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John Kamm Remembers: Fifty Years in China
Period 1: 1972-1989
Listen to John Kamm’s audio introduction:
Right Time, Right Place, Right People
February: Nixon Visits China
President Richard Nixon spent eight days in China, during which he met Chairman Mao and signed the Shanghai Communiqué with Premier Zhou Enlai. This would begin a thaw in relations that would be made official in 1979.
August: Going to Portuguese Macau
Inspired by Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic, I arrived in Portuguese Macau on a one-way ticket, then spent the next four months teaching at Linson College under the Princeton-in-Asia program. Read more: Macau Days
February: Liaison Offices Established
The first Liaison Offices were established in Beijing and Washington. These functioned as informal diplomatic posts during the years prior to normalization. However, for several years the United States continued to maintain its embassy in Taiwan.
1973-1975: Gaining My Footing
In 1973, after landing a part-time tutor job at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I conducted fieldwork research in Kam Tin before going to Harvard’s Graduate School of Art and Sciences to pursue a degree in East Asian Studies. I returned to Hong Kong in 1975 and began writing for the Asian Business & Industry and the National Council for US China Trade. Hear about my research by clicking below.
January: Zhou Enlai Dies
On January 8, Zhou Enlai – first Premier of the People’s Republic of China – passed away from bladder cancer.
July: Foray into Shanghai & Beijing after Achieving Notoriety with the Gang of Four
After publishing an article that criticized the ultra-radical economic policies of Zhang Chunqiao (a member of the “Gang of Four”) in Asian Business & Industry, I caught the Gang’s attention, and the magazine was banned from circulating in China. I took my first trip to Shanghai and Beijing and was in Beijing when Zhou Enlai passed away. Read more: Target of the Gang of Four.
July: The Great Tangshan Earthquake
At 3:42 a.m. on July 28, 1976, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the region around Tangshan, Hebei, China. Within minutes, 85 percent of the buildings in Tangshan collapsed or were rendered unusable, all services failed, and most of the highway and railway bridges collapsed or were seriously damaged. The official report claimed 242,769 deaths and 164,851 serious injuries in Tangshan, making it among the deadliest natural disasters in China’s history.
July: Surviving the Earthquake
.Image source: The Dui Hua Foundation
I was accompanying Ambassador Christopher Phillips of the National Council for US-China Trade on a weeklong trip to Beijing, when we unexpectedly found ourselves in the middle of the Great Tangshan Earthquake. Read more: The North China Earthquake
September: Death of Mao
Mao Zedong suffered two major heart attacks, one in March and another in July, then a third on September 5, rendering him an invalid. He died four days later, at 00:10 on September 9, 1976, at the age of 82.
1976-1980: Publications on Canton and China Trade
October: Post-Mao China, Downfall of the Gang of Four & the Rise of Deng
Having overcome the Gang of Four, Deng Xiaoping became paramount leader of the Communist Party and embarked on a series of economic reforms, opening the doors to foreign investment and business. Companies from the United States, Europe, and Japan began to flock to China to take advantage of new opportunities. China also joined the IMF and World Bank.
1976-1980: Becoming Kang Yuan
I was active in the China trade, buying, selling, and investing on the Mainland, under my new Chinese name Kang Yuan. I was in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of China’s opening by launching several pioneering initiatives. Read more: Right Time, Right Place, Right People
1979-1980: Formal Ties & One China Policy
US President Jimmy Carter announced full diplomatic recognition of China would take place in January 1979, while acknowledging the PRC’s One China principle and severing normal ties with Taiwan. President Reagan visited China in April 1984. In June, the US government permitted Beijing to make purchases of US military equipment.
1981-1989: Climbing the Corporate Ladder
For me, the 80s began with the sale of my company to Diamond Shamrock, and I became its Vice President in charge of the Far East region including China. Over the next decade, I undertook a number of pioneering business initiatives. A fateful day in 1989 and a banquet a year later, however, would change things.
John Kamm Remembers: Climbing the Corporate Ladder 1981 – 1989
September: China’s First Strike Hard Campaign
Deng, now paramount leader of China, launched the first “Strike Hard” Anti-crime Campaign, a massive crime-fighting effort in response to the worsening public safety of post-Cultural Revolution China. Counterrevolutionaries were one of the targets.
September: Witness to Executions
Shortly before the Spring Chinese Export Commodities Fair was to open in Guangzhou in April 1983, an event took place that would have a great effect on me: two young men from Hong Kong hung a banner from their hotel room denouncing the Chinese Communist Party. Read more: Executions of Hong Kong Residents Spur Interest in Human Rights
December: Sino-British Joint Declaration; Emergence of the Guangdong-Hong Kong Region
After two years of negotiations, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and China’s Premier of the State Council Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Under the agreement, Britain would relinquish control of the New Territories to China following the end of the 99-year lease (July 1, 1997). Britain would also relinquish control of Hong Kong Island and the southern part of the Kowloon Peninsula. China declared that following the return to China in 1997, Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region and retain a high degree of autonomy under the ‘One country, two systems’ principle. The intertwining of the Guangdong and HK economies accelerated after the 1984 agreement.
1984-1989: Collaborating with Professor Vogel
I developed a partnership with Harvard Professor Ezra Vogel and wrote a chapter on Reforming Foreign Trade in Vogel’s One Step Ahead in China: Guangdong Under Reform, published in 1989. Read more: Guangzhou Days: Remembering Ezra Vogel
Spring: Domestic Unrest & Tiananmen Square
Following the death of General Secretary Hu Yaobang in April, thousands of students held demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, demanding democratic reforms and an end to corruption. On June 3, the government sent in military troops to clear the square. Tensions between the US and PRC continued into the next year. While both sides lobbed criticisms at each other, diplomatic ties were never severed and China remained open to foreign trade.
June 1989: The View of June Fourth from Zhuhai & Macau
.As the Far East Vice President of Oxychem, I experienced the June Fourth protests firsthand in Zhuhai and Macau. Read more: 1989 in Zhuhai and Macau
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