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Activist compare U.S. and China

Katie Perry | Wednesday, March 16, 2005

With his salt and pepper hair, large wire-rimmed glasses and unassuming demeanor, it is hard to imagine John Kamm in the desolate setting of a Chinese prison. But the executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation – and this year’s O’Grady Asia Lecture Series featured speaker – has worked on behalf of political and religious inmates for over 15 years and tallied over 100 visits to the region for his cause.Kamm’s Tuesday presentation, “Civil Rights, Human Rights: The Struggle for Justice in the United States and China,” emphasized the intrinsic parallels between American Civil Rights activity of the 1950s and 1960s and the struggles faced by contemporary Chinese society.The 1972 Princeton graduate explained his human rights career as almost inevitable given the social and historical context of his own coming of age. Kamm listed such events as the Medgar Evers murder, the March on Washington and the Asbury Park riots of the 1970s – which occurred just miles from his childhood home – as incidents which shaped his eventual life course.”I took away the bedrock belief that social change is best achieved through nonviolence, even when the cost is high,” Kamm said.One of the most fundamental comparisons between post-World War II America and 21st century China is that both societies are defined by their immense economic growth and the subsequent widening of the gap between the wealthy and the poo, Kamm said. It is this disparity that spurs frustration and conflict, Kamm said.”It is striking to examine the two societies because the profits of nonviolence arise precisely at the time of greatest tension,” Kamm said.Continuing to link the two movements, Kamm compared the likes of American Civil Rights activists Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Robert Moses to present-day Christian practitioners in China who, although vehemently nonviolent, have been detained for political crimes.”Both [groups of individuals] are members of movements that seek to awake the conscience of the people,” Kamm said.His own conscience was awakened in May of 1990 when he first took the plunge into human rights activism. Kamm opted to walk away from his career as a successful businessman for a large cooperation in order to advance this cause. In 1999, he established and chaired the Dui Hua Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving human rights in China.The Foundation prided itself on its establishment of an elaborate database containing names and related information for more than 9,000 political and religious prisoners incarcerated in China.Recently, his meticulous efforts have paid off. Last month, in an iconoclastic move made by Beijing government officials, information on 56 prisoners was ceded to Dui Hua – without prior solicitation. The gesture could, Kamm said, present a watershed event in terms of international access to prison records in China.The concession of records, as prompted by growing pressures from the international community, draws another significant comparison to the Civil Rights movement, said Kamm. American racial policies criticized abroad adversely affected diplomatic relations with other nations and thus spurred domestic social change.”International pressure pushed forward the American Civil Rights revolution,” Kamm said. “I am grateful to those who criticized us.”Despite significant milestones reached by the foundation, Kamm and his coworkers realize their work is far from over. In fact, given the current circumstances of a China marked by rapid economic growth, the time has never been more appropriate to move forward these advancements in human rights, according to Kamm.”We should push for more concrete improvements in China because the country is rising so fast,” Kamm said.According to Kamm, the mindsets of American human rights activists – and citizens of the US in general – reflect concern over the kind of superpower China will inevitably be: democratic or authoritarian.Citing the Civil Rights movement as a large influence in his own approach to the human rights issue in China, Kamm embraces the value of vociferous perseverance in the name of moral good by continuing to investigate the identities of the innumerable political dissidents help captive in the grim penitentiaries of China.”We find the names of the lost and forgotten, and we present them to power,” Kamm said. “Sometimes lives are changed, even saved.”

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