Jiang Zemin during his state visit to the United States in October 1997, after which Kamm was able to resume cooperation with the Chinese government. Image credit: sina.com

In February 1995, American businessman John Kamm traveled to Beijing to review progress of his effort to systematically obtain information on people imprisoned for counterrevolutionary crimes. Prior to his arrival, he compiled a booklet with all of the information he had received from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in 1994 and sent it to the MOJ and State Council Information Office (SCIO).

When he met with senior officials of the SCIO and MOJ, Kamm asked them what they thought of his booklet. SCIO Director Zeng Jianhui replied, “You have accurately reported what you were told.”

Kamm then proposed that, for 1995, he submit quarterly lists of 25 prisoners for a total of 100 names. Director Zeng looked at the MOJ representative, who nodded in agreement. “It’s a deal then,” said Kamm. “Let’s shake on it.” He then handed over the first list of 25 names.

Two months later Kamm returned to Beijing, where the MOJ gave him responses on 18 of the first 25 names, and he submitted a second list.

Then, in May 1995, the United States Department of State issued a visa to then-President of Taiwan Lee Tenghui. Lee traveled to the United States where he gave an impassioned speech on Taiwan at his alma mater, Cornell University. The Chinese government was furious. As tensions mounted, Chinese rockets were fired in the direction of Taiwan, and President Clinton dispatched two carrier groups to patrol the waters off the island.

The Taiwan Straits crisis effectively ended Kamm’s “prisoner information project,” but he refused to accept what he saw as a unilateral termination of a contract. He continued to travel to Beijing and lobbied whoever would see him—not many Chinese officials would—to resume cooperation. He convinced dozens of American senators and members of Congress to write letters of support to the Chinese Embassy and to bring up the matter in face-to-face meetings with senior Chinese officials. Most importantly, he “kept his side of the deal,” faxing to the SCIO and MOJ the third and fourth quarter lists.

It wasn’t until after President Jiang Zemin made a state visit to the United States in October 1997 that cooperation between Kamm and the Chinese government resumed. By the end of 1998, Kamm had received responses to nearly all of the prisoners on his 1995 lists.

One of the names for which he received a response was Zhang Xianliang, a Shanghai-based dissident who had served a sentence for counterrevolution in the mid-1980s and who had resumed his pro-democracy activism after his release. Zhang had been detained in 1993 for organizing a commemoration of the 1989 June Fourth anti-government protests in Beijing and other cities. He was sentenced to three years of re-education through labor in Anhui Province.

According to the MOJ response, Zhang had been released early for good behavior in June 1996. Not long after his release, Zhang traveled to the United States to join his daughter.

In March 2002, Kamm was profiled in a cover story for The New York Times Magazine. A few days after the story appeared, Kamm received a call from Ms. Zhang Bing, Zhang Xianliang’s daughter, who lived in Berkeley. She asked to come and see him at his San Francisco office.

Zhang came to Kamm’s office and immediately began telling him a story she had heard from her father, who was at that time running a small human rights group in Chicago. Upon arrival at the camp, Zhang Xianliang, a fifty-year-old intellectual, had been assigned to hard labor. He was tormented by two guards, until one day they were replaced by a kind guard. Zhang was reassigned to work in the camp library, and his guard would stop by and join him for tea and cigarettes.

At one of these get-togethers, the guard told Zhang: “Don’t worry. You will be released and allowed to travel to the United States. You’re on a businessman’s list.” When Zhang read the story in the Times magazine, he realized that the businessman was John Kamm.