A photo of Father Li Fangchun, who was released on medical parole in 1992, with Father Giancarlo Politi.

The attempt by US Congress to attach human rights conditions on the renewal of China’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status narrowly failed when Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell could not muster the votes necessary to override President George H. W. Bush’s veto in the summer of 1991.

Beijing knew that the fight to renew MFN in 1992—a presidential election year—would be a tough one, and that it would be necessary to continue making human rights concessions to achieve renewal of that trade status without conditions. Adding to China’s willingness to compromise was the 2000 Summer Olympics. Beijing announced a bid to host the games in February 1991 and the winner would be determined in September 1993.

American businessman Kamm, who by late 1991 was increasingly seen as a middleman in securing the release of Chinese prisoners of conscience, had an idea for how China could demonstrate its commitment to human rights. He suggested the release of “underground Catholics.” As the early 1990s began, dozens of Catholic clergy and laity were being held in prisons and re-education through labor (RTL) camps as well as “homes for the elderly,” detention facilities for elderly clergy operated by the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA). For many Catholics, their only offense was refusal to join the Catholic Patriotic Association under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.

In meetings with a number of Chinese government agencies—including the State Council Information Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Catholic Section of SARA known as the Second Department—Kamm argued that releasing underground Catholics, served China’s twin goals of renewing MFN and securing the 2000 Olympics.

Kamm stressed the high percentage of Roman Catholics who were members of US Congress, and the large number of countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia with majority Roman Catholic populations. He used the information obtained during his visit to Meizhou Prison in late 1991—that elderly prisoners are eligible for medical parole—to concentrate his early efforts on bishops and priests in their seventies.

From January 1992 to September 1993, Kamm intervened on behalf of more than 20 Catholic clergy, many of whom were brought to his attention by Giancarlo Politi, a Catholic priest in Hong Kong. Kamm put their names on lists, raised their names in meetings, unleashed a barrage of letters and faxes, and, as a Roman Catholic, requested to hear Mass said by the clergy and to send them Christmas cards.

By September 1993, virtually all of the bishops and priests for whom Kamm advocated had gained early release, including:

  • Bishop Liu Guandong (刘冠东), the de facto president of the underground Chinese Bishops Conference, was sentenced to three years of RTL on May 21, 1990. He was released one year early on May 21, 1992.
  • Father Jin Dechen (靳德辰), sentenced to 15 years in prison for counterrevolutionary crimes in 1982, was released on parole on May 21, 1992.
  • Monsignor Wang Yijun (王益俊), one of the longest serving Catholic prisoners who was sentenced to prison for counterrevolution in 1981 and then sentenced to an additional three years of RTL in February 1990, was released on parole on May 21, 1992.

China’s effort to win renewal of its MFN trade status was successful in 1992, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton eschewed legislative action in favor of an executive order that was eventually abandoned as China’s economic clout and lobbying prowess began to rise. As for its Olympic bid, after leading in four of five rounds of voting, China was finally edged out by Sydney, which won by two votes. To this day, Catholics, like other religious groups, continue to be persecuted in China, and elderly clergy can still be found in government-run “homes.”