A photograph of Beijing Prison and its personnel. Image credit: wdh.la

In May 1992, a young Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) official, Bai Weiji, and his wife Zhao Lei, were detained by China’s State Security police on suspicion of trafficking in state secrets. Two weeks later, police raided the apartment of Lena Sun, Beijing Bureau Chief of The Washington Post. They briefly detained Ms. Sun and her family and forced the American journalist to open the safe where she kept sensitive materials. In the safe they found internal documents that Bai Weiji had provided Ms. Sun.

Lena Sun, who had written one of the first profiles on American businessman and recently turned human rights activist John Kamm, requested assistance from Kamm. Kamm began raising Bai and Zhao’s case with Chinese authorities, with whom he was regularly meeting in Beijing..

In May, 1993, Bai was sentenced to 10 years in prison for trafficking in state secrets by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court. His wife was given a six-year sentence. It is believed that one of the reasons that Bai was given such a lengthy sentence was that he had organized protests among MFA staff over the June 1989 suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing.

Kamm, in an interview with The New York Times Bureau Chief Nicholas Kristof, called the verdicts “very troubling” and “a serious disappointment.”

Bai was sent to Beijing Prison, considered to be a model prison, where Bai was the only prisoner serving a sentence for counterrevolution. His English language skills were put to good use by the prison warden, who was seeking to find export markets for products made in prison workshops. Because he “expressed regret and a genuine willingness to reform,” and because he exhibited good behavior, Bai was granted three sentence reductions in 1996, 1997 and 1998 for a total reduction of three years and three months. He was released on February 2, 1999. His wife had been released early on October 20, 1997.

After his release, Bai became a successful businessman. On a trip to the United States, he looked up John Kamm, who had moved with his family to San Francisco from Hong Kong in July 1995.

Bai credited Kamm’s interventions for his early release, but brought up two other reasons he was shown clemency.

In July 1996, Louis Joinet, chairman of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, visited China to begin preparations for a visit by the full working group the following year. One of the prisons he was allowed to visit was Beijing Prison.

Upon arrival at the prison, Joinet asked to interview prisoners. His request was rejected. The director general of the MFA’s International Department, Li Baodong, rushed to the prison to resolve the stand-off. It was agreed that Joinet could interview a prisoner, and he was invited to select one at random. At that moment, Bai Weiji was walking in the prison yard, and Joinet chose him to be interviewed. Joinet had no idea who he was, but the prison officials became suspicious: how could it be that the prisoner selected to be interviewed was the only prisoner serving a sentence for counterrevolution?

Bai played his role brilliantly. He declined to give any identifying information. He did not tell Joinet why he was in prison, nor did he say he was a former MFA official. He went to considerable length to commend the prison authorities for treating him so well. Although the interview was supposed to be held in a secure, confidential setting, Bai figured that the prison authorities were listening in. Shortly after the interview, Bai was granted his first sentence reduction.

The second reason given to explain Bai’s clemency involves the July 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. A city-wide competition to ascertain who knew the most about the handover was held among teams representing all of Beijing’s prisons. Bai, who was familiar with Hong Kong from his days working for MFA, was chosen to head the Beijing Prison team, which handily won the competition. Bai and his team members were rewarded with sentence reductions, but Bai noted, somewhat ruefully, that because he was serving a sentence for counterrevolution, he could only get half the number of points awarded to the other teammates.

According to regulations, prisoners serving sentences for counterrevolution had to be “strictly handled” when it came to sentence reductions. The Bai Weiji case afforded Kamm one of his first opportunities to find out what these regulations meant in practice.