Image Credit: The Dui Hua Foundation.

In China, prisoners serving sentences for counterrevolution and endangering state security who commit political crimes while behind bars make up a special group of political prisoners. They are treated especially harshly. For committing “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement” while in Drapchi Prison, Tibetan nun Ngawang Sangdrolhad her sentence extended three times. Omer Akchi, a Uyghur farmer sentenced to 14 years in prison in 1997 for forming the “Islamic Party of Allah,” a counterrevolutionary group, had his sentence extended to life imprisonment in 2006 for committing the crime of “splittism” while serving his sentence.

In the early 1990s, Robin Munro, a China specialist working for Human Rights Watch and a friend of American businessman John Kamm, came into possession of a collection of model cases of June 4, 1989 offenses compiled by China’s Supreme People’s Court. One of the cases in the collection was that of a young man, Liu Baiqiang, who had been sentenced by a Guangdong Province court in 1988 to 10 years in Shaoguan Prison for robbery.

In June 1989, pro-democracy protests erupted in Beijing and other cities. Liu and his fellow inmates heard news of the protests.

According to the account of the case in the Supreme Court compilation, translated by Robin Munro and published in his and Mickey Spiegel’s Detained in China and Tibet (1994), “Liu secretly wrote out three leaflets bearing the words ‘Down with Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng,’ ‘Long Live Freedom,’ ‘Deng Xiaoping Should Step Down,’ and ‘Tyranny.’ After showing these to his cellmates, Liu attached them to the legs of locusts and released the insects from his prison cell.

Liu was subsequently convicted of “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement” by the Jiangmen Intermediate People’s Court. Eight years were added to the remaining nine years of his sentence for a combined total of 17 years, followed by five years’ deprivation of political rights. His new date of release was set at June 5, 2006.

Shortly after publication of Detained in China and Tibet, Kamm began putting Liu Baiqiang—dubbed “The Locust Man”—on prisoner lists. He raised the case at both central and local levels, and in June 1995, Liu received his first sentence reduction of one year and three months. In April 1998 Kamm learned that Liu had not received any further sentence reductions. The businessman pushed harder, and the following year Liu’s sentence was reduced another 15 months. By that time, his sentence was due to expire on December 5, 2003.

On June 2, 1999, in hopes of securing another sentence reduction, Kamm boarded a train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou where he was received by a small group of senior party reformers at the Pearl Island Guest House. (Designed by Chairman Mao’s wife Jiang Qing in the early 1970s, by the late nineties it was still the Communist Party’s principal venue for receiving guests.)

Kamm’s visit coincided with a difficult period in US-China relations. Less than a month before his trip to Guangzhou, the United States had bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. China exploded in anger. The US Embassy in Beijing was trashed, and Beijing announced it would suspend all discussions with the US about human rights.

At the Pearl Island Guest House meeting, Kamm pressed hard for the early release of Liu Baiqiang whose name topped the list of 20 Guangdong prisoners that Kamm presented to the party seniors that day. Within three months after Kamm’s visit to Guangzhou, Liu was granted another sentence reduction, this one for 18 months. His new date of release was fixed at June 5, 2002.

In July 2001, American Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Beijing. As a result of the visit, the two countries agreed to resume their bilateral human rights dialogue. Dates were set for October, and despite the 9/11 terrorist attacks—perhaps because of them—a Chinese delegation arrived in Washington. (For an account of President Jiang Zemin’s strategic decision to use the 9/11 attacks to improve China’s relations with the United States, see “To Lhasa for Jigme Sangpo.”)

Prior to their departure from Beijing, the Chinese side accepted a list of more than 90 names of political prisoners from the US Embassy in Beijing. More than half of the names had been contributed by Kamm’s Dui Hua Foundation, all of them counterrevolutionaries. Among the names was Liu Baiqiang.

During the bilateral talks the Chinese side presented a written response to the prisoner list, providing information on nearly all the names. In April 2001, Liu Baiqiang, by then serving his sentence in Meizhou Prison. had been granted a one-year sentence reduction. The Locust Man had been released on June 5, 2001, five years before the end of his extended sentence.