Students carrying a pro-democracy banner on May 4, 1989. Image credit: 

In early 1999, I became aware of an opportunity to secure a grant from a foundation based on the East Coast to help fund my work on behalf of political prisoners in China. For nine years I had been underwriting that work by myself, drawing on the profits of my consulting business. I had never applied for a grant. 

I quickly found out that I needed a “pass through”– an organization to accept the grant and monitor its use. My wife and a good friend who worked in finance joined with me to establish Dui Hua in order to accept grants from foundations and governments. Dui Hua was incorporated as a non-profit charity on April 16, 1999. 

I had already drawn up a proposal which I had submitted to the grant-making foundation. My proposal would focus on turning up names of political prisoners in Chinese newspapers, periodicals, and books. Having found the names of three previously unknown counterrevolutionaries in a Jilin Province newspaper, I was convinced that an effort to examine provincial newspapers would yield the names of many more obscure and forgotten political prisoners.  

After receiving the proposal, the foundation sent it to three China experts for comment. The reception was underwhelming. Two of the three reviewers believed I wouldn’t find many names. One reviewer flatly stated that the Chinese government does not publish sensitive information on political prisoners in publicly available publications available in libraries or online. A senior officer of the grant maker asked me how many names I thought I’d find. I replied that if I could find 100 names of hitherto unknown prisoners, I would consider my project a success. 

In May, I was given the good news that my proposal had been accepted. I promptly set up a trip to Hong Kong, site of the University Services Center (USC) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I had found the Jilin newspaper at the Center and I would start my search there. 

The University Services Center at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where John Kamm conducted research on political prisoners. Image credit: CUHKtrove Facebook account 

USC was established in 1963 in Kowloon, and for many years it was considered one of the best places to do research on contemporary China. It was ably led by my friend, scholar, and Tibetologist John Dolfin for many years. He had amassed complete runs of more than 250 national and provincial newspapers and more than 1,000 periodicals. The USC moved to Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1988, without John Dolfin. It was housed on three floors (a basement and two upper floors) of the university library; the basement was where the newspapers were stored, and I went there straightaway upon arriving at the campus. 

I started by selecting several cities where the spring 1989 protests had been especially widespread and long-lasting. I examined newspapers for the months of April, May, and June 1989. After four hours of work I had found nothing of use. Maybe the reviewers had been right after all. 

Discouraged, I took the elevator up to the eighth floor and headed for the section where books on policing and courts were housed. Eureka! I found scores of provincial and county yearbooks, specialized yearbooks, and multi-year records published by public security bureaus, procuratorates, and prison bureaus, as well as sentencing records of courts. Several books were marked “internal (neibu).” I quickly began photocopying accounts of political cases that recorded the names of those detained by public security and state security bureaus, tried by courts, and held in prisons. 

I made eight more trips to Hong Kong before the end of 2000 and did research at USC on 15 occasions, assisted at times by two university students. By the end of 2000, we had recorded the names of more than 300 previously unknown individuals detained for counterrevolution and endangering state security in the 1980s and 1990s. I had far exceeded the target of 100 names.  

Wang Jun

On my trip to USC in September 2000, I came across Sentencing Records of Shaanxi Province, published in 1994. It contained a detailed account of what had happened to Wang Jun (王军), an 18-year-old temporary worker for the Passenger Transport Section of the Xi’an Railway Branch Office who was arrested for taking part in “a serious beating, smashing, looting, and burning political disturbance” on April 22, 1989, weeks before the killings in Tiananmen Square. The Xi’an unrest was the first major protest following the death of reformist party secretary Hu Yaobang in Beijing on April 15, 1989. 

(Left) Obituary for Hu Yaobang released by Xinhua News Agency on April 15, 1989. (Right) Beijing university students enter Tiananmen Square for Hu’s funeral. Image credit: 

Wang was accused of attacking the provincial government building, using rocks and bricks to attack the people’s armed police, and smashing several streetlights. Afterwards, he and a few other young people got into the provincial high court and procuratorate offices, where they broke windows, and set fire to three cars, one motorcycle, and one bicycle. They finished by breaking into the office of the procuratorate’s motor pool where they stole a calculator, pens, and cassette tapes. They were apprehended on the scene. Wang allegedly confessed to what he had done. 

Two weeks after his arrest, Wang Jun was tried by the Xi’an Intermediate People’s Court and sentenced to death for the crimes of arson and robbery. Wang Jun appealed the sentence to the Shaanxi High People’s Court, and his father testified that his son was mentally deficient and pleaded for leniency. A medical examination was ordered. It found that while Wang’s mental development had been arrested, he knew right from wrong and had to accept responsibility for his acts. 

The Sentencing Committee of the High Court was divided between those who favored immediate execution and those who favored a sentence of death with two-year reprieve. They sought guidance from the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in Beijing. The SPC favored death with two-year reprieve and ordered the sentencing committee to make a new judgment: on October 13, 1989 Wang Jun was sentenced to death with two-year reprieve.  

I gathered up the photocopies I collected at USC and returned to San Francisco. There, working with staff, index cards for each case were filled out, and I checked other sources for information on the names we had collected. I looked at Human Rights Watch’s Detained in China and Tibet, published in 1994. It listed Wang Jun as having been executed. 

In October 1999, Dui Hua published the first in a series of Occasional Publications. It was titled “Individuals Detained During the Spring 1989 Disturbances in China.” It covered 15 individuals from five provinces, 13 of whose names had not appeared in publications outside of China. One of the cases covered was that of Wang Jun. “Individuals uncovered by this search will be included in future lists submitted to the Chinese government by Dui Hua,” I wrote in the introduction. 

The first of Dui Hua’s Occasional Publications series. (Left) The cover. (Right) The beginning of the section on Wang Jun. Image credit: The Dui Hua Foundation 

The first list that included Wang Jun’s name was faxed to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) on January 11, 2000. On a visit to Beijing in June 2000, I handed over another list with Wang Jun’s name to MOJ officials. In 2002, I began lobbying the United States and the European Union to include Wang Jun’s name on prisoner lists submitted to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at their respective human rights dialogues.  

Finally, in August 2003, the MFA gave a written response to the United States. 

Tanks near Tiananmen Square during the unrest culminating on June 4, 1989. Image credit:

Wang Jun’s death with two-year reprieve sentence had been commuted to a 20-year prison sentence in December 1992. This was a tell-tale sign that Wang was behaving well in prison. Death with two-year reprieve sentences are usually commuted to life in prison, not a fixed term sentence. The response also revealed that Wang Jun was serving his sentence in Fuping Prison, a high-security prison in Weinan Municipality used to hold prisoners serving sentences of more than 15 years, including those serving life sentences and death with two-year reprieve.

I kept pushing for more information. A response to the European Union provided by the MFA in May 2006 revealed that Wang was given an 18-month sentence reduction in August 2001–only months after I had submitted lists including Wang Jun’s name to the MOJ – and another 18-month sentence reduction in December 2004.

An entrance to Fuping Prison in central Shaanxi. Image credit:

Finally, I received information from the Shaanxi Prison Bureau in August 2009 that Wang Jun had received a two-year sentence reduction in September 2008 and had been released from Fuping Prison on May 11, 2009. After I first intervened on Wang Jun’s behalf in 2001, he received three sentence reductions totaling five years.

The Forgotten

The majority of those imprisoned for June 4, 1989 related offenses were convicted of committing acts of violence. In Hunan, the province with the highest number of “two disturbances” prisoners, 133 individuals were sentenced to prison for crimes committed during the protests that rocked China in the spring of 1989. Of these, 33 were imprisoned for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, 43 were imprisoned for robbery, and 57 committed hooliganism and sabotage of transportation equipment.

By the time I began advocating on behalf of Wang Jun (王军) in 2000, most of those who had committed non-violent crimes like counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement and leading or organizing a counterrevolutionary group had been released from prison, many before the end of their terms.

One of the last of these prisoners to be released was Yang Lianzi (杨连子), an itinerant troubadour from Gansu Province who sang counterrevolutionary songs to protesters in Tiananmen Square in May 1989. Yang, who figured on my prisoner lists, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He received three sentence reductions and was released in May 2001.

A few days after Wang Jun was released, two other June 4 prisoners sentenced to long prison terms for violent crimes were released from prison. On May 18, 2009, Liu Zhihua (刘智华), a worker convicted of “hooliganism” for what he did during the 1989 protests, was released from a Hunan Province prison after receiving a two-year sentence reduction in December 2008. Peng Jiamin (彭家民), a Shanghai worker who had been sentenced to life in prison for arson and destruction of transport, was granted early release, according to information received from the Shanghai Prison Bureau.

A case of a June 4 prisoner I paid special attention to was Zhu Gengsheng (朱更生), who was featured on Chinese television atop a burning tank, waving a flag and shouting, “We’ve won!” Although originally detained for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, Zhu was sentenced to death with two-year reprieve for counterrevolutionary sabotage. In 1994, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. I placed Zhu’s name on seven prisoner lists and received four responses. Starting in 1997, Zhu received seven sentence reductions. He was released from Beijing Number Two Prison on April 29, 2011.

Zhu Gengsheng as he appeared in a news article published on March 11, 2014. Image credit: Apple Daily

We sometimes found information on the remaining June 4 prisoners in unusual places. In May 2013, Dui Hua researchers uncovered a notice issued by the Jiangshan Neighborhood Council in Beijing about an elderly man who had served a sentence in Yanqing Prison, Jiang Yaqun (姜亚群). Jiang was suffering from Alzheimer’s but had no relatives to look after him.

Jiang had been sentenced to death with two-year reprieve on July 17, 1990 for the crime of counterrevolutionary sabotage. I put him on 10 prisoner lists and received four responses. His sentence was commuted to life in prison and further reduced on five occasions. He was released from Yanqing Prison, which has a ward for elderly, weak, ill, and disabled prisoners in October or November 2012, whereupon he was taken in and cared for by the Jiangnan Neighborhood Council.

Li Yujun (李玉君) was convicted of arson by the Beijing High People’s Court in January 1991 and sentenced to death with two-year reprieve. The sentence was commuted to life in prison on December 31, 1996. I asked about him repeatedly; he was on nine of my prisoner lists submitted to the Chinese government. After receiving six sentence reductions for good behavior, Li was released from Beijing Number Two Prison on May 31, 2013.

Miao Deshun

The last Tiananmen prisoner known by Dui Hua to have served a sentence for an offence committed during the spring 1989 disturbances was Miao Deshun (苗德顺). Miao was a worker from Hebei Province who came to Beijing to participate in the uprising. He was sentenced to death with two-year reprieve by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court on August 7, 1989. The crime was arson; he and four other protesters had thrown a basket onto a burning tank.

Miao had had no contact with the outside world for many years. At his request, his family stopped visiting him. He was defiant, refusing to admit guilt or participate in prison labor. He spent time in solitary confinement, which contributed to his schizophrenia and hepatitis.

I took a special interest in his case, putting his name on 17 lists submitted to the Chinese government. In late January 2016, I learned from a court website that, after several sentence reductions–the last granted six weeks after my last inquiry–Miao would be released from the elderly, weak, ill, and disabled ward of Yanqing Prison on October 15, 2016.

I announced his imminent release, and journalists became interested in the story. Several went to Yanqing Prison to observe the October 15 event, but no one could sight him.

It is sometimes the case that prisoners are released the night before, or at dawn, at the darkest moment. They are hustled out the back door.

The last of the known June 4 prisoners had been released, but, fittingly, no one had seen the moment, and it has been quickly forgotten.

Soldiers cleaning Tiananmen Square following the events of June 4, 1989. Image credit: