Kamm with the Li Brothers following their release in 1991.

In early 1991, after stepping down as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, John Kamm began working as a private businessman to help political prisoners in China, starting with several visits to Guangzhou. Human rights activists initially greeted his efforts with skepticism. At a breakfast meeting with Kamm, Human Rights Watch Hong Kong Director Robin Munro expressed disbelief that businesspeople could be effective rights advocates.

A few weeks after the breakfast, Munro phoned Kamm at his Hong Kong office. Making clear that he was calling in his private capacity, Munro told Kamm that a journalist friend had given him a letter smuggled out of a detention center in Hengyang, Hunan Province. “You say that businesspeople can help political prisoners,” Munro told Kamm. “Well, here’s your chance.”

Two brothers, Li Lin and Li Zhi, wrote the letter. They had been leaders in the spring 1989 protests in Hengyang. Both fled to Hong Kong after the protests subsided, courtesy of Operation Yellow Bird. Once in Hong Kong, Li Lin, a leader of the Hunan Independent Workers Federation, found work as a mechanic, while his younger brother, Li Zhi, worked as a salesman and musician.

The brothers went back to their hometown to visit family during the Lunar New Year holiday in 1991. Contrary to assurances from local officials, both were detained on February 16, 1991.

Munro gave Kamm the brothers’ names (in Pinyin and in characters) as well as their Chinese ID numbers and the location of the detention center where they were allegedly being tortured.

It happened that, in the afternoon, Kamm was to meet with a Deputy Vice-Secretary General of the State Council, accompanied by an editor of a left-leaning Chinese newspaper in the then-British colony, and an officer of the American Consulate General. The State Council official got right to the point: “Why is it so difficult for China to win renewal of its Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status in the United States?” Kamm responded, “Because, every day, average Americans like me hear something about how your government treats its citizens that makes us angry.” The official asked, “What do you mean?” Kamm replied by handing the official a note with the information on the Li brothers. “I understand they are being tortured,” Kamm said. The official took the note, folded it, and put it into his pocket.

In order to prepare for two testimonies to Congress in late June 1991, Kamm flew to Beijing to obtain updates on political prisoners in early June. He set up meetings with a number of officials, including the State Council official who had accepted the note. Prior to this meeting, Kamm met with the Supreme People’s Court (a court vice president and directors of court’s Criminal Division and Foreign Affairs Bureau) and an official of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, Kamm’s official host. The purpose of this meeting was to ask about the possibility of parole for Lo Xaixing, a former Hong Kong Trade Development Council representative who was serving a five-year sentence for his role in helping dissidents escape China in the aftermath of June 4.

After asking about Lo, Kamm followed up with a question about two men who had been convicted along with him. The vice president misunderstood Kamm’s question and replied: “Regarding the Li brothers, their case will be handled in accordance with the policy that those who have committed offenses during the turmoil can return to China provided they do not commit new crimes.”

After being sentenced to five and a half months for illegal border crossing, the Li brothers were released on July 9, 1991—four weeks after Kamm’s meeting with the State Council official. The brothers went directly to Hong Kong and had dinner with Kamm the following day. They were emaciated and showed signs of having been tortured. The day Kamm raised their cases was the day police started treating them better, the Li’s told Kamm. The Li brothers eventually traveled to the United States where they were granted political asylum.

Months later, on another trip to Beijing, Kamm had an informal meeting with the Supreme People’s Court Foreign Affairs Bureau official who had attended the meeting at which the Li brothers were discussed. Kamm asked for information on the policy that those who fled China after June 4 would not be detained provided they did not commit new crimes. The official replied that he was also curious about this policy, but had found no relevant official documents. Kamm asked, “If that’s the case, why were the Li brothers released?”

The official replied, “I guess you’d call it a miracle.”