The MacArthur Foundation doles out these $500,000 prizes to very special people each year (they’re usually referred to as “genius awards,” as they often go to artists). That they’ve chosen John Kamm is unusual and inspiring.
Kamm, 53, was a successful businessman and a president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong when he suddenly veered off career course to become an unlikely, but highly successful, champion of Chinese political detainees.
Using business leverage and a non-confrontational approach, Kamm has succeeded in securing the release or improving the conditions of hundreds of jailed political activists, including some extremely high-profile dissidents.
Kamm’s conversion to human rights lobbyist was triggered by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protestors in Beijing.
“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,” the MacArthur Foundation said in its citation.
“He has demonstrated his approach as an effective means of addressing contentious human rights issues with Beijing,” it added.
In a statement, Kamm said he would use the 500,000 prize to further the lobbying work of his San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, of which he is executive director.
“Business people can contribute to the advance of human rights in ways previously thought not possible, notably by collecting information on political prisoners and advocating their release to officials of countries where they trade and invest,” Kamm said.
It always amazes me when “ordinary people” step up and do something unexpected, something extraordinary, something that makes a difference for the entire planet. I read about people like this and I feel renewed hope for the planet, even if the Republicans win the White House again.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.