In the late Spring of 1990, my family and I lived in an apartment on Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak that looked over a verdant country park to the South China Sea on the near horizon. When visibility was good, one could see junks with red sails and cargo vessels plying the waters off Lamma Island. The outline of Chinese islands loomed on the far horizon. China was near. With the conclusion of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, China was drawing nearer. In 1990, a mere seven years remained before China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong.

My life in Hong Kong was good. I was a vice president of Dallas-based Occidental Chemical (Oxychem), which paid me a handsome salary and cost-of-living allowance. I enjoyed generous home leave, exclusive use of a 280SE Mercedes, a driver, two maids, school tuition for my first son, and two country club memberships. I ran the Asia Pacific region for the corporation. Oxychem had factories and sales offices in a dozen countries. I spent a lot of time on the road.

That year, I was also the president of the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) in Hong Kong, the largest American chamber outside of North America with 2,800 members. In fact, I was never meant to be president of the chamber. After the killings in Tiananmen Square in 1989, I used my position as vice-president of the chamber in charge of committees to convene a meeting of members big and small. At that meeting I pushed through a resolution condemning Beijing’s actions against fierce opposition from large corporate members. The resolution was published in AMCHAM’s magazine and placed as an advertisement in a number of Hong Kong newspapers.

Not surprisingly, when it came time for the Nominating Committee, which was dominated by old-timers and representatives of multinational corporations, to vote on the next president, I came in a distant second. My views on human rights and Tiananmen, in the eyes of many AMCHAM leaders, made me unsuitable to be president.

The fellow who came in first called his boss in New York with the good news. His boss told him that he had a choice: He could assume the presidency of AMCHAM and serve his one-year term, or he could continue his career with the firm. The fellow chose to continue his career, and I became president of AMCHAM by default.

I assumed the presidency on January 1, 1990. It was a tough time to be president of an organization that favored strong trade ties with China. After Tiananmen, China had become an international pariah. Calls were mounting to impose sanctions and, in the United States Congress, to strip China of its Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status. China’s trade status had to be renewed every year, ironically no later than June 4.

The first hearings on China’s human rights record and MFN were scheduled to take place before three subcommittees of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives on May 16, 1990 in Washington. I was invited to testify by Richard Bush, staff consultant to the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs chaired by Congressman Steve Solarz (D-New York). I accepted the invitation.

Chaucer and Mao Tai

On May 9, a week before I was to testify, I and the leaders of the American business community in Hong Kong were invited to a banquet by Zhou Nan, Director of the New China News Agency (Xinhua) in Hong Kong. Xinhua was the seat of Chinese power in the colony. Zhou was an experienced diplomat. He had served as a vice minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which capacity he had negotiated the joint declaration between China and the United Kingdom on Hong Kong. He spoke flawless English, and loved English literature (he could recite the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English). He also served as an interpreter for interrogations of American POWs during the Korean War.

Zhou had a fearsome reputation as a hard-liner. He was also very anti-British, stemming from a botched attempt to recruit him by MI6 while Zhou was posted to China’s Mission to the United Nations in New York.

Before heading off to the banquet, my longtime friend and fellow AMCHAM officer Jeff Muir and I had done our daily jog up Black’s Link. We returned to my apartment, showered, and fortified ourselves with ice-cold cans of San Miguels. We left in my car for Zhou Nan’s villa on the south side of Hong Kong Island shortly before 6 PM.

My driver had turned on the radio for the 6:00 PM news on RTHK, the government-run radio station. A few minutes into the broadcast, an interview of the mother of a Hong Kong student, Yao Yongzhan, aired. Yao, a student leader, had been detained in the aftermath of the protests in Shanghai. His mother wept gently. She had heard that her son was being mistreated in a Shanghai detention center. Her tearful plea stuck in my mind.

We arrived at the villa and were led into a room where the rest of the American guests were waiting. These were the leaders of the American business community: Michael Clancy, China Light & Power, a subsidiary of Exxon, and the largest foreign investor in Hong Kong; Lyn Edinger, managing director of Honeywell; Ed Onderko, partner of Arthur Anderson; Jeff Muir, partner of China Consultants International; and Ralph Spencer, executive director of AMCHAM.

We were ushered into the dining room where we took our seats around a large round table. I was seated at the right hand of Zhou Nan. As soon as we sat down, Mao Tai began to be served. Mao Tai is a sorghum-based spirit which is 52 percent alcohol (104 proof). It is the favored banquet drink served at meals with senior officials. It is often chased with cold beer.

Zhou Nan was known as one of China’s best Mao Tai drinkers. I had learned to drink Mao Tai under the tutelage of Wang Yaoting, Chairman of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, when I served as the Hong Kong representative of the National Council for US-China Trade from 1975 to 1980. My boss, Ambassador Chris Phillips, wasn’t much of a drinker, so I was called upon to represent him at banquets during visits to Beijing. Wang Yaoting regularly consumed a bottle of Mao Tai at dinner. Each bottle held 32 glasses made exclusively for drinking the fiery spirit.

It wasn’t long before the combination of Mao Tai and cold beer loosened the tongue. I remarked to Zhou Nan that I had heard that one could learn a lot about what kind of person someone is by asking which character in the classic Dream of the Red Chamber the person admired the most, “just like you can learn a lot about someone by finding out which of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales he or she likes the most.”

That got Zhou Nan going: “When that Aprile with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . .”

When he finished his performance to applause, Zhou drew himself up and began his toast. “Mr. Kamm,” he intoned in perfect English, “I would like to thank you, on behalf of the Chinese government and the Chinese people, for all that you have done, and all that you are about to do, to promote friendly relations between the United States and China.”

To this day, I don’t know what got into my head, but I stopped Zhou Nan and asked, “So what are you going to do for me?” The room fell into a stunned silence. You could hear a pin drop. My American colleagues had had no warning. They had no idea where I was heading. Perhaps they thought I would ask that China would buy a boatload or two of caustic soda. No one knew. Neither did I.

Zhou Nan asked what I meant and I replied that many people in Hong Kong hoped that AMCHAM would convince Congress to keep China’s MFN status, “but you are different, Minister Zhou. You can help me.”

Zhou responded: “The Chinese government has done everything possible to improve relations with the United States.” I said I begged to differ. It could do more.

Zhou put down his glass and asked me what I thought the Chinese government should do. I had arrived at that point without thinking what it was I wanted Beijing to do. Then I remembered the voice on the radio. I asked Ji Shaoxiang, head of Xinhua’s foreign affairs bureau who was sitting across the table, what the name of the student leader who was being held in Shanghai. Ji replied “Yao Yongzhan.”

“That’s it!” I declared. “Why don’t you release Yao Yongzhan?”

Zhou exploded. “You have rudely interfered in China’s internal affairs, and committed an unfriendly act that has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” he thundered.

In for a dime, in for a dollar, I figured, so I fought back. “A few minutes ago, you treated me as a friend of the Chinese government and people. Now, because I ask you to show mercy to a young man, I’m no longer a friend?”

Zhou Nan, former Director of Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong and former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for the People’s Republic of China. Image Credit: South China Morning Post.

I reminded Zhou that “The quality of mercy is not strained,” and asked him if he had ever done something as a young man that he wished he had done differently later in life.

It went on like this for a few minutes. The business leaders were becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and Zhou Nan was becoming more and more upset.

Finally, I told Zhou that whether or not Yao Yongzhan were released I would still go to Congress to testify in favor of retaining China’s MFN status, and asked him if he knew why. “No,” he snarled. “Because I love Hong Kong. Do you love Hong Kong?”

Zhou was speechless. Here was a foreign businessman asking China’s most senior official in Hong Kong whether he loved the city. After a moment’s pause, Zhou said, “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.”

I stood up and told Zhou Nan that I wanted to use the restroom. He snapped his fingers and a young man in a white coat emerged. He led me through a maze of corridors and then, when he knew there were no recording devices in use, he turned and looked at me. He had listened to the exchange with Zhou Nan, and he had tears in his eyes. He hugged me and said, “Thank you for that.”

After visiting the washroom, I returned to the banquet room. The head of China Light & Power, Michael Clancy, was apologizing to Zhou Nan. “Not all Americans are as impertinent as John Kamm,” he intoned. I took my seat and reminded the Americans that I was president of AMCHAM and that they should hold their tongues. The dinner drew to a close and I returned to my apartment on Coombe Road, wondering about what I had just done.

Testifying on China

The next day, May 10, 1990, I left Hong Kong for Washington, stopping first in Seoul and then in Tokyo on Oxychem business. In Tokyo, I composed my testimony in a room at the Okura Hotel. I decided that the focus of my testimony would be the damage that revoking China’s MFN would do to the colony, then grappling with the fact that it would be handed over by the United Kingdom to China. I also decided to confront the issue of human rights head on.

I arrived in Washington via Newark on May 14, 1990. The next day I huddled with AMCHAM’s consultants, representatives of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, and staff of the State Department and Congress dealing with China.

On May 16 at 9:40 AM the hearing on “Most Favored Nation Status for the People’s Republic of China” was called to order by Congressman Solarz in Room 2172 of the House Rayburn Office Building. Members of Congress were invited to make statements. After that, witnesses were called, one by one. First to testify was Winston Lord, former ambassador to China. He was followed by witnesses representing the National Committee on US-China Relations, Human Rights Watch, and the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars.

Then it was the business panel’s turn. First up was the president of the United States-China Business Council, Roger Sullivan. I followed Mr. Sullivan, representing the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Sticking closely to the five-minute limit for testimonies, I outlined the damage revoking China’s MFN would inflict on Hong Kong and adjacent Guangdong Province and then moved to the subject of human rights. “Americans in Hong Kong abhor the violations of human rights now going on in China, and we condemn them both in public and private sessions with Chinese officials,” I said.

I continued. “Who knows better than the people of Hong Kong how bad the situation is? We are on the front line. There are young Hong Kong people in Chinese jails. I take this opportunity to call once more for China’s leaders to release them to their families in Hong Kong… Whatever capital we might earn by fighting further sanctions we will gladly spend in the effort to free all Chinese prisoners of conscience.”

Chairman Solarz thanked me for my “powerful and eloquent plea,” but then subjected me to sharp questioning. He was followed by Congresswoman Pelosi. The congresswoman had taken office in 1987. Her San Francisco district had a large population of Chinese Americans who had been deeply affected by the events of June 4, 1989. Mrs. Pelosi became a leader in the effort to use MFN to wrest human rights concessions from the Chinese government. Her opposition to China being granted MFN without additional human rights conditions launched her national political career.

My testimony received wide media coverage, including in major American newspapers. It was broadcast in its entirety by a fledgling network known as C-Span. Excerpts were broadcast by CNN, and were viewed in Hong Kong and on the Mainland. Chinese officials were delighted, as was the Hong Kong business community. Everywhere I went in the colony, I was greeted as “Mr. MFN.” The frontpage of USA Today carried a headline: “John Kamm: Hero in Hong Kong.”

I returned to Hong Kong on May 27. I debriefed AMCHAM’s board, the American Consulate General, and the Hong Kong Government. My wife and I were invited to dinner by Ji Shaoxiang, the official who had given me the name of the detained student leader at the May 9 banquet, and his wife. The dinner was to take place on the evening of June 1 in the top-floor restaurant of the China Resources Building.

My wife and I arrived at the restaurant to find a cavernous room empty save for a single table placed under a large chandelier. We took our seats, and the food began to flow. Mercifully there was no Mao Tai. The conversation consisted mostly of pleasantries, but then the tone turned serious.

“Director Zhou very much wanted to attend this evening’s dinner,” Mr. Ji intoned. “Unfortunately, he was called away on urgent business. He asked me to tell you, however, that Yao Yongzhan will be released in four days.” On June 5, Yao walked out of the Shanghai Detention Center a free man. He boarded a flight and returned to Hong Kong the same day. He eventually went to the United States. Yao’s release following my plea marked the first time that Beijing released a political prisoner due to a foreign intervention. It would not be the last.

China’s MFN Status

On June 3, 1990, President George H.W. Bush waived the free-emigration conditions stipulated in the Jackson-Vanick Amendment of the Trade Act of 1974, thereby extending MFN status to China for another year. In his presidential determination, President Bush cited the damage that Hong Kong would suffer if China’s trade status were revoked. Bush’s decision to extend China’s MFN status opened a 60-day window during which Congress could debate a resolution of disapproval which, if passed with enough votes to withstand a presidential veto, would strip China of MFN. Such a resolution was soon introduced by Congressman Jerry Solomon (R-New York), along with another piece of legislation that would place human rights conditions on future renewals of China’s MFN status. This was the US-China Policy Act introduced in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Pelosi and in the US Senate by Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).

On June 14, 1990, China’s premier Zhu Rongji visited Hong Kong. AMCHAM was one of the hosts, and we organized a luncheon for him. Prior to the luncheon, attended by hundreds of business people, I was taken aside by a Chinese official and told that one of the reasons Yao Yongzhan was released was that there was concern in Beijing that I would use the occasion of my introductory remarks to call for the student leader’s release. I was asked not to embarrass Premier Zhu.

Congress acted quickly to call hearings on President Bush’s decision to renew China’s MFN status. Hearings were scheduled by both the Trade Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Congressman Sam Gibbons (D-Florida) and the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas). The former hearing was to take place on June 19, with the latter hearing to take place the next day. I arrived in Washington on June 18 and testified at both hearings. Before and after the hearings I roamed the halls of Congress. In less than five weeks I had testified three times to Congress and had met dozens of members of Congress and senior staff, as well as administration figures. I gave many interviews to the media.

The House of Representatives eventually passed both the Resolution of Disapproval and the US-China Policy Act, but the Senate failed to consider and vote on the two bills before the clock ran out on the 101st Congress. China’s MFN status was saved, at least for another year. AMCHAM – and Hong Kong – had played a role. This marked the first time in history that Hong Kong had figured in a major American foreign policy decision.

As my term as AMCHAM president drew to a close, I was asked to come to Xinhua’s headquarters on Queen’s Road West, across the street from the Happy Valley Race Track, on December 20, 1990. I was ushered into a room where I was greeted by Director Zhang, vice-director in charge of trade and economic affairs.

Director Zhang expressed the Chinese government’s gratitude for the work I had done on MFN. He wondered if I was interested in expanding my business in China.

I thought about it, and replied “The struggle for MFN is far from over. I would rather invest in the issue than expand my business in China.”

Director Zhang asked, “How can we help?” My response was brief: “Release prisoners held for what they did during the 1989 disturbances. That will help China keep its MFN status.”