- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

A U.S. human rights advocate is in China to negotiate the release of political and religious prisoners after President Bush's visit last week.

John Kamm, who heads the San Francisco-based Duihua Foundation, a group that documents and negotiates the release of political prisoners, is visiting Hong Kong and mainland China to lobby for the release of political and religious detainees, Mr. Kamm's office confirmed.

Which prisoners' releases Mr. Kamm was seeking could not be verified. But at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce speech in Hong Kong last month, U.S. Ambassador to China Clarke T. Randt Jr. specifically named Xu Wenli, chairman of the China Democracy Party, who was said to have hepatitis B; Su Zhimin, a Catholic bishop; and Jigme Sangpo, a 74-year-old Tibetan primary school teacher who had been imprisoned since 1983.

Freeing political prisoners just before and after visits by important world leaders is a common practice by China. Before Mr. Bush's arrival last Thursday, Li Guangqiang, a Hong Kong businessman imprisoned for smuggling Bibles into the mainland, and American Liu Yaping, a businessman detained without official charges in Inner Mongolia for a year, were released. Both men also were named by Mr. Randt.

But while the releases are seen as positive developments, some observers are not convinced the Chinese government is softening its stance on detaining those it deems as threats to its leadership. Observers claim the releases are another example of hostage politics, where a group of prisoners is freed as part of a goodwill political gesture and is not indicative of a long-term policy shift.

"They were probably satisfied enough with Bush's visit to release some prisoners, but they can pick up 10 more tomorrow," said John Ackerly, spokesman for the International Campaign for Tibet. "China can placate the U.S. by dangling prisoners in front of them, by releasing them when it is timely and arresting more to use when they need a favor," he said.

"It is a concession, but the underlying system serves as a smoke screen for dialogue on human rights," Mr. Ackerly said.

Ted Carpenter, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, agreed the releases would be insignificant in terms of policy, but cautioned that pushing China too far ultimately could prove counterproductive in advancing human rights. Mr. Carpenter said China was following a path to development similar to the one historically taken by other developing countries, including the United States, Japan and Germany.

Mr. Kamm is an American businessman and former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. The Duihua which means "dialogue" in Chinese Foundation, was established in 1990.

Most recently, Mr. Kamm helped release Ngawang Choephel, 34, a Fulbright scholar who taught music at Middlebury College in Vermont. Mr. Choephel, a Tibetan, was sentenced in 1995 to 18 years in prison for spying.

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