U.S. Businessman-Turned-Activist Wins ‘Genius Grant’

China human rights advocate and MacArthur Grant winner John Kamm, head of the Duihua Foundation Photo: MacArthur Foundation

WASHINGTON—Former U.S. businessman and China human rights champion John Kamm has won a prestigious U.S.$500,000 MacArthur Foundation Grant, known to the world as a ‘genius grant’ and likely to fund five more years of his work.

Kamm’s work through the nonprofit Duihua (Dialogue) Foundation has helped secure the release of dozens of Chinese prisoners of conscience. He described his reaction to the news in a recent interview with RFA’s Mandarin service.

“Disbelief. Surprise, which eventually turned into joy, and pride. Pride because my work of all these years are finally recognized,” Kamm said.

Business camp

Kamm, 53, seemed an unlikely candidate for budding human rights activist during his years as a successful businessman and a president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

But the Duihua Foundation is credited by many with contributing—through non-confrontational negotiation with Chinese officials—to improving conditions for hundreds of political prisoners, and the release of key dissidents, including China Democracy Party (CDP) founder Wang Youcai, who arrived in the U.S. in March on medical parole.

“In certain areas like the expansion of economic interests, there has been progress, but in areas like religious freedom, there is no progress.”

Complicated picture

Kamm’s approach to the human rights situation in China—which has seen little change with the advent of a new generation of leaders under President Hu Jintao—is both realistic and optimistic.

“It is moving in both positive and negative directions at the same time,” Kamm told RFA. “In certain areas like the expansion of economic interests, there has been progress, but in areas like religious freedom, there is no progress.”

Chinese authorities have repeatedly cracked down on critics of the ruling Communist Party and advocates of political reform, including those who use the Internet to air their views, in recent months, and arrest and harassment of unofficial religious organizations continues unabated.

Kamm said Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, who in theory espouse a more humane approach to Party rule, could not afford to show weakness for fear of giving ammunition to political opponents.

“I think initially Mr.Hu will have to show his strength and toughness, but I believe as time moves on and as he consolidates his power, reform will take place, and things will be better,” he said. “Remember when he was head of the Party School, something interesting happened: there were discussions on political reform, legal reform, and human rights improvement, etc.”

Ethical investors

Kamm’s approach was an effective mean of addressing contentious human rights issues with Chinese officials, the MacArthur Foundation said in its award citation.

“Kamm found that approaching (Chinese officials) with dignity and respect facilitated their response to his enquiries and uncovered a wealth of information regarding the status and well being of thousands of prisoners,” it said.

Part of the work of the Duihua Foundation is the lecture circuit, especially in the areas of corporate responsibility and ethical investment.

Kamm will address a conference of leading multinationals that do business in China on human rights concerns for foreign investors at a conference in October.

On the Web:

The Duihua Foundation

Read the recent letter from John Kamm to The South China Morning Post


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