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John Kamm's Mission: Helping Free China Dissidents

John Kamm stands in front of the White House after meeting with administration officials.
Frank Langfitt, NPR
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John Kamm stands in front of the White House after meeting with administration officials.

Most U.S. companies in China won't touch the issue of human rights, but American businessman John Kamm made it a second career. Kamm has spent the last 16 years helping to free scores of Chinese political prisoners.

With Chinese President Hu Jintao visiting the White House on Thursday, Frank Langfitt has this story about Kamm's journey from businessman to human rights activist.

In 1990, John Kamm was living an expat businessman's dream. He was head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, where he worked for a U.S. multi-national corporation. The perks included a chauffer-driven Mercedes and an apartment overlooking the South China Sea.

Then, one evening, he kissed that life goodbye.

Kamm was at a Chinese government banquet. Thousands were still in prison from the Tiananmen Square crackdown. A Chinese official was praising Kamm for his help in lobbying Congress.

Kamm just couldn't take it.

"I stopped him, in the middle of his toast. And basically said, 'Thank you very much, but what are you going to do for me?' And the room, it just froze," Kamm recalls.

Kamm said China needed to improve its human rights record. And it could start by freeing a Hong Kong student held in Shanghai.

"Well, this minister... became very angry. He said that this was an act of gross interference in the internal affairs of China and an unfriendly act that had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people," Kamm says.

"That created quite, quite a scene," says Jeff Muir, a U.S. businessman who attended the dinner. He said people were worried Kamm was spoiling U.S.-China relations. "I remember somebody saying to the Chinese official that 'not all Americans are as impertinent as Mr. Kamm.'"

Impertinent? Sure. But the outburst was also effective. After the banquet, Kamm testified in Washington on China's behalf. About six weeks later, the Hong Kong student walked free.

Since then, Kamm estimates he's either helped free or improve the conditions of 400 political prisoners. Kamm presents their cases directly to Chinese officials. He tells them that showing mercy is good PR in America.

"My background was in sales," Kamm says. "I'm selling the Chinese government on human rights."

Some of the Dissidents Helped by Kamm

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.