In China's first concession on human rights since President Clinton replaced a policy of public confrontation with "constructive engagement," Beijing has released one of the country's top dissidents.
Wei Jingsheng, the most outspoken advocate of political reforms in China since the 1949 Communist revolution, was freed on medical parole Sunday and immediately sent into exile in the United States.
His freedom came just weeks after the first US-China summit since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, and in the middle of a debate between President Clinton and Congress over how to change China's human rights record.
During President Jiang Zemin's state visit to the US two weeks ago, a number of human rights groups criticized the Clinton administration's "quiet diplomacy" for failing to bring about basic rights improvements in China.
Since then, Clinton and Congress have been jousting over whether engagement or censure is best suited to halting Beijing's use of police and prisons to silence dissent.
The House of Representatives recently passed a package of measures aimed at censuring China, and last week in Beijing, US Ambassador to China James Sasser issued a rare public call for the release of political prisoners here.
Mr. Sasser, a former senator, said he "was personally disappointed that a prominent dissident was not released" in the aftermath of Mr. Jiang's visit to the US.
Sasser said that as Congress debated whether to use stronger measures to confront the Chinese leadership, "a public gesture by Beijing on human rights would allow the Clinton administration to do more to help China."
Sasser added that he hoped the scope and size of protests that followed Jiang during his seven-city tour of the US had made the Chinese leader realize "human rights concerns ... flow genuinely from the American people."
The American envoy said Nov. 13 that Washington wanted to see additional dissident releases before Clinton's visit to China, which is slated for next year.
Days later, Beijing put Mr. Wei on a US-bound jet, but the man known as "the father of China's democracy movement" is unlikely to be permitted to return until the present leadership here exits the political stage.
"We welcome the release of Wei Jingsheng as proof that the Chinese government does respond to international pressure," says Mike Jendrzejczyk, the Washington-based director of Human Rights Watch/Asia.
Mr. Jendrzejczyk added that China probably released Wei only because Clinton's engagement policy had been matched by world-wide public criticism.
Wei, a former worker at the Beijing Zoo, has spent most of his adult life in jail.
In 1994 during a brief period of freedom following more than 14 years in prison, Wei met with John Shattuck, the US State Department's top official on human rights.
The meeting was intended to symbolize Clinton's sympathy for political dissidents in China. But months later, Clinton abruptly changed gears and delinked China's trade status with the US from Beijing's human rights policies.
Wei was subsequently charged with conspiring to overthrow the government, and his talks with Mr. Shattuck were used against him during a rushed trial.
Jendrzejczyk says that when Clinton stopped using trade as a means to influence Beijing's rights policies, he "found no alternative tool" to bring about the same results.
He adds that only a combination of Clinton's carrots and Congress's sticks is likely to bring about systemic changes in China's political controls on its 1.2 billion citizens.
When Wei arrives in the US, he will join about 250,000 Chinese compatriots, including leaders of the failed 1989 democracy movement who were smuggled out of China after troops cleared student demonstrators from Tiananmen Square.
Wei's calls for democratic change in 1979, and his 15-year prison term on charges of inciting counterrevolution, helped spark the massive antigovernment protests that swept like wildfire throughout China's cities and campuses eight years ago.
Petitions for Wei's release before the massacre, in early 1989, gained widespread support among Chinese intellectuals, and anger over Beijing's quick rejection of the appeals set the stage for the battle of wills between Chinese students and their rulers that ended at Tiananmen.
Clinton had long privately lobbied for the release of Wei and fellow pro-democracy activist Wang Dan - both jailed for peacefully advocating American-style protections for freedom of speech and assembly. At his press conference here, Ambassador Sasser added that the US still "hopes for additional progress on the human rights front."