On June 3, 1998, President Bill Clinton addressed a press conference in Washington D.C. Calling trade “a force for change in China,” Clinton cited “concrete results on human rights” as a result of his administration’s engagement with China, and then announced his intention to renew China’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status, set to expire the next day.

Within hours of the press conference, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that President Clinton would make a state visit to China from June 25 to July 3, 1998. He would meet with China’s President Jiang Zemin, and pay visits to Shanghai, Xian, Guilin, and Hong Kong.

President Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin, 1998. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Not unexpectedly, Clinton’s decision to renew MFN and pay a state visit to China was harshly criticized by members of Congress and human rights groups, who challenged the president’s conclusion that there had been positive developments in human rights in China. They claimed that, while there had been a few releases of political and religious prisoners, repression continued apace. Beijing had still not provided an accounting of individuals imprisoned in the Tiananmen protests of 1989 (it has yet to do so), and in October 1997 the head of the underground Catholic Church, Bishop Si Zhimin, had been taken into custody by officials of the Religious Affairs Bureau in Hebei Province. His whereabouts remain unknown more than 20 years later.

The reaction from China’s small dissident community to President Clinton’s decision to visit China was less condemnatory. Many saw the visit as an opportunity to test the limits of China’s strict control over dissent. The year before, in 1997, several dissidents, nearly all of whom had served time in prison for their political activities, had begun working to establish an opposition political party, and the prospect of an American president visiting China encouraged them to speed up their work.

Preparatory committees for the China Democracy Party (CDP), intended to be a national opposition party, were established in different parts of the country. Initially, they were established secretly, but on June 25, 1998, the day President Clinton arrived in China, the Hangzhou Preparatory Committee, led by Wang Youcai, issued an “Open Declaration of the Establishment of the CDP Zhejiang Preparatory Committee.” The declaration, together with a draft party constitution, was circulated on the Internet, and a formal application was filed with the Zhejiang government to register the CDP as a political party.

Soon other CDP preparatory committees were established elsewhere in China. By the end of 1998 there were 24 such committees. The names and details of 200 party members were posted on websites.

President Clinton’s visit to China came off without a hitch. He was criticized for inspecting an honor guard in Tiananmen Square, site of the killings in June 1989 that outraged the world. But afterwards, he met with Jiang Zemin and had what was by all accounts an extraordinary joint press conference with the Chinese president on June 17. The event was broadcast live on Chinese state television. Clinton expressed disapproval of the Tiananmen Square killings and referred to the Dalai Lama as a “holy man” whom President Jiang “would like very much.” President Clinton even referenced my own proposal that China should release all imprisoned counterrevolutionaries since the crime of counterrevolution had been removed from the Criminal Law in 1997.

Clinton’s endorsement of this proposal garnered much attention from Chinese officials, who marveled, in private conversations with me, at the president’s knowledge of the Chinese legal system. Clinton attended services at a Protestant church and gave a speech to Chinese students that was also televised nationwide.

His remarks on the Dalai Lama had a deleterious effect however. Talks were underway in Singapore between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. They were abruptly terminated, reportedly due to anger on the part of the People’s Liberation Army with Clinton’s remarks and Jiang Zemin’s failure to push back.


On July 10, 1998, one week after President Clinton left China, the police moved against the CDP, detaining Wang Youcai in Hangzhou. They formally arrested him for inciting subversion on August 7, but in an unusual move, he was released and placed under residential surveillance. The relative freedom of loose house arrest did not last long. He was rearrested and indicted for subversion, tried, and sentenced to 11 years in prison on December 21, 1998.

After the detention of Wang Youcai, the authorities changed their tactics. One by one, the preparatory committees were informed that their applications to register as a political party had been turned down. Leaders were visited by the police and told to desist their efforts or face the consequences.

Undeterred by threats, Xu Wenli, Gao Hongming, and Zha Jianguo established the CDP National Congress Preparatory Committee in Beijing on November 2, 1998. Xu was detained on November 30 and subsequently tried and sentenced to 13 years in prison on December 21, 1998 for the crime of subversion.

On May 7, 1999 NATO fighters under American command bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade, touching off a crisis in US-China relations. China suspendered all discussions on human rights with the United States.

After the bombing, Beijing stepped up its repression of the CDP. On July 5, 1999 Zha Jianguo and Gao Hongming were tried for subversion in Beijing. Zha and Gao were sentenced to nine years and eight years, respectively, on August 2. After a few more weeks in a detention center, both men were placed in Beijing Number Two Prison, a facility in northeast Beijing housing 2,000 inmates. According to my list of political prisoners in Beijing, 26 of the 40 names of prisoners serving sentences for counterrevolution or endangering state security were housed in Beijing Number Two.

Dui Hua was established in April 1999. Its dialogue on human rights with the Chinese government had been suspended that month on account of the tabling of a resolution at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Its suspension therefore came before the suspension of the official dialogue on account of the Belgrade bombing in May. This proved to be fortuitous. Dui Hua’s dialogue was resumed well before the official dialogue resumed.

Some of Dui Hua’s earliest cases were those of CDP members, in line with the priorities of Western governments at the time. There were two high-profile successes that Dui Hua contributed to. Xu Wenli was granted medical parole and flown to the United States with his wife on Christmas eve 2002. Wang Youcai was granted medical parole and flown to the United States on March 4, 2004.

Xu Wenli with John Kamm at the Dui Hua Foundation’s San Francisco office.

Gao Hongming, Qin Yongmin, and Zha Jianguo, as well as most of other CDP members who had been imprisoned, served their entire sentences with not a day off. They were mostly forgotten by the West.

Zha Jianguo was an idealistic young man who, heeding Chairman Mao’s call, went down to the countryside in the late 1960s to make revolution. He was 17 years old. He became a village leader in Inner Mongolia, a dirt-poor part of China. Disillusioned with the promises of Maoism, he returned to Beijing, and became passionately involved in the Tiananmen protests of 1989. After the imprisonment of Xu Wenli and the dismemberment of the CDP, Zha Jianguo became the de facto leader of the soon-to-be crushed opposition party.

Zha Jianying

In the summer of 2000 I was contacted by Benjamin Lee, a visiting professor of comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong. Ben was an accomplished scholar. He had taught at the University of Chicago where he had earned his PhD in anthropology. He had also taught at Rice University, where he ran the Transnational China Project at the James A. Baker Institute of Policy Studies. Ben and I had studied Chinese language at Middlebury College in the summer of 1972, immediately before I left the United States for Macau.

Ben had married Zha Jianying, a rising star in contemporary literature on China. Her China Pop, published in 1995, was critically acclaimed. Her facility in the English language was astonishing. When she went for her visa application interview at the United States Embassy in Beijing she hardly spoke a word of English. Within a few years she was writing fluent and evocative prose, glistening with power and emotion.

Zha Jianying’s brother is Zha Jianguo, and Ben had suggested she reach out to me for advice and assistance on how to secure better treatment and clemency for Zha Jianguo.

Ben, Jianying, and I met for lunch in Hong Kong at the Mandarin Hotel’s Grill Room on September 19, 2000. Over the next six months Jianying and I met frequently. She joined me on visits to the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s University Services Centre which, at the time, had an outstanding collection of Chinese government open sources on political crime. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

I accepted her request to act as her advisor on matters relating to Chinese prisons and offered to begin including her brother’s name on prisoner lists submitted to the Chinese government by foreign governments, as well as asking about him directly in my meetings with the Chinese Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

By the time I offered to assist Jianying I had already visited five Chinese prisons and met privately with officials of the Prison Administration Bureau of the Ministry of Justice more than two dozen times.

I concluded that Chinese prison officials were susceptible to flattery regarding their personal appearance, in particular their smart uniforms, and the physical appearance of their prisons. (This was in part because prison officials, unlike foreign affairs officials, rarely got to meet foreigners.) If prison officials had treated a prisoner well, this should be acknowledged. It was important that visitors dress appropriately. This was not an issue with Jianying, who is an elegant dresser.

I told her that monthly visits and phone calls were critically important, not only because they boosted the prisoner’s morale, but because they sent a strong signal to the prison authorities that people on the outside cared deeply for their imprisoned loved one. I admonished her to be careful what she said to Zha Jianguo during the 30-minute monthly visits; they spoke by phone through a thick plexiglass screen. The calls were monitored and could be cut off at any time. I advised to her to speak with her brother as if Jiang Zemin were in the room.

During monthly visits, friendships could be developed both with guards and wardens, some of whom would drop their guard and reveal important information on the prisoner’s behavior and health. I suggested she ask to meet with one of the wardens of Beijing Number Two Prison.

Jianying advised me that her brother was unrepentant, and since he refused to confess he could never be considered for sentence reduction or parole. She asked me what I would do if I were in her brother’s place. I gave her the same answer I have given to every friend and relative of prisoners who have asked me this question over many years: if I were in prison, I would say or sign anything to win early release, as long as it didn’t hurt anyone else, especially fellow prisoners. In short, I would lie. Confessions made under distress would not be taken as signs of genuine remorse by people familiar with the realities of prison life in China. They were not worth the paper they were written on. Jianying sighed, knowing that her brother would never admit guilt for what he had done or for what he believed.

I also taught Jianying about fen lei gai zao, a Ministry of Justice policy, followed in many prisons, of grouping prisoners together with those who had been sentenced for the same crime. She should ask to have her brother moved to a cell with other political prisoners. At the time he was in a cell with violent offenders who often engaged in fights and petty quarrels. He was left alone, however, due to the respect other prisoners afforded him.

Shortly after our first meeting I put Zha Jianguo’s name on a list of prisoners submitted as part of a bilateral human rights dialogue with a European government. In January 2001, the Chinese government, for the first time, provided written information on Zha Jianguo.

A Conversation with Warden Zhang

On April 10 and 11, 2001, Zha Jianying received phone calls from Zhang Yongsheng, a warden of Beijing Number Two. Her request for a private meeting with the warden had been granted. She was invited to visit the prison on April 13.

Upon her arrival she was brought into the warden’s office. She sat on a sofa opposite Warden Zhang and his assistant Mr. Han. What was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting wound up lasting 90 minutes.

Jianying started by praising Warden Zhang. “I have been quite surprised and impressed by your officers’ courtesy, efficiency, and law-abiding spirit,” she said. She complimented the warden and his assistant’s snappy new uniforms (modeled on Hong Kong prison uniforms) and asked for the meaning of the stars on their epaulets. Warden Zhang smiled broadly.

Jianying then proceeded to make requests. On a recent visit she had noticed that her brother was in poor health. While thanking the warden for arranging Jianguo to receive a spinal CT at a local hospital, she asked that he also be given a heart CT and a brain CT. She expressed concern over an alarming new development: Jianguo’s hands were purple and would turn black at night. This might be a sign of a circulation problem. A heart examination and treatment might be necessary. She worried about her brother’s headaches, and said she feared he might have a brain tumor.

Jianying complained that her brother was in a cell with ruffians who were noisy and argumentative. He was unable to get a good night’s sleep. Would it be possible to move him to a better cell? Perhaps the prison could move him in with other prisoners who were serving sentences for state security offenses.

She lodged a complaint with the warden over the lack of physical exercise for Zha Jianguo. He had fallen down while exercising in the prison yard and had been barred from going outside “for his own good.” All prisoners should do physical labor, the warden said. Zha Jianguo’s job was wrapping chopsticks, a monotonous task involving little physical exercise.

Finally, Warden Zhang told Zha Jianying that all her requests would be considered. “We will do the best we can.” However, the prison did not have enough state security prisoners to fill a cell block, so this request could not be granted. Transfer to another, quieter cell could however be considered.

In the months that followed Jianying’s visit, Zha Jianguo’s treatment improved. He was moved to a better cell and exempted from physical labor. He was allowed to read as much as he wanted; his sister brought piles of books to him on every visit. He was afforded better medical treatment.

A Visit to Beijing Number Two

Two months after Zha Jianying visited Beijing Number Two, I went to Beijing in June on one of my regular missions. I met with the Ministry of Justice and asked for permission to visit the prison. I was told that my request would be considered.

In December 2001, I traveled to Beijing accompanied by Tina Rosenberg, a journalist working for The New York Times who was writing a story about my work. (The story appeared in the March 3, 2002 issue of the Times’ Sunday Magazine under the title John Kamm’s Third Way.) Ms. Rosenberg observed my work (including during a frosty breakfast with the American Chamber of Commerce) and sat in on meetings with the Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but her request for a meeting with the Ministry of Justice was denied, and it was made clear that she would not be allowed into a Chinese prison.

On the morning of December 18, 2001, I was picked up at the Jianguo Hotel and, together with representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the Beijing Prison Administration Bureau, we drove to northeast Beijing, down a dusty exit road off the Beijing-Shenyang expressway. It was familiar terrain for me. The prison sat cheek to jowl with the Beijing Chemical Works, with whom I’d done business 20 years before.

I was bringing with me a list of prisoners in Beijing Number Two. Among the names on the list were Zha Jianguo and Gao Hongming. Others included Hu Shigen, Liu Jingsheng, Chen Yanbin, and Han Chunsheng, all well-known dissidents. There were also two people on my list who had been given long sentences for counterrevolutionary sabotage and hooliganism committed during the June 1989 protests in Beijing, Chang Yongjie and Zhu Gengsheng. They were both released early after multiple sentence reductions.

Beijing Number Two was an old facility, drab and run-down. It had been designated a maximum-security prison in 1990. Among its 2,000 prisoners were many who had committed violent crimes. In the report on my two-hour visit, I noted that “Its facilities, including its clinic, are less extensive and more poorly equipped [than other prisons I had visited], and its cellblocks were more crowded and less well-appointed than those of model prisons. . . . My tour revealed a physical plant badly in need of repair and better maintenance. Foreigners are rarely taken to the prison. I was the only foreign visitor in the last 12 months.”

Beijing Number Two Prison. Photo Credit: Baidu Baike

In my conversation with the warden in his office (a different warden than the one Zha Jianying had met), I went over my list name by name and asked for their current status. The warden said he’d look into my requests. Although they did not have a separate section, those convicted of political crimes were not housed with violent criminals, sex offenders, or those convicted of economic crimes. Prisoners serving sentences for these crimes were housed together in separate cell blocks.

I was given a detailed account of the point system used to reward prisoners with sentence reductions and parole, as well as other benefits like more frequent family visits, conjugal visits, and use of two telephones to receive calls from family members. The prison granted sentence reductions to 25 percent of prisoners every year, though the warden acknowledged that the sentence reduction rate for those convicted of endangering state security was lower.

I asked if prisoners like Zha Jianguo and Han Chunsheng who refuse to “acknowledge guilt, show genuine remorse, obey regulations, and perform manual labor” could ever gain early release. He replied that prisoners who refuse to acknowledge guilt can petition courts for a retrial. And if their petitions are rejected? “Then the prisoner has no way out,” the warden explained.

After our conversation, I toured the prison grounds accompanied by Ministry of Justice officials and the warden. I used the walk-around to pepper them with questions on individual prisoners. I tried to raise as many names as I could before being invited to leave the prison. The visit had lasted two hours.

Of Courage and Devotion

During one of the monthly visits, Zha Jianguo asked his sister to tell me to stop my efforts on his behalf. He was doing fine, and I should focus on other prisoners who were in greater need. I complied with his request and stopped raising his name. He was released on June 29, 2008, having served his entire nine-year sentence. He returned home to a hero’s welcome.

Zha Jianying and Zha Jianguo, Beijing, 2017. Zha Jianguo had just returned to his apartment after spending an evening in a detention center. Photo courtesy of Zha Jianying.

Despite serving a supplemental sentence of “deprivation of political rights,” Zha Jianguo returned to political activism, at one point writing three separate blogs that commented on recent events. From time to time what he wrote got him into trouble. He would be “invited for tea,” his computer and cell phones seized, and, around the time of “sensitive anniversaries” or big meetings like party or legislative congresses, taken out of Beijing on tours of scenic and historic sights.

In her Tides Players, Zha Jianying paints me in heroic terms as someone who uses everything in his power, “hard data, personal connections, cajoling, name-dropping, bargaining, to make sure the issue of Chinese political prisoners does not go away.” She writes that “If Jianguo has been treated better than some political detainees it is probably because of John’s efforts.”

She is too generous. The reasons why Zha Jianguo was treated better than other political detainees were his courage and his sister’s devotion.

Possessed of a charismatic personality, Zha Jianguo refused to admit guilt, to grovel before authority. He was resolute, and held fast to his belief that, someday, China would be a democracy that respects human rights. He earned the respect of inmates and guards alike. He was neither tortured nor mistreated. For the most part he was left alone with his books.

On her monthly visits, Zha Jianying brought him news of home, money to buy extra food, snacks and sweets from the commissary, warm clothes, and, perhaps most important, books. She brought him hundreds of books during the time he was in prison, enough to stock a small library. She mostly visited her brother on her own, but on one occasion she brought along a grandchild he’d never seen. He watched her crawl around the reception room through the thick plexiglass barrier through which Jianying spoke with him by phone.

Abraham Lincoln once said that the power of hope on human exertion, and on happiness, is wonderful. Zha Jianying gave her brother hope, and strengthened his will to carry on. As for me, I was but an instrument of her devotion.