HONG KONG -- Until the first of the year, John Kamm was a senior executive for a large American company. He enjoyed all the perks that came with working as an expatriate in this bustling, cosmopolitan harbor city: a sleek gray Mercedes-Benz (and driver), membership in exclusive clubs, a housing allowance and subsidized tuition for his two young sons.

That has all changed. Now he drives his wife's Honda and pays with cash instead of credit cards. Gone are the memberships in the Aberdeen Marina Club, the Clearwater Bay Golf Club and the Pacific Club.

It wasn't the recession or a bad business environment that changed Kamm's lifestyle. It was his conscience. On Jan. 1, the 40-year-old native of Neptune, N.J., resigned as vice president of Occidental Petroleum Corp., a major U.S. oil and chemical company, to pursue full time what had become an all-consuming sideline: lobbying China on human rights.

Kamm believes American business in general should take a more activist approach to human rights. Just as U.S. business is realizing that being pro-environment is good for the bottom line, so too will executives see that the same is true for human rights.

"Human rights is good for business," he said recently. "There is a moral course. You can effect change and be popular with the American people who are your shareholders."

For nearly two years, Kamm has used his longtime China business ties to call attention to the cases of Chinese jailed for their political or religious beliefs. In between trips to sell industrial caustic soda and polyvinyl chloride, he made telephone calls and sent faxes to Beijing and other Chinese cities about Chinese students and Catholic bishops.

Last spring, he became involved in a case that he says changed his life. He helped win the freedom of two young men, the Li brothers, who had fled to Hong Kong after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. After they were assured of clemency by Chinese officials, they returned to their native Hunan Province, in southern China, where they were immediately arrested and tortured with electric cattle prods, he said.

"These guys were nobodies. They were in the bowels of the system, and out of the darkness, a cry of help was heard," Kamm said. At the request of a friend from a human rights organization, Kamm agreed to help. His efforts, along with those of human rights groups and former president Jimmy Carter, finally led to the release of the Li brothers last August.

"I felt responsible in some way for saving a couple guys," Kamm said. "The parents wrote me this letter, how I saved their boys' lives. ... It was written in this beautiful calligraphy, and I sat there with my wife and read it. I didn't cry, but I was pretty choked up. It was very powerful."

After that, Kamm realized he would not be able to balance his more rewarding human rights work with the demands of a multinational corporation. So he gave up the corporate business. (He is still a consultant to several U.S. and Hong Kong companies and has recently started a newsletter about China-related legislation in Congress.)

Using what he calls a nonconfrontational but persistent approach, Kamm figures he has helped win the freedom of 68 individuals since June 1990. His method is low-key. He goes to Beijing in a private capacity. He speaks to officials as "a friend of China."

The Chinese appear to take him seriously. He meets frequently with a wide range of ministerial level officials from the judicial, prosecutory and police organs. In one trip last year, a senior Chinese leader told him bluntly that Beijing does not like to be humiliated and told what to do. But "if friends come and treat us with respect, we will consider releasing people," Kamm recalled the leader as saying.

Kamm does brief U.S. government officials about his discussions, but he does not consult them. Nor does he belong to any other human rights group.

His greatest credibility, he says, comes from being one of the most outspoken advocates for renewing China's most-favored-nation trading status with the United States. As a former president of Hong Kong's powerful American Chamber of Commerce, Kamm has testified before Congress numerous times on the importance of keeping trade and commercial ties with China.

Kamm, son of a whiskey salesman, is an unpretentious man whose rumpled appearance stands in sharp contrast to the elegantly outfitted expatriates living in Hong Kong, and he clearly relishes his new job. He plans to write a book and to someday teach a human rights course at a business school back in the United States.

Kamm is no stranger to the region. After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in anthropology, he arrived in 1972 to be a school teacher in the Portuguese enclave of Macao, just across the Pearl River from Hong Kong. He went on to teach sociology at Chinese University in Hong Kong, and experienced firsthand some of the turmoil on the Chinese mainland of the disastrous Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. He hired a tutor to learn Cantonese.

Except for graduate work at Harvard University in East Asian studies and economics, he has stayed in Hong Kong. He started his own chemical company, doing business with China. The company was eventually bought out by Diamond Shamrock Corp., whose chemical business was in turn acquired by Occidental in 1986.

Many of Kamm's business colleagues praise his efforts but say there are pitfalls in being identified too closely with human rights, especially in China.

"If business is seen as overtly pushing human rights issues, that might undermine the ability to do business here {in China}, because everything here is politics," said one Western business observer in Beijing.

Gareth Chang, president of McDonnell Douglas Corp.'s Asia Pacific division and chairman of Hong Kong's American Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber will focus on the human rights issue as part of an overall discussion this year of U.S.-China relations.

"Clearly human rights has an important role in John's own view, but the world doesn't begin or end on human rights," Chang said of Kamm.

Kamm says neither he nor any of his salesman at Occidental ever experienced any repercussions because of his human rights lobbying. In fact, many Chinese have told him that they support Americans who take a strong stand.

"You have to remember that China has changed," he said. "Decisions have been decentralized. Now there are thousands of potential customers. For every customer who might possibly be offended, I can tell you there are five or six who will actually give you business."

The moral underpinnings for his argument are grounded in the philosophy of Abraham Lincoln. He is particularly fond of one passage, which reads: "Free labor has the inspiration of hope; pure slavery has no hope. The power of hope upon human exertion, and happiness, is wonderful."

For Kamm, the business applications are only too clear.

"The more freedom, the more productivity, the more profit," he explained. "It's good for business."