Under pressure from Washington, China yesterday released the student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising from a political gulag and sent him into exile in the United States.
Wang Dan, who has spent most of his adult life behind bars, was freed just two months before President Clinton is slated to visit Beijing. American officials had suggested the summit might hinge on Mr. Wang's release.
Mr. Clinton is scheduled to arrive here in late June and will be the first US president to visit since the Chinese Army opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators who occupied the huge square in central Beijing to press their peaceful calls for change.
US Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering said earlier this month in Beijing that "the US considers the release of dissidents an important part of its policy objectives."
The 1989 killings of up to 2,000 protesters, by Western estimates, at Tiananmen led to a freeze on Sino-US ties. Leaders on both sides of the Pacific now are trying to forge a rapprochement. The continued jailing of thousands of political, religious, and Tibetan activists here has triggered widespread criticism of Clinton's policy of engagement with China. It is unclear whether the release of a single dissident will silence critics.
Mr. Pickering, who has held high-level meetings with his Chinese counterparts, said that he had "made the case very strongly about such [dissident] releases."
Wang's mother, Wang Lingyun, says, "I feel a great sense of relief that Wang Dan has finally been freed from prison, but also a great sense of loss that I may never see my son again." Dissidents who have been exiled in the past are routinely barred from reentering the country.
Wang's release is unlikely to signal a wider loosening of controls on peaceful dissent. Despite his departure, Chinese police continue to surround his family's apartment. Yesterday, they briefly detained a Cable News Network crew that attempted to interview Wang's mother.
But the freeing of prominent dissidents shows "the Chinese government is responsive to international pressure when it flagrantly abuses rights in the case of political prisoners," says Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese law at Columbia University in New York.
"Real progress on the human-rights front," Professor Nathan adds, will require "systemwide change" in the laws that still allow China to imprison its critics for peacefully advocating reform.
Wang had been detained in a frigid jail cell in northeast China and denied medical treatment for a number of ailments. Despite his being held incommunicado, he remained immensely popular in the Chinese capital and on university campuses.
In 1989 Wang captivated audiences throughout China during a rare, televised debate with then-Premier Li Peng. Wang voiced many of the complaints ordinary Chinese had against government corruption and abuse of power.
In the weeks following the Army's crackdown at Tiananmen, Wang was put on the party's most-wanted list. He was captured in a nationwide manhunt.
Hard-line former Premier Li "was adamantly opposed to freeing Wang Dan," says a party official in Beijing.
Wang's release may signal the decline of Mr. Li and the rise of moderate, pragmatic figures, the official adds.
Li, who now heads parliament, is the most likely figure to be tried if the Communist Party were to change its verdict on Tiananmen. China claims that student leaders like Wang, rather than Li and the other masterminds behind the Army's crackdown, caused the massive casualties.