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Founded in April 1999, Dui Hua works to advance human rights through well-informed, respectful dialogue with China. Dui Hua helps secure clemency and better treatment for political and religious prisoners, juvenile offenders, and women in prison, and monitors developments relevant to at-risk detainees in China’s criminal justice system. Read about how it got started or skip to a chronology of Dui Hua milestones since the organization’s incorporation in 1999.
How It Got Started
Dui Hua founder and Executive Director John Kamm made his first intervention on behalf of a Chinese political prisoner in May 1990. Kamm, then president of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong and regional vice president of Occidental Chemical Corporation, was on his way to Washington to testify at the first Congressional hearings on human rights and China’s Most Favored Nation Status (MFN).
At the time, China’s MFN needed annual renewal from US Congress. The deadline for renewal was the eve of the first anniversary of the Tiananmen killings of June 4, 1989. Given the then minimal trade ties between the United States and China and China’s dismal human rights record, almost all forces pointed towards denial of MFN. As the president of AmCham Hong Kong, Kamm was invited to testify as one of the few voices favoring renewal of the trade status.
Before leaving for the US, Beijing’s senior representative in Hong Kong, Zhou Nan, held a banquet to thank the American business community for its support on MFN. Zhou toasted Kamm, recognizing him in advance for defending China’s status before US Congress. In the middle of the toast, an idea popped into Kamm’s head.
On his way to the banquet, Kamm had heard a mother’s cry for help on the radio. She was the mother of Yao Yongzhan, a Hong Kong student detained in Shanghai for his involvement in the Tiananmen protests and, according to his mother, being tortured in detention. Knowing that Tiananmen would be the main obstacle for MFN and that gestures by China would help ease tensions, Kamm abruptly interpreted Zhou’s toast—“Why don’t you release Yao Yongzhan?”
Zhou was stunned by both the rudeness and audacity of the interruption. But as outrageous as it was, Kamm did not back down. He reasoned that clemency towards political prisoners would facilitate the renewal of China’s MFN status. Zhou was not pleased, but said finally, “I’ll look into it.”
Subsequently, Kamm testified, MFN was retained, and Yao Yongzhan was released. Realizing that he could make a difference in a practical and pragmatic way, Kamm made it his mission to advance the rights of at-risk detainees through well-informed, respectful dialogue with China.
Kamm stepped down from his AmCham post at the end of 1990 and resigned from Occidental Chemical in 1991. He established a consultancy and used the profits to fund his human rights work, traveling to Guangzhou and Beijing bearing lists of political prisoners. In November 1991 he was received by Politburo Standing Committee member Li Ruihuan in the Great Hall of the People. Given wide coverage in Chinese media, the meeting signaled high-level approval for engagement with Kamm. Shortly after this meeting, Kamm made his first visit to a Chinese prison, Meizhou Prison in Guangdong Province.
From 1991 to 1994—the year President Clinton unconditionally renewed China’s MFN—Kamm traveled frequently to China. He raised the names of hundreds of prisoners and received verbal information from the Chinese government on more than half. In December 1994 written information was provided for the first time. In early 1995 Kamm reached an agreement with China’s State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Justice. He would submit four lists of 25 names each during 1995, one every quarter, and the Chinese side would make a good faith effort to provide information on the people listed, many of whom were not well-known. The first list and the first response were exchanged in February and April 1995, respectively.
The following month, the United States granted a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Tenghui, touching off a crisis in US-China relations. The Chinese government suspended its unofficial dialogue with Kamm. Rarely granted meetings and not receiving responses, Kamm continued traveling to Beijing and faxing prisoner lists. The Chinese government did not resume cooperation with him until late 1997, when Chinese President Jiang Zemin made his US state visit. Cooperation continued until April 1999, when China cut off talks in response to US sponsorship of a resolution criticizing China at the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission (renamed the Human Rights Council in 2006) in Geneva. Despite challenges and inauspicious circumstances, Kamm went ahead with plans to establish Dui Hua in April, serving as its first chairman and executive director.
Chronology: Achievements from 1999 to present.
Roots: These stories explore Executive Director John Kamm’s advocacy work prior to and since Dui Hua’s establishment in 1999.