BEIJING — CHINA has freed leading dissident Fang Lizhi and his wife to leave the country after a year of refuge in the United States Embassy in Beijing, the government announced yesterday. The release of Mr. Fang, an internationally known astrophysicist, and his wife, Prof. Li Shuxian, marks a bold gesture in what appears increasingly to be a systematic effort by China's hard-line leadership to improve its image abroad.
US State Department spokesman Marlin Fitzwater hailed the Chinese decision as ``a humanitarian action'' that will improve ``the atmosphere for progress in our bilateral relations.''
In recent weeks, Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping has acknowledged the government's partial responsibility for the Beijing massacre on June 3-4 of last year.
Beijing has also freed several other well-known dissidents detained after the bloody crackdown on the student-led democracy protests. The total number of Chinese released is nearly 900.
The actions seem part of a concerted drive by the regime to persuade the West and Japan to ease political and economic sanctions imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Fang's release comes as the leaders of the US, Western Europe, and Japan prepare to reassess their China policies at a summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in early July, according to official sources.
In coming days, China will dispatch its highest-level officials to travel to the US and Japan since last June in a lobbying effort to regain access to critical foreign loans and investment.
Beijing yesterday characterized its release of the Fangs as ``lenient treatment,'' the official New China News Agency (NCNA) reported.
The state-run agency said Fang and his wife had met two of Beijing's conditions for their release by writing statements admitting their opposition to Communist Party rule and pledging not to engage in antigovernment activities after leaving China.
``In view of the signs of repentance by Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian ... the Beijing Public Security Bureau has decided to allow them to go abroad,'' NCNA said. The decision is ``in line with China's policy of leniency toward those who participated in the disturbances,'' it added.
Nevertheless, many Chinese intellectuals who spoke out against government abuses last year remain in jail, with some facing long sentences as ``counterrevolutionaries,'' according to Chinese sources and human rights groups.
The Fangs were scheduled to arrive in London on Monday and has accepted an invitation to teach at Cambridge University.
Fang and Li, a professor at Beijing University, took refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing June 5, 1989, as Chinese troops and tanks crushed democracy protests that had spread nationwide. Days later, China issued warrants for the Fangs' arrest and tightened security around the US Embassy.
Since then, China's official propaganda has vilified Fang as a traitor who instigated an antigovernment ``rebellion,'' an advocate of the ``wholesale Westernization'' of China, and one who ``dreamed of extinguishing the Chinese race.''
Fang's blistering attacks on the failure of communism and bold calls for democracy had long made him a target of attack by Chinese leaders - while earning him a reputation as ``China's Andrei Sakharov.''
Fang's opposition to Communist rule grew out of years of persecution under Mao Zedong's fanatical political campaigns, when, like millions of other Chinese intellectuals, he was forced to perform manual labor.
``Since 1949, the Communist Party has used intellectuals as its tool,'' Fang told the Monitor in 1988.
As vice president of a university, Fang advocated democratic reforms on Chinese campuses. His speeches inspired student protests that spread nationwide in 1986. Communist Party leaders cracked down on the students and expelled Fang from the party in January 1987.
But Fang refused to be intimidated, despite restrictions imposed on his travel abroad and public appearances in China.
In January 1989, he wrote to Mr. Deng calling for amnesty for China's political prisoners.
His warnings against the regime's abuses continued during his seclusion at the US Embassy.
``Remember that in the current climate of terror, it may well be that those who are most terrified are those who have just finished killing their fellow human beings,'' Fang wrote in a speech delivered on his behalf last November. ``We may be forced to live under a terror today, but we have no fear of tomorrow.''