In the early 1990s, American businessman John Kamm traveled to Beijing about a half a dozen times a year. The Chinese government, desperate to save its access to the American market, gave Kamm high-level access to air his appeals on behalf of political prisoners. He handed over lists of prisoners, by then his stock in trade.
His interlocutors included senior ministers of the State Council Information Office, Ministry of Justice, Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Public Security, and State Administration of Religious Affairs. He met with officials privately and sometimes gathered them together for banquets, where he would advise which releases would impact American public opinion most significantly.
On these trips, Kamm also held impromptu press conferences. Permission was neither sought from nor given by the authorities. Journalists came to hear about his meetings and the status of prisoners whose names Kamm had raised.
In August 1992, Kamm was heading toward an elevator after a press conferences at the Great Wall Sheraton. Nicholas Kristof, then Beijing bureau chief of The New York Times, followed him.
Kristof began by explaining that a friend had been detained not long after June 4, 1989. The friend was part of Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s central brain trust, an economist who wrote for the General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. He was also one of Kristof’s sources, and the bureau chief worried that the man’s troubles might have been related to something he had written. Wu Jiaxiang was detained on July 19, 1989, on charges of counterrevolutionary incitement and propaganda. He would soon be brought to trial.
Kristof asked for help and Kamm agreed to look into it. Wu Jiaxiang was 37 when he was detained. A native of Anhui Province, Wu was being held in Qincheng Prison, which was managed by the Ministry of Public Security. He did not participate in the June Fourth protests but allegedly penned supportive slogans and articles. From what Kamm could ascertain, Wu was destined to be the last individual brought to trial in Beijing for counterrevolutionary crimes committed during the 1989 disturbances. The next to last, General Office Secretary Bao Tong, had just been sentenced to seven years in prison.
On that same August trip, Kamm was scheduled to have a private dinner with Zhou Jue, a distinguished and influential diplomat who had recently retired from his post as Ambassador to France. Zhou was assisting the State Council Information Office, Kamm’s principal source on prisoners. The dinner was held at Charlie’s, a steakhouse in the Jianguo Hotel. To break the ice, Kamm ordered two rib-eye steaks, medium rare, and an excellent claret.
As the atmosphere improved, Kamm mentioned Wu Jiaxiang. Pointing out the historical significance of Wu’s trial, which was scheduled to take place the next day, Kamm made his pitch. A long sentence, he said, would bring back the bad memories of the last few years. A light sentence would help bring closure to a tragic period in Chinese history. Clearly moved, Zhou said he would do what he could.
The next day, the court sentenced Wu Jiaxiang to three years and five weeks—all of it time served. The economist was carried out of the court on the shoulders of family and friends. Onlookers cheered. The International Herald Tribune headline read: “In Last Tiananmen Trial, Writer Freed.”