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International Law Section Newsletter
Interview with John Kamm -- September 2014 International Law Section Newsletter

Spotlight on John Kamm -- Business and Human Rights Do Mix

Photo of John Kamm taken at "Women in Prison: An International Symposium on the Bangkok Rules" in February this year in Hong Kong.The following interview was conducted by The California International Law Journal Editor-In-Chief Will Pao and E-Media Chair Diana Mack

John Kamm is an American businessman and human rights campaigner active in China since 1972. He is the founder and chairman of The Dui Hua Foundation. Kamm was awarded the Department of Commerce’s Best Global Practices Award by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights by President George W. Bush in 2001.

In September 2004, Kamm received a MacArthur Fellowship for "designing and implementing an original approach to freeing prisoners of conscience in China." Kamm is the first businessman to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Since his first intervention on behalf of a Chinese prisoner in May 1990, Kamm has made more than 100 trips to China to engage the government in a dialogue on human rights, focusing on the treatment of prisoners and conditions in prisons.

Q.

John, thank you for sitting down with us today. To start off, could you tell us about how you got started in your advocacy and human rights work?

A.

Sure. I arrived in Hong Kong in 1972, which was the year of the Nixon visit, and eventually found myself doing business in China as it was opening up. I made four trips to China before Chairman Mao died in 1976. When the events of June 4, 1989, took place in Beijing, I was First Vice President of the American Chamber of Commerce, in line to take over the presidency, which I did in 1990. In 1990, by way of background, under the Trade Act of 1974, designated non-market economies had to have their Most Favored Nation Trade Status renewed every year, and China was one of those countries. By sheer coincidence, because China was first granted Most Favored Nation on June 4, 1979, it had to have its status renewed every year, no later than June 3 -- which, of course, was not very fortuitous for China. So that year, 1990, as it was coming up for renewal, members of Congress made it known that they were going to, in effect, withhold granting Most Favored Nation for China, or at least impose very strict conditions on renewal, and to this end legislation was introduced. The first hearing on Most Favored Nation took place in the House of Representatives on May 15 and 16, 1990. I was invited to testify at the first hearing.

Prior to my departure for the hearing, I was invited to a banquet, along with other members of the business community, by the senior Chinese official in Hong Kong, and in the course of that banquet I asked the official to release a young political prisoner. He wasn’t too happy about it, he reacted quite angrily, but in any event I went, I testified, and it was a success. The student was released within a few weeks of the intervention. That was more than 24 years ago and that was the beginning of my activism.

Q.

Did you always have an interest in China? What led you there in the first place?

A.

Certainly I’ve had an interest in China for a very long time. I was admitted to Princeton University out of high school, and I entered with the class of 1973 in 1969. As it turns out Princeton was, in those days, one of the few universities that offered Chinese language. So at the urging of my dear mother I took up what she called an "exotic language." Her theory was that I could always find a job if I learned an "exotic language." She always liked China, she always felt the two peoples liked each other. Even though the two governments were hardly getting along in those days, she encouraged me to take up Chinese, which I did when I entered Princeton.

Q.

Since that fateful day in 1990 when you began your advocacy work, out of all the great work you’ve done since, what is the one thing that you’re proud of most?

A.

That is tough. I guess my work to help secure the release of Tibetan prisoners who had been in prison for political activities for many many years, for decades. I flew down to Lhasa escorted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I was allowed to meet with and determine whether the most prominent Tibetan political prisoners of the day, whether they wanted to leave Tibet for medical treatment abroad. I made two of those trips, one in 2002 and one in 2003. Those trips, of course, were standouts. But it’s very hard to say because there are certain things that have happened even recently that I’m particularly proud to have had a role in bringing about. At the end of June, China’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a woman sentenced to die for killing her abusive husband, and that was the first time that a death sentence passed on a woman who had been the victim of domestic violence had been overturned. That’s pretty recent but that particular effort I felt was especially rewarding and meaningful.

Q.

How did you first get involved in these cases?

A.

When I first started out, it was right after Tiananmen and the names of political prisoners were very well known, very much in the media, so it wasn’t difficult for me to select cases. As time went on, I became more and more interested in cases that are, in fact, not well known, obscure cases, and I began to look for the names of prisoners whose names are not generally known in the West, and this led me eventually to establish the foundation, Dui Hua, in 1999, so we’re 15 years old now.

Q.

You’ve been highly successful in helping with the release of those prisoners. What is your key for success?

A.

First of all, thank you, there is this perception that I’m successful at the work I do. I have to say I have failed in my efforts as often as I’ve succeeded and that needs to be borne in mind. There is no magic formula for obtaining or helping to secure the release or better treatment of someone in prison, the latter being very important. First of all, you need to know the law and Chinese law is an evolving law.  In my lifetime, China has moved very much from the situation of rule-by-man into a situation of right now which is rule-by-law, and we’re moving in the direction of rule-of-law. So you have to know the laws, you have to know the cases and you have to approach the cases with a lot of respect. When I raise cases with the Chinese government, I do it in such a way as to maximize the possibility of a response, so I choose my words very carefully. For instance, I don’t refer to "political prisoners," I refer to prisoners who have been convicted of "endangering state security," just as an example. I never make personal attacks on Chinese leaders; I’m careful about that. More recently, over the last five or six years, we have broadened our mission into areas other than political prisoners, so now we speak of our mission as promoting the rights and better treatment of at-risk detainees. The four groups we focus on are political prisoners, women in prison, juvenile offenders, and those sentenced to death.

Q.

Can you tell us about your foundation, the Dui Hua Foundation, and how our readers can help out or get involved?

A.

I thought you’d never ask! The Dui Hua Foundation is a non-profit organization. We’re a 501(c)(3) that promotes clemency and better treatment for at-risk detainees through a well-informed, respectful dialogue. We are the only independent human rights group focused on China that enjoys special consultative status with the United Nations. As I mentioned before, we focus on four areas:  juvenile offenders, women in prison, political prisoners and those who have been sentenced to death. Among other things, we publish on an occasional basis the most reliable estimates of the number of people executed in China every year. By doing that, by shining a light on that, I promote the reduction in the number of executions.

Q.

So how can other people help?

A.

Well, you can go to our website, which is www.duihua.org, and there you can find out how you can support us. We rely on donations from people to help us carry out our work.  Obviously that’s one way you can help us. Of course, if you ever happen to come across an interesting case or you learn of something you think we can benefit from or help out on, please let us know.

Q.

You come from the business world. What role do you think businesses should take with regard with human rights issues?

A.

I have said virtually from the outset that business people can be very effective human rights advocates. They know how to sell -- hopefully -- and selling human rights is what I do. As I point out to students when I go to speak to them, a salesman is someone who convinces you to buy something that you don’t think you need. That’s what a good salesperson does, and I hope I meet that criteria. Salespeople are very goal-oriented, they are respectful; they learn the language, they learn the customs, they know how to navigate in complex situations, and they don’t come across as doctrinaire ideologues. Also, many governments tend to view business people as allies. You’re more likely to gain something from someone sitting across the table if that person sees you as a friend, so that’s certainly something I think that business people bring to it.

Q.

Should business people be active in human rights? How would this affect their business?

A.

Of course they should. This is the other thing I mentioned, business people are well-qualified. Secondly, improvements in human rights are good for business. So when you advocate more respect for human rights, you’re really directly promoting better business conditions. People say "What?  That doesn’t sound right." Well, first of all, protection of intellectual property rights is a human right recognized by the U.N., both in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but also in the Universal Declaration. In other words, protection of intellectual property is a human right. Now, I don’t know many business people who would say that protection of intellectual property is not good for business. Of course it’s good for business.  But going beyond that, if you look at the history of China and the opening up, back when I was first going to China, you couldn’t travel from City A to City B without a permit. You couldn’t travel from City A to City B unless you had your rationing coupons arranged when you got to the other place, so it was very restrictive to travel. After it became less restrictive and Chinese could travel more freely, the market for aircraft opened up. Look at television. Again, you go back and see that in the late 70’s-early 80’s Chinese people couldn’t own TVs. Then they were allowed to have TVs in the border region of Hong Kong and the market began to open, and now China makes its own TVs. But it has been a huge market for especially Japanese appliance manufacturers, and so on. So what we see is that promoting human rights opens markets. The government’s recognition of rights has in fact opened the China market. So human rights are good for business.

Q.

In your advocacy work so far, have you done a lot of work with lawyers? Do you have any advice for lawyers interested in becoming more involved in the type of work you do?

A.

I am contacted by lawyers on many occasions to help out, to give advice on cases they are working on. Normally, an American lawyer cannot practice law in China.  You can form a joint venture with a Chinese firm whose partners practice law, you can consult with, give advice to companies, but you cannot go into a courtroom and litigate, you can’t represent clients. But typically in that capacity lawyers will contact me.

There is a sharp increase in the number of foreign business people who run afoul of Chinese law, and so my work has entered that interesting area. These are not political prisoners by and large. There are a few people who have gotten into trouble over state secrets. But mostly these are people who have run afoul of China’s legal system insofar as their economic activities are concerned; so yes, I am contacted by lawyers on that end.  In China itself, so-called "rights defenders" have sought me out and asked for my advice and for my assistance. One of China’s most prominent so-called "rights defenders" -- lawyers -- was just released today and if you go to our website, you will see that we have posted a rather detailed article on what he can expect now.

Q.

What are your thoughts on the U.S.’s current relationship with China?

A.

To be frank, the relationship now is not very good. The Washington Post ran an article a few days ago in which it opined that the relationship was the worst it’s been in decades. There’s a real gap in trust between the countries, and I don’t want to point fingers and say who’s more to blame. I think both sides have their faults. There are disputes in many areas, of course human rights being one of them. In fact, the two countries basically aren’t speaking to each other on human rights right now. China has, in effect, suspended the human rights dialogue in response to the President’s meeting the Dalai Lama earlier this year, so China has said "Okay, we’re not going to talk about human rights with you." That’s just one area.

There are really a lot of points of friction right now and despite the best efforts of skilled diplomats on both sides, I don’t see the relationship improving very much. The other thing you have to say is that certainly our relationship with China is a very important relationship. Given what’s going on in the world over the last few months, however, people are not as focused on China as they are, for example, on the Middle East or the Ukraine, and Africa, of course. So, in a sense, policy makers in Washington are not focused on China, and that’s one of the reasons I think the relationship is suffering.

Q. 

How does the political climate affect your work in China?

A.

That’s a good question. I would say five, certainly ten years ago, I was seen by the Chinese as someone close to the American government. One Chinese official said to me that, "When the relationship is good, you benefit; when it’s bad, you suffer." This new situation has to be in part because now we do so much work with the United Nations, and we have independent status with the U.N.  I think now the Chinese government tends to see me and my foundation more and more as independent actors. So we’re not as affected but certainly we’re affected. Interestingly, in one respect, we might even benefit because when the Chinese government says to the U.S. government, "We’re not going to talk to you because of the way you’ve treated us," Dui Hua kind of stands out by contrast. Our approach is very different from the approach of many governments, including the American government. We are very careful what we say. We don’t browbeat the Chinese government for its faults. We may point them out with respect, but we don’t beat them up. And with due respect to my government, it is too often the case that our rhetoric is very harsh, and the Chinese government is now much stronger than it used to be and it simply doesn’t put up with it.

Q.

What do you do to unwind? What do you do for fun?

A.

I go to the gym every day, and I’m kind of a treadmill fanatic, I’ve probably walked back and forth across the United States on treadmills a couple of times. I like to read, history mostly. I can’t honestly say that I enjoy traveling; I travel so much. Going to a new city that I’ve never been to and having a day off and walking around and exploring the city, I enjoy that a lot. Those are the things, very simple, and of course spending time with the family when I can. In fact, both of my sons live in the Bay Area. That’s where the foundation is based, and that’s where my wife and I live. We came back from Hong Kong when they were quite young to afford them the opportunity of growing up in this country, and they’ve turned out very well. I’m very proud of them. Recently I’ve been doing more gardening! I have a little patio in my apartment and I’ve started to plant things.

Q.

What’s in the garden?

A.

Right now, mostly vines. I do have a jasmine star flower, like a little tree. But those vines, boy, do they grow! It’s a lot of work just to control them!

Q. John, on behalf of the International Law Section, thank you so much for taking time out to speak to us today. We’ve really enjoyed the conversation.
A.  

Thank you, I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you.