the Ministry of Justice owed him answers on 75 requests for information. Hatch promised to assist.

The next day, Senator Hatch met with Xiao Yang, then Minister of Justice. At the end of a meeting that focused on possible cooperation between the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hatch got up to leave. When he reached the door, he put his arm around Minister Xiao (who would later go on to become President of China’s Supreme People’s Court) and asked for a personal favor: “My friend and relative John Kamm has cooperated with your ministry on a prisoner information project. The project has been suspended due to no fault of John’s. Can you please look into this and resume your cooperation with my cousin?”

After his stay in Beijing, Hatch flew to Shanghai and had a meeting with President Jiang Zemin. As had done with Xiao Yang, Hatch raised Kamm’s work and asked President Jiang to authorize the resumption of the prisoner information project.

Jiang Zemin visited Washington from October 25 to October 28, 1997. At the conclusion of the state visit, the two countries issued a joint statement listing the achievements of the meeting. Among the accomplishments was the resumption of American businessman John Kamm’s accounting project. Kamm was the only individual whose name appeared in the joint statement. Cooperation with the Ministry of Justice resumed, and within a few months all of Kamm’s remaining inquiries had been answered. The responses indicated that several long serving prisoners had been granted early release after Kamm submitted their names in 1995.