In March 1993, American businessman John Kamm traveled to Beijing to attend an international conference on small and medium-sized enterprises hosted by the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. During and after the conference he had talks with Chinese government officials on US-China relations and the need for more prisoner releases.President Clinton was a few weeks into his presidency. He was considering how to fulfill his campaign promise to put human rights conditions on renewal of China’s most favored nation (MFN) tariff status. China’s leaders were concerned that he might support and sign legislation imposing conditions, as opposed to issuing an executive order, which could be reversed with the stroke of a pen. Clinton had to make a decision no later than June 4, when China’s MFN expired.
On March 2, 1993 Kamm was hosted to dinner by Minister Zeng Jianhui of the State Council Information Office, together with his deputy Li Yuanchao. Media coverage of recent releases was reviewed. The release of Wang Xizhe in February had generated positive press coverage, but it was mostly in Hong Kong and Overseas Chinese media. Zeng asked Kamm to name one or two prisoners whose release would make the front page in the United States. Kamm, opting for two, said “Wei Jingsheng and Xu Wenli.”
Both Wei and Xu were veterans of the Democracy Wall Movement and both had been in prison for more than 10 years. Wei was China’s most prominent political prisoner, known for authoring an essay, “China’s Fifth Modernization,” which he posted on Democracy Wall in December 1978. The essay, which he signed above his address, called for China to adopt democracy and criticized China’s leader Deng Xiaoping by name. For this and other writings in his magazine Explorations, Wei was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Like Wei, Xu Wenli was the editor of a pro-democracy magazine (April Fifth Forum) where he posted essays advocating political reform. In June 1980, together with Wang Xizhe and other dissidents, he tried to organize a political party. For this he was convicted of counterrevolution and given a long prison sentence in 1981. Xu was reportedly known by Chinese authorities as “Special Prisoner 01.” The release of Wei and Xu were high priorities for Western governments and human rights groups.
Kamm had been told by senior officials of the Ministry of Justice in 1992 that Wei was unrepentant, and showed no willingness to reform. He enjoyed arguing with his guards. The American businessman was told that, because of his attitude, Wei was not being considered for early release. With this in mind, Kamm decided to first push for Xu’s release.Zeng Jianhui told Kamm he’d work on Xu’s release, and then asked Kamm at what time of the day Xu should be released for maximum publicity. Kamm said major newspapers on the American east coast closed their editions for the following day at midnight. Ten in the morning Beijing time was the best time to announce important news.
On March 8, 1993, Kamm met with Vice Minister of Justice Jin Jian. Jin told the businessman that “people like Xu Wenli can be released in accordance with Articles 71 and 73 of the Criminal Law, as had been demonstrated in the case of Wang Xizhe. It isn’t necessary for them to change their anti-government positions. They have to follow regulations, do meritorious service, and show an understanding of their crimes.” Jin did not mention that prisoners would need to admit their guilt to win parole, a significant departure from the usual litany of things prisoners would have to do to gain clemency.
After Kamm left Beijing he flew to Washington where he briefed Clinton administration officials and members of Congress on possible prisoner releases in the run-up to the president’s MFN decision. On May 16, 1993, Kamm returned to Beijing. At a banquet in his honor on May 18, Kamm was advised by Public Security Ministry director general Zhu Entao that Xu’s release was imminent. At his meeting with the Ministry of Justice on May 19 Kamm was told that an application to parole Xu had been filed with the Beijing Intermediate Court. A director general of the Supreme People’s Court told Kamm that the decision to release Xu had been made in April. In a final meeting with Zeng Jianhui, details of the release were hammered out.
Kamm left Beijing for Hong Kong on May 20. In the early morning of May 26, Kamm received a fax from the State Council Information Office with a simple message: Xu Wenli would be released on parole that day at 10:00 AM. Kamm, who had predicted that the release would take place before the end of May, informed the press. Reporters were waiting for Xu when he returned home.
Coverage in the American press was heavy. The Clinton administration welcomed the news. On May 28, 1993, President Clinton issued an executive order renewing China’s MFN for one year, but placed conditions on renewal of the status in 1994. In May 1994, Clinton reversed course and renewed China’s MFN without condition
Coverage in the American press was heavy. The Clinton administration welcomed the news. On May 28, 1993, President Clinton issued an executive order renewing China’s MFN for one year, but placed conditions on renewal of the status in 1994. In May 1994, Clinton reversed course and renewed China’s MFN without conditions.