US-China 19th Human Rights Dialogue in Washington, August 2015. Image Credit: Xinhua.Net

Executive Director Kamm Addresses Commonwealth Club

On May 2, 2017, Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm addressed the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on the topic “Engaging China on Human Rights.” This marked the sixth time in recent years that Kamm has addressed the club, which is the oldest and largest public affairs forum in the United States. An audience of 30 members and non-members, including several representatives from Bay Area human rights groups, attended the event.

After the tragic events of June 1989, the Chinese government put in place a strategy of engaging foreign countries in dialogues on human rights. The first dialogues, those with the United States and Switzerland, were initiated in 1991. Later, dialogues were started with the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Canada, the European Union (EU), Norway, and Japan. Reflecting the rotating presidency, the EU dialogue consisted of two rounds a year. By the end of the last decade, as many as 10 rounds of bilateral dialogues were held every year. In addition, China held human rights consultations with countries including the Netherlands and Sweden.

In recent years, however, the number of dialogues and consultations has dropped sharply. Kamm pointed out that both China and its foreign partners have grown disillusioned with human rights dialogues.

China has sometimes suspended dialogues over diplomatic disputes with its partners. Beijing suspended its dialogue with Norway following the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Nobel Committee – an independent body — to the dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Anger over the perception in China and elsewhere that Tokyo has not atoned for its wartime record has made discussing human rights between the two countries problematic.

In 2016, neither the EU nor the United States held bilateral dialogues with China. In fact, there were only three human rights dialogues held with China last year, those between China and Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Germany, respectively. China postponed dialogues in part over the joint statement signed by 12 countries criticizing China’s human rights record at the March 2016 meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. There have also been disputes between dialogue partners over the appropriate level at which human rights dialogues should take place.

Perhaps the biggest sticking point has been the question of prisoner lists. Prior to 2012, China’s dialogue partners regularly submitted lists of names of individuals allegedly detained for the non-violent expression of political and religious beliefs. Although most lists consisted of a few dozen names, the United States and the EU regularly handed over lists with more than 200 names. In May 2012, Beijing decided to no longer accept prisoner lists. While Chinese officials have in fact accepted short lists on special occasions (e.g. the visit of a high-ranking foreign leader), it has by and large continued to resist accepting lists of names during dialogues or even during regular meetings with embassies.

Dui Hua has maintained an unofficial dialogue on human rights with the Chinese government since Kamm began raising cases and issues in 1990. Kamm gave his audience some recent numbers to illustrate the status of Dui Hua’s work on political prisoners. In 2016, Dui Hua handed over 26 lists totaling nearly 250 names. It received written responses on 54 cases, and recorded 77 instances of clemency or better treatment for prisoners on its lists.

Thus far in 2017, Kamm said, Dui Hua has handed over ten lists with around 90 names. The foundation has already received written information on 40 cases.

Kamm was asked why Dui Hua’s efforts seemed to get results. “First of all, Dui Hua is not a country. We treat our ability to hand over lists and receive responses as a privilege, not as something like an obligation or right. Second, we choose our words carefully. Third, we embed the case in Chinese law. We ask how a certain case illustrates a facet of Chinese law. We present ourselves as people who are eager to learn, not to criticize. Finally, we are patient but persistent. Once we raise a case we keep asking about it until we get an answer. I personally have never given up on a case.”

In addition to working on political cases, Dui Hua has expanded its mission to include areas of human rights where the Chinese government welcomes assistance from Western countries. A notable example is the foundation’s work on juvenile justice reform. Since 2008, Dui Hua has partnered with the Supreme People’s Court Research Department’s Office of Juvenile Courts to hold four exchanges on juvenile justice reform, two in the United States and two in China. During the foundation’s visit to Beijing in early April, a month before Kamm’s speech, agreement was reached with Dui Hua’s partners to hold another juvenile justice exchange in November 2017 in China.

Kamm’s speech took place three days after the successful conclusion of the Sandy Phan-Gillis case (see Dui Hua In The News). There were many questions about the case and what it might mean for US-China relations and the emerging human rights policy of the Trump administration. Kamm told the audience that, in line with the policy of Putting America First, the Trump administration was prioritizing the human rights of Americans and American institutions abroad, a policy of “Putting Americans First.” A lively discussion on this idea ensued.


In the first five months of 2017, Dui Hua was mentioned in close to 750 media articles and other online reports. In April, Dui Hua was widely cited (The New York TimesRadio Free AsiaThe South China Morning Post) for playing a role in securing the release of Sandy Phan-Gillis (潘婉芬), an American citizen and businesswoman who was taken into custody in March 2015 while on a trade delegation to China.

On April 25, Sandy was convicted of espionage and sentenced to three and one-half years’ imprisonment and deportation. Three days later, she was deported to the United States where she reunited with her family. At the request of Sandy’s husband Jeff Gillis, Dui Hua’s Executive Director John Kamm worked on Sandy’s case for more than 19 months to help bring about her release, raising her name in more than two dozen meetings with the Chinese government and party officials and placing her name on many prisoner lists. Last July, Dui Hua was also widely cited in the media following the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s (WGAD) finding that Phan-Gillis’ confinement on espionage charges constituted “arbitrary detention”, marking the first time in the WGAD’s 25-year history that an American citizen has been “arbitrarily detained” in China.

Dui Hua’s press statements on the Phan-Gillis case can be found below:

Dui Hua Welcomes Return of Sandy Phan-Gillis to the United States (April 28, 2017)

UN Experts Rule Detention of American Citizen Arbitrary, Violates International Law (July 5, 2016)


Dui Hua previously reported that Zhao Fengsheng (赵枫生) received a sentence reduction of seven months in December 2016. On April 27, 2017, he was released early from Hunan’s Chishan Prison, and is serving his three-year deprivation of political rights sentence until 2020. Knowing that the case was political, he chose not to file post-conviction appeal against his four-year sentence for subversion. His detention in November 2013 came after he penned an open letter to the Turkestan Islamic Party, urging it to attack government officials instead of innocent civilians.

On April 27, 2017, two days after American citizen Sandy Phan-Gillis was convicted of espionage by the Nanning Intermediate People’s Court, Hong Kong-based newspaper Sing Tao Daily reported that another American citizen, Li Kai (李凱), had been arrested and indicted for espionage in Shanghai. Mr. Li is believed to be the only American citizen currently detained for an endangering state security crime in China.

According to Sing Tao Daily, Li is a 55-year-old New York businessman who operated a trading business specializing in defense products. He traveled to China from the United States on several occasions since 2010, collecting information and visiting defense research institutes in Shanghai and Tianjin.

Li was arrested in the autumn of 2016 and was apparently indicted in the first quarter of 2017.


Featured: Medical Parole for Li Baocheng: Increasing Judicial Transparency (April 18)

Prayers at an underground home church in Beijing. Image Credit: BBC News.

Li Baocheng (李保成), a 79-year-old Christian Church leader from the central province of Henan, is finally being considered for medical parole after receiving a four-year sentence for fraud and “inciting subversion” in December 2015. As Dui Hua first reported a year ago, authorities in the city of Nanyang accused Li Baocheng of illicitly collecting “baptism fees” from members of his Huangjinduo Christian Church and organizing a political party aimed at overthrowing the Chinese Communist Party. While awaiting the results of his appeal, Li suffered a brain hemorrhage that left him seriously impaired. Recently published court documents show that judicial authorities have begun deliberating whether Li should serve the remainder of his sentence at home under conditions of medical parole.

Previous DigestApril 2017

John Kamm Remembers

City of the Doomed

John Kamm Remembers is a feature that explores Kamm’s advocacy stories since Dui Hua’s establishment in 1999.

The Gates of Tilanqiao Prison. Image Credit: Shanghai Prison Administration.

Tilanqiao Prison in Shanghai is one of the oldest operating prisons in the world. Constructed in 1903, occupied in 1906, it has gone by many names. Wood Road Gaol. Shanghai Prison. Oriental Bastille. Alcatraz of the Orient. City of the Doomed. It is where mothers in Shanghai threaten to send their children if they misbehave.

Thousands of inmates have entered Tilanqiao’s gates. Not all have survived. Some have gone mad. China’s longest serving political prisoner, labor leader Jiang Cunde, is incarcerated in Tilanqiao. He suffers from schizophrenia.

After NATO bombed China’s Belgrade embassy in 1999, I resumed my advocacy work as soon as I could. Part of that work involved visiting prisons. It was my practice to carry with me a list of prisoners believed to be in the facility I was visiting. I visited Beijing Prison in early 2000. Not long after this visit I began pushing for another visit to a prison in Beijing. I wanted to go to Beijing Number Two, where most political prisoners in the municipality are held, then as now.

In March 2000, plans were made for me to make a trip to Beijing in September, at which time I would visit a local prison. As soon as I arrived in Beijing in September I sensed problems. I was told that there would be no prison visit, and maybe no information on prisoners. The senior Ministry of Justice (MOJ) official who had agreed to my prison visit, as well as directors general of both the MOJ and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with whom I worked, were unavailable to see me. The reason given for why MOJ officials couldn’t meet me was that they had given blood earlier in the week. Phlebotomies are considered a serious medical procedure in China, I was told, requiring days of rest to recover.

I dug in my heals. A deal’s a deal. Officials were called back to work and we reached a compromise. I could visit a prison in Shanghai on my next trip to China, scheduled for December. The exact prison (at the time the Shanghai Prison Bureau administered 10 prisons, not counting two farms in Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces, respectively) and the timing of the visit would be up to the Shanghai Prison Bureau. The MOJ would send an officer to accompany me.

Flight to Shanghai

I flew to Shanghai from Hong Kong on December 3, still not knowing which prison I would visit. By then, the choice was down to two: Qing Pu, built in the 1990s to house, among others, foreign inmates, and Tilanqiao. I checked into the Hilton Hotel, opened in 1988 as the first foreign-owned hotel in China.

I arrived to find a message from my MOJ escort, Director Bai. We would visit Tilanqiao on December 5. Pick- up would be 2:00 PM. The next morning, December 6, we would fly to Beijing.

I had anticipated as much, so meetings were frontloaded prior to the prison visit. Over the next day and a half, I sat down with the American Consul General Hank Levine and his team, the Shanghai correspondents of The New York Times and the Associated Press, and two resident American businesspeople.

One topic kept coming up in my discussions with diplomats and journalists: the removal from office of the Minister of Justice, Gao Changli, on December 2, the day before I boarded the flight to Shanghai. At first, health issues were cited as the reason this man, who had built a formidable reputation as a legal reformer, had stepped down. Over the next 24 hours however, in time for my meetings, accusations emerged that Gao had engaged in large scale corruption and abuse of power.

There were darker rumors. Gao, it was said, had several mistresses and had overseen a scheme in which female prisoners were offered as sexual favors to well-heeled inmates and high officials, often after alcohol-infused dinners. Upon hearing these rumors, President Jiang Zemin was said to be livid. He angrily ordered the immediate removal of Gao Changli. Or so it was said at the time. The rumor was never confirmed. Gao emerged 10 years after his removal as an expert collector of calligraphy.

My lunch with The New York Times correspondent Craig Smith the day before I visited Tilanqiao set a dark mood for my stay in Shanghai. The journalist recently interviewed the brother of a man who had been executed for tax evasion. The brother, a well-to-do businessman, followed the execution van to the crematorium and when he could see and cradle the executed man, his deceased brother’s intestines fell out. His kidneys had been harvested. After giving wrenching interviews in his office, located in a high-rise tower overlooking the city, and a local pub, the man became fearful – he was being threatened by the police – and tried to walk back what he had told the journalist. (The story eventually appeared in The Times in March 2001.)

The car with my escort and an official from the Shanghai Prison Bureau, Mr. Zhao, showed up at the Hilton promptly at 2:00 PM. We headed for Tilanqiao.

As we sat in the car — it was a cold December day — I ventured to ask about the fall from power of Gao Changli. Ms. Bai was taken aback by my question. Yes, she said, he had stepped down for reasons of health; he had a bad back. She translated our conversation for Mr. Zhao. “You know about this?” he asked me. I replied it was much in the news. That would be the last time I heard from Mr. Zhao during the visit. He declined to give me his name card.

Site of former headquarters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee located in Tilanqiao. Image Credit:

Tilanqiao Prison occupies a four-hectare plot in the middle of a largely residential neighborhood in Shanghai’s Hongkou district. It is a neighborhood steeped in history. The Jewish ghetto, established in the 1920s, sheltered Jews during the Second World War. Hongkou saved more Jews from the Nazis than any other metropolitan center in the world during the Holocaust, around 25,000 by several accounts. The Ohel Moshe Synagogue, meters from the gates of Tilanqiao Prison, can still be visited. Not far from Tilanqiao is the fabled Broadway Mansions, where I had stayed during my first trip to China in 1976.

The value of the plot of land that Tilanqiao occupies is enormous, especially given the sharp rise in land prices in recent years. For more than 10 years, there have been reports that it would be redeveloped as a mixed commercial residential complex, probably keeping the old British cell block as a tourist attraction. As of this writing, Tilanqiao remains very much in business as a prison, however. The municipal authorities have been unable to reach an agreement on the future of Tilanqiao with the prison bureau, which reports to the Ministry of Justice in Beijing.

Warden Li

We were met at the prison gate by Warden Li and his subordinates, all spit and polish in their fine dark blue uniforms. We entered the main courtyard. Overlooking the prison on two sides, cheek to jowl with its walls, were residential apartment blocks whose units offered a bird’s eye view of the main yard. “The broad masses people keep a close eye on our work,” the warden quipped.

Our small group walked towards the pride of Tilanqiao, the old British cell block. The cell block was designed as a Panopticon. considered at the time of its construction to be the most scientific method of incarceration in the West, originally designed by the nineteenth-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham as a wheel with the guard tower in the center, and spikes made up of lines of cells. A guard could monitor behavior without the inmates knowing they were being watched.

On the way to the old cellblock I was given basic information about the prison. There were around 4,000 inmates (up from 3,500 inmates in 1998) in 10 male cellblocks and one female cellblock. The prison housed convicts serving sentences of 10 or more years, including those serving sentences of death with two-year reprieve. (Those about to be executed are held in detention centers, not prisons.) This made Tilanqiao one of China’s premier maximum security prisons. It was also considered a model prison, one of the first to be opened to foreign visitors.

High enclosure wall and Watchtower. Image credit: Shanghai Prison Administration.

When I toured Tilanqiao in 2000, the old cell block was used as a museum and an exhibition space for artwork created by prisoners. One genre was models of buildings, including Tilanqiao itself, painstakingly pieced together from small pieces of wood. A model of the Panopticon itself took pride of place.

We headed for one of the male prisoner cell blocks, passing on the way the prison hospital, which served as the principal hospital for all 10 Shanghai prisons. The cell block was constructed in the 1930s, during the British period, and was made up of six floors. On the ground floor was the kitchen, where piping hot cauldrons of rice were being prepared for dinner. Bushels of fresh vegetables were on display.

We toured one of the floors of cells. There were no prisoners in the cells when I toured. Each cell had been designed for a single prisoner, but it was apparent that more than one prisoner was held in each. In addition to the wooden bunk, bedding was laid out on the floor. There was neither a lavatory nor a sink; a night soil pot could be seen in the corner. I was shown the key room. The cells, which opened onto a common area where prisoners could congregate and watch TV, were opened with keys still in use from the British era, big heavy steel devices. I was given a demonstration of how a cell was opened and locked.

I was taken to the workshop. Rows of prisoners, lined up in the hundreds, sat at benches cutting cloth to be sewed into prison uniforms. I was assured that none of the products were for export; export to the United States of goods made in Chinese prisons was a controversial issue at the time. I was invited to walk the middle line between the rows. I did so with some reluctance. In the hands of prisoners, several with expressions of deep anger in their eyes, were long pairs of sharp scissors.

To be continued in Dui Hua’s June Digest