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Presidents Obama and Xi during the G20 Conference in Hangzhou. Photo Credit: Reuters

Obama and Xi Meet in Hangzhou, Discuss Human Rights

On September 4-5, 2016, President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping attended the G20 Meeting in Hangzhou, China. This was their eighth meeting of Obama’s presidency, and likely the last to be held on either American or Chinese soil. They are scheduled to meet one more time during Obama’s term in office at the APEC Summit to be held in Peru in November, after the US presidential election.

Since its outset in 2008, the G20 has focused on economic and trade issues, and long before the September conference convened, senior Chinese diplomats expressed the hope that the Hangzhou meeting would also focus solely on economic and trade issues, rather than other matters like the ongoing dispute over the South China Sea. These diplomats made it clear, however, that matters other than trade and the global economy could be discussed in one-on-one meetings between world leaders and President Xi.

One of the issues that the Chinese government agreed to discuss was human rights. In the weeks before the Hangzhou conclave, Dui Hua was consulted by both Washington and Beijing for suggestions on how to resolve some of the thorny human rights issues troubling US-China relations.

On September 3, Obama and Xi signed the climate accord reached earlier in the year in Paris, then spent nearly four hours talking about a host of issues dividing the country. In addition to the sit-down meeting, they took a moonlight stroll on the banks of Hangzhou’s scenic West Lake.

The agenda for the private talks between the two presidents was long and detailed. Topics included the South China Sea, hacking, cybersecurity, drug trafficking, North Korea and deployment of the Thermal High Altitude Air Defense system in South Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, human rights, and religious freedom. After the talks Obama characterized them as “candid,” “practical,” and “constructive.” According to a White House statement, Obama emphasized that China should abide by the Hague decision on the South China Sea, live up to the hacking and cybersecurity agreement between the two countries, and uphold human rights and religious freedom.

There were no breakthroughs on issues dividing the countries, and the atmosphere was at times testy in part because of a diplomatic incident that took place after Obama’s plane touched down in Hangzhou. Chinese security agents at the airport and later at the meeting place engaged in shouting and shoving in an attempt to impede access to Obama by senior American diplomats and journalists.

On human rights, the American side focused on the foreign NGO management law to take effect on January 1, 2017; the trials of lawyers and activists swept up in what has become known as the “709 crackdown” (the detention of more than 300 such individuals starting on July 9, 2015); and the destruction of churches, tearing down of crosses, and persecution of “religionists” in Zhejiang Province, where Hangzhou is located. A number of individual cases, including several that Dui Hua has worked on, were raised prior to and during the talks.

Of paramount importance has been the case of Sandy Phan-Gillis, an American business leader who was taken into custody in March 2015, placed under residential surveillance in an undisclosed location, formally arrested, and then indicted for espionage in July 2016. Ms. Phan-Gillis earned the dubious honor of being the first and to date only American citizen determined by the United Nations to have been arbitrarily detained by China in violation of international law. Days before the Hangzhou summit, it was announced that Ms. Phan-Gillis would be tried by a court in Nanning on September 19. If convicted and sentenced to prison, she would become the first American since 1973 to serve a sentence for spying for the American government in China.

Obama was pushed to raise the Phan-Gillis case by members of Congress, and by a massive media campaign launched by the Phan-Gillis family in the days before the meeting. A petition calling for Obama to raise her case attracted 50,000 signatures.

There were no immediate signs of progress in the Phan-Gillis case, but there was small progress on a case pushed by Dui Hua and others in its discussions with Chinese officials before the meeting began: Yang Maodong (杨茂东), aka Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), a Guangdong Province-based lawyer and activist serving a six-year sentence for disturbing social order. Yang had been staging a hunger strike to protest his treatment by guards at Yangchun Prison. On August 18 he was transferred to Yingde Prison, where he ended his hunger strike and began recovering from his ordeal in the prison hospital.


In early August, Dui Hua’s interlocutors provided information on four female prisoners sentenced for joining spiritual groups that are banned in China. All four served in Chongqing Women’s Prison and received sentence reductions. Following an eight-month sentence reduction in July 2015, retired teacher Fu Junguang (付俊光) was released from prison the following month. Fu is a Falun Gong practitioner who previously completed her one-year re-education through labor sentence in December 2009.

Jin Wei (靳卫) was released on June 2, 2012 after receiving five sentence reductions totaling 67 months. On January 1, 2002, Jin belonged to a group that hacked into a television station and broadcasted Falun Gong materials. Of all other members, Jin received the lengthiest sentence of 16 years in May 2002 for sabotaging television infrastructure, a violation of Article 300 of the Criminal Law.

Another Falun Gong practitioner, Yang Benhui (杨本会) was originally sentenced to three years and six months’ imprisonment in January 2014. She was released 15 days early on January 29, 2016.

Almighty God member Zhou Yuzhen (周玉珍) was released on February 3, 2016—seven months early from her three years and six months’ prison sentence. Zhou was accused of organizing an Almighty God exchange to Hong Kong and spreading doomsday rumors. When detained on March 14, 2013, Zhou was found to be in possession of a large number of Almighty God materials.

An official document Dui Hua uncovered revealed that Rao Wenwei (饶文蔚) was released on March 8, 2016, from Chongqing’s Yuzhou Prison after receiving his third sentence reduction in January 2016. Rao’s sentence was reduced by a total of 40 months in 2011 and 2013. Dui Hua previously reported that Rao was accused of writing a series of 53 essays for The Epoch Times and other anti-China websites. He was detained one month before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for taking bribes and inciting subversion.


FeaturedCould China’s New Oversight Rules Have Avoided Arbitrary Detention of American Citizen? (July 13)


The United Nations Palais des Nations. On June 29, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recommended the release of American Sandy Phan-Gillis, who has been detained for over a year without having charges brought against her in court. Photo:

Dui Hua recently found a copy of Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) regulations that govern oversight of “designated-location residential surveillance” (DLRS), a form of incommunicado detention that the Chinese government frequently uses in sensitive cases involving endangering state security, terrorism, and corruption (known as “three type offenses”). Given the importance of DLRS oversight, it is tempting to speculate whether these rules, had they been in place just a few months earlier, might have helped mitigate if not avert the arbitrary detention of American citizen Phan (Sandy) Phan-Gillis—the only American currently in a Chinese detention facility on state secrets charges.

UN Experts Rule Detention of American Citizen Arbitrary, Violates International Law (July 5)

China Scores Low Marks on Human Rights in 14 Democracies (July 20)

Cross-Province Wage Dispute Leads to Protests, Detentions (August 2)

Will China Retry Gao Qinrong in Light of Anti-Corruption Campaign? (August 10)

Previous DigestJuly 2016


In the first eight months of 2016, Dui Hua was mentioned in nearly 400 media articles and other online reports. In July, the most widely covered story was the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s (WGAD) finding that Phan (Sandy) Phan-Gillis’ confinement on espionage charges constitutes “arbitrary detention.” The Associated Press carried Dui Hua’s findingthat the Phan-Gillis opinion is the first in the WGAD’s 25-year history to find a U.S. citizen detained arbitrarily by China. The South China Morning Post also picked up the story, noting the WGAD’s conclusion that “international norms relating to the right to a fair trial and to liberty and security” were not observed. In addition, The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Blog indicated that the Phan-Gillis case has strained US-China relations.

Dui Hua was also mentioned in a Newsweek report on the case of American prisoner Mark Swidan, who has been detained in China for over three years without receiving a criminal court verdict in his case. Executive Director Kamm, quoted in the article, calls for Swidan’s release and notes that there is little evidence to support a verdict.


This section delves into the human rights activism of John Kamm between 1990 and 1999, the year he established Dui Hua.

Orrin Hatch and Jiang Zemin meet during Hatch’s 1997 visit to China. Photo Credit: AP (video screengrab)

Cousin Orrin

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 Elaine 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.