Plumes of smoke billowed from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after Boeing 767s hit each tower during the September 11 attacks. Image credit: Michael Foran / CC BY 2.0

This John Kamm Remembers recounts the attacks of September 11 and the lead-up to the publication of a cover story on John Kamm. It can be read in conjunction withKamm’s List,” the next installment which continues this story. 

In the late summer of that year my family and I lived in an apartment in San Francisco that overlooked Chinatown below, and then, down to the Bay and Alcatraz Island in the distance, enveloped in gray fog.

On August 21, 2001, I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang. The caller identified herself as New York Times journalist Tina Rosenberg. I was not familiar with her name.

Ms. Rosenberg told me that she was working on an article that might appear in the paper’s Sunday Magazine. The article would examine the nexus between business and human rights in countries where foreign multinational corporations were conducting business. She mentioned Royal Dutch Shell’s operations in Nigeria and Adidas’ sneaker-manufacturing in Pakistan as possible subjects worth exploring. For China, she wanted to focus on my work on behalf of political prisoners.

On December 9, 2005, Tina Rosenberg speaks at a conference titled “National Security Archives: Celebrating 20 Years of Keeping Government Honest.” Image credit: C-Span

We agreed to talk again the next day. As soon as the call ended, I did an Internet search for Tina Rosenberg. I was impressed by what I found. Tina Rosenberg was, and is today, one of The New York Times’ most accomplished journalists. She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, dubbed the “Genius Award,” in 1987, when she was 27 years old. This was followed by a National Book Award in 1995 and a Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in 1996. All of this was accomplished before she reached the age of 40. I decided to work with her on the article. I informed her of my decision the next day.

When we spoke on August 22, 2001, I advised Tina that I would travel to Hong Kong and Beijing in September. We spoke again on September 7. I left for Hong Kong the next day, arriving on September 9. I checked into the Marriott Hotel in Pacific Place, an old haunt.

In those days, I had my own show on the Voice of America, and I had lined up several shows to be recorded on this trip. The first show – a program on prospects for political reform in China – was recorded on September 10 at the studio in Wanchai.

The 9/11 Attacks

The next day, September 11, 2001, I made last-minute arrangements for the trip to Beijing, confirming appointments with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), and the Supreme People’s Court. The highlight of the trip was to be a dinner hosted for the MOJ to celebrate 10 years of our cooperation. I had secured letters of congratulations from four members of Congress to present at the dinner.

September 11 was capped off with a dinner, in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, with two of my interlocutors from Guangdong Province. They provided information on seven political prisoners in the province, including the last prisoner connected to June 4, 1989, protests imprisoned in Guangdong. I returned to my room around 9 PM to begin packing for my flight to Beijing the next day.

An image of the 9/11 attacks. Image credit: 9/11 Photos / CC BY 2.0

Upon returning to my room, I found the message light flashing. It was a brief message from my VOA producer in Washington. “Turn on your TV,” it said. “A plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York.” I turned on my TV to CNN and saw smoke billowing from the WTC’s North Tower. I watched another plane crashed into the South Tower at just after 9 PM. I continued watching until both towers collapsed one after the other, in pancake fashion, at 10:20 PM.

I didn’t know it at the time, but a close family member had been killed at the very beginning of the attack, the victim of a head-on collision by the jet that crashed into the North Tower. Many of his colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald were killed in the attack.

After 9/11, air traffic between the United States, Europe, and Asia was suspended, but planes continued to fly between destinations outside the United States. I went out to the airport early for my 11:35 AM Dragon Air flight to Beijing. I needn’t have done so. The departure hall was empty. The cancellation of flights to and from North America had had a devastating knock-on effect on air traffic around the world.

Arriving at Beijing Airport in the early afternoon, I was picked up by my driver and taken to the Jianguo Hotel. After checking in, I called the US Embassy. The new ambassador, Clark “Sandy” Randt had recently arrived. Sandy was an old friend from our days together in Hong Kong. A personal friend of President George W. Bush, Sandy would go on to become the longest serving American ambassador to China.

Sandy Randt had lost a close friend in the 9/11 attacks, and I had lost a cousin. After commiserating, I invited him to the dinner for the Ministry of Justice, to be held on the evening of September 13. He accepted. Sandy also agreed to do a VOA interview with me right before the dinner.

On the morning of September 13, 2001, I met with the Supreme People’s Court to discuss the case of Yu Rong, a Shanghai worker who had been arrested in 1990 in the largest counterrevolutionary pamphlet case in the history of the city. Yu had scattered 1,400 leaflets from the tops of Shanghai buildings. He was subsequently placed in a psychiatric detention center. After this meeting I had lunch with Mark Lambert, the human rights officer at the United States Embassy. This was followed by the VOA interview with Ambassador Randt at the embassy.

The dinner itself, attended by senior officials at the MOJ, the China Society of Prisons, and the MFA, was a somber affair. Not a good occasion for feasting and drinking. It broke up early.

The next morning, I was driven to the MOJ’s headquarters for a 9:00 AM meeting with Wang Lixian, director of the International Department, and his colleague Zhang Qing. I was told that I would not be given any information on prisoners on this visit to Beijing. I registered my disappointment. “At this time when my country is grieving, I come to Beijing to see you and to receive responses to my inquiries. And what do I get? Nothing.” My bitterness and disappointment showed. I choked up and couldn’t continue.

I summoned my driver and returned to my hotel. After eating my lunch, alone, I went to see Director General Li Baodong of the MFA’s Department of International Organizations and Conferences as well as his colleague La Yifan, effectively Li’s number two, and Li Xiaomei. At this meeting I broached the idea of having Tina Rosenberg come to Beijing as part of a story for the Times on my work. I also complained about how I had been treated by the MOJ.

Coverage of the September 11 attacks in Chinese media: (left to right) The front page and inside coverage of the Global Times’ September 12 edition; the front page of the Reference Times. Image credit:;

I stayed behind in Beijing one more day to attend the Memorial Mass for the victims of the 9/11 attacks held at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Saturday evening, September 15. A priest, a member of the Patriotic Church, kept local Catholics from attending the service. I returned to Hong Kong the next day, checking into the Marriott.

On September 17, 2001, I received an unexpected call in my room at the Marriott. Director Wang Lixian was in the lobby and wanted to meet me. I went downstairs for a short meeting. Wang advised me that they were gathering information in response to some of my requests. They intended to fax it to me over the coming days. I advised him that I would be returning to San Francisco on September 27 and requested that he fax the information to me there. He agreed. We shook hands and he left.

Over the next nine days I kept a full schedule in Hong Kong. I met with foreign diplomats, including the papal nuncio and the American consul general, Dui Hua donors, business leaders, and family and friends. I carried out research at university libraries, finding the names of hundreds of previously unknown political prisoners. I taped a VOA show on the Hong Kong economy.

I flew back to San Francisco on September 27 and, upon returning home, found the promised responses on prisoners from the Ministry of Justice on my fax machine. It was an extraordinary document: information was given on nine prisoners including high priority Tibetan prisoners Jigme Sangpo and Ngawang Sangdrol. A number of early releases had taken place. More would come, including both Tibetans.


On October 14, 2001, I flew to Washington DC, a tense city still in shock from the attack on the Pentagon on September 11. Security was tight. Troops were everywhere.

Aerial view of the Pentagon during rescue operations after the September 11 attack. Image credit: US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill

I met Tina for dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s on K Street on October 15. It was our first face-to-face meeting. We reviewed progress to date, and I briefed her on recent developments with respect to cases, including those of Liu Baiqiang, a Guangdong prisoner who tied political messages to the legs of locusts and released them from his cell – I dubbed him the “Locust Man” – and Kajikhumar Shabdan, an elderly Kazakh poet serving a 15-year sentence for counterrevolution.

On October 25, I called La Yifan, Li Baodong’s deputy. I wanted to know whether Tina would be given a visa. La told me that it had been decided to grant the visa. We discussed possible dates for Tina and my trip to Beijing, and settled on mid-December, subject to confirmation and Tina’s availability.

I flew to Beijing via Narita on December 15, arriving on December 16. The next day I had lunch with Ambassador Randt and his family at the residence. Afterwards I met with Li Baodong at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Two of his colleagues joined the meeting. Tina was soon to land in Beijing. Director General Li commented that the Chinese government did not expect Tina to write an article suitable for publication in the Beijing Review, but it hoped she would be fair and objective. At this meeting I presented a list of Chinese political prisoners eligible for parole.

Read about the aftermath of the article’s publication in “Kamm’s List,” which you can read by clicking here.