In prisons across China, inmates languish for committing "political crime" - anything from starting an illegal newspaper, trade union, or unofficial religious church, or speaking a democracy slogan in public.
China is not a liberal state with tolerant laws, as its leaders agree. President Bush, showing solidarity with Christians who are sometimes arrested here, Sunday visited an official Protestant church in Beijing on the last leg of an Asia trip that has stressed what Mr. Bush called the "universal" value of freedom of expression.
In China, such expression can be prosecuted with zeal; sentences are stiff. Take Zhang Wei, in a Chongqing jail for six years for running unapproved news in his paper. Or Huang Aiping, in a Fujian jail seven years for being an elder in an illegal Protestant church that allowed "holy singing and dancing." Or two Uighur teens, serving 15 years in a Kashi jail for swapping China's flag for an east Turkistan one at 2 a.m.
What's remarkable is that such cases are known at all, say China experts. In fact, more than 4,000 political prisoners have been saved from obscurity by the Dui Hua Foundation in San Francisco. Their names go on lists shared with Western officials and presented to Chinese authorities, for better treatment and early release.
Protests by President Bush - and a list of human rights cases raised in September - nonetheless come at a time when China is systematically taking human rights off the table - with little complaint from foreign capitals. China has long engaged in what experts call a "game" of political prisoner releases ahead of visits by Western leaders as a show of good face. Rabiya Kadir, a leading Uigher was released before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit last spring.
As China gains greater international standing and market leverage, "there doesn't seem to be any discussion between China and the US regarding concrete prisoner release cases," says Joshua Rosenzweig, head of research at Dui Hua, which means "dialogue."
"Neither side is making it much of an issue. China seems less and less interested in even playing the game of releases."
Using prisoner lists, European and US officials and Dui Hua founder John Kamm have gained the release of several hundred prisoners held for political crime over the past decade. Tiananmen Square protesters, labor organizers, Tibetan dissidents, and Christians are among them. Many hundreds more have received better treatment. Prisoners identified by overseas groups are labeled "public," a higher category. Such prisoners qualify for early release.
Dui Hua, unlike some human rights groups banned in China, consciously develops a rapport with Chinese authorities on the ground. Mr. Kamm, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, talks with them, and develops guanxi, or influential connections.
Yet this fall, for the first time, the Ministry of Justice in Beijing would not longer accept Kamm's latest list; he was also shut out from a promised visit to a courtroom in Guangdong. This seems part of a larger crackdown on activity viewed as liberal and foreign, as well as areas dealing with expression, like the Chinese media and the Internet. "Restrictions are increasingly coming into play," Kamm finds.
(So, too, local news about political crime has dried up. Prosecutions remain high, with instability in the countryside. But reporting on it has disappeared, according to Human Rights in China.)
Chinese prisoner lists are something Kamm helped innovate. In China, political crime is rarely labeled as such. Sometimes it goes by "endangering state security." But it can be buried under other categories. The prisoner lists are compiled from public documents obtained in all provinces of China - public security yearbooks, court records, gazettes, and encyclopedias. Dui Hua combs local libraries and bookstores. "Most names are just sitting in books or court records," Kamm notes.
Dui Hua defines political prisoners as those "who would not be behind bars if there were channels for them to express themselves politically or openly," says Mr. Rosenzweig.
Shi Tao, the Hunan journalist whose identity was fingered by Yahoo's working with Chinese police, for example, was first discovered by Dui Hua. Mr. Tao received an eight-year prison term for e-mailing a New York democracy group about a newspaper staff meeting.
Mr. Shi's court records were discovered by Dui Hua, translated, later picked up by Human Rights in China Hong Kong office, then passed to Reporters Without Borders in Paris, which sent a press release to news agencies around the world. (The group claims that 60 Chinese are in prison for illegal website creation.)
In his more poetic moments, Kamm says, "I tell people I'm in the extraction industry. I dig for and turn up rare stones and minerals." He also says, "I am in the prisoner list business. I manufacture and distribute lists of Chinese."
Inside Chinese jails, matters such as the health of "public" prisoners must be reported on four times a year. Some public prisoners get extra blankets, better food, and less crowded cells.
"The lists are an important part of the human rights picture," notes Jerome Cohen of New York University Law School, a veteran defense attorney who has handled dissident cases in China for 35 years. "Like criminal defense, it is an area that needs attention."
This summer, Mr. Cohen notes, American Ambassador Clark Randt flew to Shanghai to personally visit an American Chinese who received a heavy prison term for a small-time fraud case, gaining respect in human rights circles. "I don't think I've ever heard of an American ambassador making such a gesture before," says Cohen.
Kamm was living in luxury in Hong Kong in 1990, with "three maids and a Mercedes," when he, by fluke he says, found himself able to push the release of a Hong Kong student sitting in prison in Shanghai in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre. Diplomats and others told Kamm that finding political prisoners was an impossible task. No records were known. "I said, if I can find 100 people it will be worth it," Kamm says. "Since then we've found 4,127."
Political crime is 1 percent of all crime in China. But authorities in the party state view it as the most essential to stamp out, notes Mr. Cohen.
"The police spend as much time and energy solving 1 percent of political cases as all other categories of crime combined," Kamm says.
For example, in the case of an illegal democracy poster put up near a city hall, local police investigated until they found the suspect. Neighborhood handwriting samples were conducted in a wide area around the poster. Some 200 or 300 agents were dispatched.
Dui Hua's work has brought new insights into China's state security. Political criminals are investigated, arrested, and prosecuted through a special branch called "the first section," Dui Hua. The section has motivated and disciplined police with authority to look into all aspects of society. The first section has its own lists - including Chinese monitored outside jail. These are "targeted people." Any Chinese picked up for political crimes, and those later released, are watched. The list also includes "suspicious foreigners," and Kamm tells foreign correspondents they are almost certainly on first-section lists.
No figures are available on China's total political crime population. Kamm estimates he knows about 10 percent of those now in jail. He counts about 3,500 core political prisoners. Separately, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, brutally shut down four years ago, has 2,015 prisoners.
Dui Hua sometimes offers specialized lists to groups like trade unions, or to governments of countries like Norway or Germany, when they ask. Kamm speaks about his prisoners as if they were in fact rare minerals or gems. On a recent visit to Beijing, he spoke to foreign journalists coming armed with a list that included new names. From them, he selected the case of Lian Tong from Shanghai.
"It is a case we hadn't known about before.... We found his name in an intermediate court. He is serving four years in prison for wanting to join a 'foreign hostile organization.' "
The hostile group turned out to be the Democracy Party, a loose-knit outfit that rose up briefly in the mid-1990s, long enough for its members to identify themselves, and then shortly thereafter to get arrested. Kamm says that Mr. Lian joined the remnants of the party, got excited about political freedoms, and posted an essay on the People's Daily website that discussed the terms under which China could develop democracy.
He was later charged with "citing subversion of state power to overthrow socialism." He has been in Tilanqiao Prison for two years and is due to get out on Jan. 16, 2007.
"We'd like to help him," Kamm says.