Prisoners transported for public display during Strike Hard 1983. Image credit: Sina Blogger

Before he began his human rights work in 1990, John Kamm was an American businessman based in Hong Kong. As the Hong Kong representative of the semi-governmental National Council for US-China Trade, Kamm worked to open China to trade and investment. He registered the first Chinese factories with the American Food and Drug Administration in 1977 and introduced American firms to investment opportunities on the Mainland. He ran the National Council’s office at the Guangzhou Trade Fair from 1976 to 1980.

After the United States and China established diplomatic relations in 1979, Kamm established a company and began representing American and other firms in China. Leveraging his knowledge of the city and his fluency in Cantonese, Kamm established the first foreign office in Guangzhou in 1979.

Shortly before the Spring Chinese Export Commodities Fair opened in Guangzhou in April 1983, an event took place that focused Kamm’s attention on human rights. China’s first Strike Hard Campaign was launched in August 1983, and offenders were dealt with harshly. It was recently revealed in a Mainland Chinese publication that there were 24,000 executions in China in 1983. Kamm witnessed men being led to their executions in the summer of 1983 as he crisscrossed Guangdong Province buying and selling chemicals.

Two young men from Hong Kong, He Enjie and Liu Zerong, hung a banner from their room in the Guangzhou Hotel denouncing China’s ruling Communist Party. They left the hotel and photographed the banner, then headed for the train station to return to Hong Kong. They were intercepted by public security officers, detained and subsequently tried for espionage. They were convicted, sentenced to death, and had their appeals rejected. The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in Beijing then approved their executions, which were carried out on September 6, 1983.

Hong Kong prisoners serving sentences for counterrevolution in Mainland prisons were a top priority for Kamm after he turned to human rights work in 1990. One of these early cases was that of Qin Hanbiao, a Guangzhou native who emigrated to Hong Kong in 1979. Qin and Guangzhou resident Qin Yaoche were detained on May 10, 1983 on suspicion of spying for Taiwan. They were tried by the Guangzhou Intermediate Court on September 10, 1983, found guilty, and sentenced to death. The sentence was upheld by the Guangdong High People’s Court on September 21, 1983, after which it was sent to Beijing for SPC review.

The SPC, perhaps influenced by the uproar over the execution of He Enjie and Liu Zerong the month before, determined in October that the damage to China’s national security caused by Qin Hanbiao and Qin Yaoche was not sufficiently serious to warrant the death sentence. The two men were retried in Guangzhou and sentenced to life in prison.

Kamm sought information on Qin Hanbiao from both the Hong Kong government and the Guangdong government. The latter advised him that Qin was serving his sentence in Huaiji Prison in western Guangdong (Huaji had a special cell block for counterrevolutionaries). His sentence had been reduced to a 20-year sentence in March 1986. The sentence was further reduced by 18 months in January 1990. After Kamm’s repeated inquiries, Qin Hanbiao was released on June 24, 1999—shortly after Dui Hua was established, and seven years before the end of Qin’s 20-year sentence imposed in 1986. (In China, people sentenced to life in prison whose sentences are subsequently reduced to a fixed term do not receive credit for time served. Qin did not get credit for the three years he spent in prison before the life sentence was commuted.)

Hong Kong residents who were convicted of counterrevolution in Guangdong usually served their sentences in the province, but other prisoners convicted of counterrevolution—even those residing in the province—were often shipped to Xinjiang in China’s far northwest to serve their sentences. That is what happened to Qin Yaoche. Despite many attempts by Kamm to find out what happened to him, the trail went cold. Then as now, finding information on prisoners in Xinjiang remains difficult.