American acts as middleman in altering China's human rights

March 19, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

HONG KONG -- When Chinese officials wanted to tell the West last month that they had concluded all legal actions from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, they did not call a news conference or plant an article in China's state-controlled press.

They informed John Kamm, an American businessman here, who immediately passed the word to some foreign reporters in Beijing.

Mr. Kamm's role in forwarding China's message to the West illustrates the unique niche that he has carved out for himself over the last two years -- right in the middle of the Sino-U.S. dispute over China's human rights abuses.

The 40-year-old New Jersey native, who has worked in Hong Kong for two decades, may be the world's first human rights entrepreneur.

He describes himself as a businessman obsessed with the realization that U.S. companies abroad must begin to care about human rights -- in the same way that environmental concerns have become an accepted part of the U.S. corporate agenda.

Mr. Kamm's efforts have directly led to the release of several prisoners from Chinese jails and to an increase in the West's knowledge of the status of some imprisoned dissidents. But he has been called a willing tool of one of the world's most repressive regimes, as it uses its jailed dissidents in a cynical game of hostage politics with the West.

Mr. Kamm earned China's gratitude by lobbying hard in Washington to retain its most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status with the United States.

Pressing his view that the profitable trade status with the United States has a moderating influence on China's hard-line regime, Mr. Kamm has, at times, appeared to tout too loudly the faintest signs of an improved Chinese stance on human rights.

He has appeared to personally capitalize on the whole problem by leaving his position with an Occidental Petroleum Corp. subsidiary in Hong Kong last year, to set himself up as a consultant on U.S.-China relations and as the publisher of a $1,000-a-year, monthly MFN newsletter.

"I am not the agent of any government," Mr. Kamm says. "I don't take direction from anybody, so I don't end up being manipulated by either side. I believe that American business has a role to play in human rights in the world, and I want to be one of the first to use the skills of a businessman to do good in this way."

Yesterday's Senate failure to override President Bush's veto of human rights conditions attached to China's MFN status testifies in part to his skills at lobbying the U.S. Congress.

He began that as president of Hong Kong's American Chamber of Commerce in 1990. Such lobbying was a natural pursuit for the head of the American business group: If China had lost its MFN status, Hong Kong stood to lose as many as 60,000 jobs, $16 billion in annual trade and half its projected economic growth, colony trade officials said.

But Mr. Kamm raised more than a few eyebrows in Hong Kong's business community last year by not dropping his high-profile campaign once his one-year term with the chamber ended.

Instead, he dove even more deeply into the issue, using the goodwill he earned in China with his MFN lobbying to gently but persistently pressure Chinese officials for the release of certain prisoners.

He describes his approach as "non-confrontational," particularly in contrast to that of international human rights groups. And when China rewarded his effort last year with the release of several prisoners, he was quick to publicize the virtues of his method, if not his own success.

"Chinese officials already know full well the dangers involved with losing MFN," he says. "I try to show them the good that will come from taking positive steps. And any time there's an advance, I publicize it in order to encourage them to do more."

China has changed its position on human rights over the last year. But the changes for now appear more cosmetic than substantial, more aimed at influencing the MFN debate in Congress than increasing tolerance of dissent in China.

Last year, Chinese officials for the first time engaged in limited talks with visiting foreign "human rights" delegations.

China also published for the first time its own definition of human rights, essentially arguing that China's limited political freedoms are necessary to guarantee that its huge population has the most basic human right of adequate food, clothing and shelter.

During the past year, authorities periodically released from jail or showed some leniency to a relatively small number of imprisoned dissidents.

These steps rarely, if ever, were noted in China's state-controlled media, for that might encourage internal dissent. But the news invariably was leaked to the West, often timed to coincide with Chinese diplomatic initiatives, such as Prime Minister Li Peng's visit to the United Nations this year.

Mr. Kamm frequently has been the initial conduit by which Chinese authorities have released these leaks.

In this sense, Mr. Kamm's defenders say, he has played a useful, quasi-diplomatic role, by allowing Chinese officials to take credit in the West for positive steps that they are politically unwilling to announce themselves.

His critics, however, say he has been played as a pawn in a Chinese ploy of giving the appearance of progress on human rights without fundamental reforms.

"He's a tool," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. "There hasn't been any progress and there isn't going to be much. The Chinese aren't loosening up. They see that they're entering a period of potentially destabilizing change, and they're going to clamp down tight on any sign of dissent."

Mr. Kamm admits that China's human rights record remains deplorable, but he maintains there has been progress. "China is like a child defying you," he says. "It used to defy you and then storm out of the house. Now it defies you, stays around and defends itself. Which do you prefer?"

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