Kamm Speaks on Human Rights in China in an Election Year
On September 29, 2016, Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm presented remarks at “The China Card: Politics vs. Policy,” a conference hosted by the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute. Kamm joined 20 leading experts on China and American politics in examining China’s influence on the political process in the United States. Kamm focused his talk on how China’s human rights record affects American politics in an election year.
Kamm began his remarks by pointing out that China’s image in the United States has never recovered from the events of June 4, 1989. In a Gallup poll taken in February 1989, 72 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of China, with 13 percent holding an unfavorable view. A few weeks after June 4, Gallup did another poll: only 34 percent now had a favorable view, and the percentage of respondents holding an unfavorable view jumped to 54 percent. In the latest Gallup poll taken in February 2016, 52 percent of Americans said their opinion of China is unfavorable.
There is little question that China’s human rights record is a principal cause for the country’s poor image in the United States. Kamm pointed to a Pew poll taken in June 2016 that found 80 percent of Americans think that the Chinese government does not respect the individual freedoms of its people. The same poll found that 55 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of China.
Distaste for China’s human rights record is reflected in the two parties’ platforms. While the Democrats limit their mention to a single sentence – “We will promote great respect for human rights (in China), including the rights of Tibetans” – the Republican platform excoriates China for crushing dissent, heightening religious persecution, crippling the Internet, carrying out forced abortions and sterilizations, reviving the Mao cult, carrying out “cultural genocide” in Tibet and Xinjiang, and eroding the promised autonomy of Hong Kong. It accuses Beijing of sending its agents to kidnap critics in foreign countries.
Although the Democratic platform on China’s human rights is less harsh than the Republican platform, Kamm pointed out that the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has been sharply critical of human rights in China for more than 20 years. By contrast, the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has been “remarkably tolerant,” praising Beijing for putting down the “riot” in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and stating in his August foreign policy speech that, if elected, the United States would stop promoting democracy and human rights overseas and would instead concentrate on defeating ISIS. Any country that joins the United States in fighting “radical Islamic terrorism” would be considered an ally. Beijing has often complained that Washington has “interfered in China’s internal affairs” by criticizing its rights record and not supporting its fight against Uyghurs it accuses of committing acts of terrorism, so this pronouncement was “music to China’s ears,” Kamm observed.
While human rights in China is rarely mentioned on the campaign trail, it is nevertheless a consideration for voters in Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina, where Donald Trump blames China for stealing jobs. China is seen as denying rights to workers in order to boost its competitive advantage over American industry.
Human rights has entered election politics in the past, Kamm recalled. In 1992, Tiananmen protesters addressed the Democratic National Convention. The convention adopted a platform that included a call to strip China of its Most Favored Nation trading status. In 2012, Mitt Romney called the Obama administration’s handling of the Chen Guangcheng case “a day of shame” and “a dark day for freedom.”
Kamm warned that human rights in China could yet emerge as a campaign issue if a court in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, convicts American businesswoman Phan (Sandy) Phan-Gillis of spying on China for the United States. He also opined that events in Hong Kong, where several candidates favoring self-determination won seats in the recent Legislative Council elections, could figure in the 2016 presidential race if the newly elected legislators are barred from taking their seats, triggering large-scale protests.
Regardless of who wins the election, Kamm said the next administration would have to decide whether and how to continue the bilateral human rights dialogue, currently suspended. With all its faults, the dialogue remains the best forum for raising the cases of imprisoned activists. Kamm ended his remarks by expressing the hope that the dialogue would be resumed in 2017.
In September, Jonathan Kinkel transitioned from his position as Programs & Publications Officer to a continuing role as an independent consultant.
After serving over a year as Development Officer, Yin Yu has been promoted to Program and Development Manager, where she will manage and coordinate fundraising, outreach, and special program projects.
Xandra Xiao joined Dui Hua in September 2016 as a Program Associate. She will help coordinate Dui Hua’s publication and program activities and provide support for research and outreach projects. Xandra has lived in Hong Kong, mainland China, and the UK, and she speaks Mandarin and English. She recently graduated from the University of Oxford, receiving her master’s degree in contemporary Chinese studies with a concentration in Chinese law. Before that, she completed her bachelor’s degree in history at University College London, where she focused on modern Chinese history. We welcome Xandra to our Dui Hua family!
The issue of illegal cross-border law enforcement by mainland officers in Hong Kong has sparked an outcry in the former British colony in the wake of incidents involving the five missing Causeway Bay booksellers. In a case dating back to the pre-handover era, not much has been discussed regarding Su Zhiyi (苏志一), a Hong Kong businessman who was sentenced in 2000 to life imprisonment for graft by Guangdong’s Zhaoqing Intermediate People’s Court. Turning 83 years old this year, Su allegedly embezzled four million Hong Kong dollars from Chinese state-owned company. In April 2000, Su’s daughter complained that mainland police conducted an unauthorized home search at her father’s residence and seized a number of documents after her parents were detained on the Mainland in 1995. The following January, public security officials escorted her father back to Hong Kong for eight days for the seizure of properties and personal effects.
Dui Hua has recently learned that Su has been released from Dongguan Prison following multiple sentence reductions. His life sentence was first commuted to 20 years’ imprisonment in 2003, and further reduced six times totaling 99 months. Following the sixth sentence reduction in 2012, he was scheduled for release on March 1, 2015, but because the prison had applied for a one-month sentence reduction on Su’s behalf, the court might have released him even earlier, in 2014. Dui Hua has no information about the application outcome.
A deep love for Chairman Mao is not tantamount to a deep love for the Communist Party of China (CPC). Dui Hua has previously reported several lesser-known cases involving Mao’s supporters jailed for establishing leftist political organizations advocating for the return of pre-reform socialism. An official document Dui Hua recently acquired indicates that Wei Jinxiang (蔚晋湘), a leader of the Mao Zedong Thought Communist Party of China founded in November 2008, received a 10-month sentence reduction in August 2014. He is now scheduled for release from Chongqing’s Yuzhou Prison on December 14, 2018. Wei was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for subversion by the Chongqing No. 5 Intermediate People’s Court on March 18, 2011. Another party co-founder, Ma Houzhi (马厚芝), was also sentenced in the same case but is not known to have received clemency thus far.
Dui Hua has also received an update on Kou Ji (寇稽), who was sentenced in an obscure political case in Xi’an in 2013. Kou was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for subversion. In February 2016, he received a nine-month sentence reduction and is now due for release from Shaanxi’s Weinan Prison in February 2021. Dui Hua is seeking to ascertain the particulars of this case from its interlocutors.
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In a bid to increase judicial transparency, including the adjudication of sensitive political cases, China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) recently released new regulations that unambiguously assign to courts throughout the country the responsibility for publicly releasing judgments. The SPC released similar regulations in 2013 and 2010, but the new regulations require courts to release more information, and with greater detail.
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Previous Digest: August/September 2016
The Young Diplomat
In May 1992, a young Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) official, Bai Weiji, and his wife Zhao Lei, were detained by China’s State Security police on suspicion of trafficking in state secrets. Two weeks later, police raided the apartment of Lena Sun, Beijing Bureau Chief of The Washington Post. They briefly detained Ms. Sun and her family and forced the American journalist to open the safe where she kept sensitive materials. In the safe they found internal documents that Bai Weiji had provided Ms. Sun.
Lena Sun, who had written one of the first profiles on American businessman and recently turned human rights activist John Kamm, requested assistance from Kamm. Kamm began raising Bai and Zhao’s case with Chinese authorities, with whom he was regularly meeting in Beijing..
In May, 1993, Bai was sentenced to 10 years in prison for trafficking in state secrets by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court. His wife was given a six-year sentence. It is believed that one of the reasons that Bai was given such a lengthy sentence was that he had organized protests among MFA staff over the June 1989 suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing.
Kamm, in an interview with The New York Times Bureau Chief Nicholas Kristof, called the verdicts “very troubling” and “a serious disappointment.”
Bai was sent to Beijing Prison, considered to be a model prison, where Bai was the only prisoner serving a sentence for counterrevolution. His English language skills were put to good use by the prison warden, who was seeking to find export markets for products made in prison workshops. Because he “expressed regret and a genuine willingness to reform,” and because he exhibited good behavior, Bai was granted three sentence reductions in 1996, 1997 and 1998 for a total reduction of three years and three months. He was released on February 2, 1999. His wife had been released early on October 20, 1997.
After his release, Bai became a successful businessman. On a trip to the United States, he looked up John Kamm, who had moved with his family to San Francisco from Hong Kong in July 1995.
Bai credited Kamm’s interventions for his early release, but brought up two other reasons he was shown clemency.
In July 1996, Louis Joinet, chairman of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, visited China to begin preparations for a visit by the full working group the following year. One of the prisons he was allowed to visit was Beijing Prison.
Upon arrival at the prison, Joinet asked to interview prisoners. His request was rejected. The director general of the MFA’s International Department, Li Baodong, rushed to the prison to resolve the stand-off. It was agreed that Joinet could interview a prisoner, and he was invited to select one at random. At that moment, Bai Weiji was walking in the prison yard, and Joinet chose him to be interviewed. Joinet had no idea who he was, but the prison officials became suspicious: how could it be that the prisoner selected to be interviewed was the only prisoner serving a sentence for counterrevolution?
Bai played his role brilliantly. He declined to give any identifying information. He did not tell Joinet why he was in prison, nor did he say he was a former MFA official. He went to considerable length to commend the prison authorities for treating him so well. Although the interview was supposed to be held in a secure, confidential setting, Bai figured that the prison authorities were listening in. Shortly after the interview, Bai was granted his first sentence reduction.
The second reason given to explain Bai’s clemency involves the July 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. A city-wide competition to ascertain who knew the most about the handover was held among teams representing all of Beijing’s prisons. Bai, who was familiar with Hong Kong from his days working for MFA, was chosen to head the Beijing Prison team, which handily won the competition. Bai and his team members were rewarded with sentence reductions, but Bai noted, somewhat ruefully, that because he was serving a sentence for counterrevolution, he could only get half the number of points awarded to the other teammates.
According to regulations, prisoners serving sentences for counterrevolution had to be “strictly handled” when it came to sentence reductions. The Bai Weiji case afforded Kamm one of his first opportunities to find out what these regulations meant in practice.