When Wang Dan was first released from prison, in 1993--one month before an inspection tour by Olympic officials looking at Beijing as a possible site for the 2000 Summer Games--he had business cards printed up with a background of blue sky and clouds carrying his name and title: "Wang Dan, Free Man."
However, once the political utility of his release expired--Beijing lost its bid for the Olympics--Wang, 28, leader of the 1989 student movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, was placed back in detention for 17 months and eventually sentenced to prison on charges of "subversion." Those included evidence that he had enrolled in a history correspondence course offered by the University of California.
Given this background, there was relief but little celebrating Sunday among international human rights organizations and Chinese democracy proponents after Wang's release and exile to the United States on "medical parole."
This latest such release, only two months before a planned trip to China by President Clinton, falls into a familiar pattern in which China's handful of prominent dissidents are used--and reused--by the Beijing regime in a cynical game of political diplomacy.
While Wang may be free in the United States, he has been effectively removed from the political arena where he has enjoyed considerable status, in jail and out.
"Is he really a free man?" asked exiled labor leader Han Dongfang in a telephone interview from his home in Hong Kong. "The policy is clear: Throw out all the troublemakers and the people speaking the truth, and make the people in the country keep quiet."
Han, who was active in the Tiananmen demonstrations, was also exiled on "medical parole" and, despite many attempts to return to his homeland, has been banned from the mainland.
Likewise, prominent democracy crusader Wei Jingsheng--imprisoned for 14 years, released, rearrested and reimprisoned by the government--was freed into the nether world of "medical" exile last fall, less than a month after Chinese President and Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin concluded a successful summit in Washington.
Two other political activists, Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, once partners in a politically liberal think tank here, have been repeatedly jailed and released when it was politically expedient.
Chen, 46, labeled by the government as a "black hand" behind the 1989 demonstrations, was released from prison in 1994, one month before a vote in the U.S. Congress on China's most-favored-nation trade status. He was rearrested in 1995 and re-released in 1996, 10 days before a visit to China by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Chen, who is suffering from cancer, remains in China, but he is banned from making contact with foreign journalists.
Wang Juntao, 39, was released from prison on "medical" grounds and sent into exile in the United States in April 1994, also before the trade vote in Congress.
"What we are seeing," said Robin Munro, a Hong Kong-based representative of Human Rights Watch/Asia, "is an absolute carbon copy of what the Soviets used to do. They would choose detainees who had name recognition in the West and release them before important international meetings or summits. The Chinese government has realized that these dissidents are really quite valuable bargaining chips that can be recycled as well."
Underlying concerns about the pattern of carefully timed releases of dissidents, often including exile, is the idea that in the long run, China's Communist government comes out ahead by exploiting the international community's penchant for focusing world attention on one or two key dissidents.
Wang Dan, for example, was the last internationally known dissident still incarcerated here. But the articulate young leader, who was widely admired and respected even in government circles because of his relatively moderate political positions, was probably a more powerful international rallying point in jail in China than he will be free in the United States.
Historically, exiled dissidents have played important roles in changing China. The downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, in fact, can be traced to the overseas organization of Sun Yat-sen, who still has an honored position--alongside Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V. I. Lenin, Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung--in the modern pantheon of China's heroes.
But changes in the overseas Chinese community, particularly the extent of investment in China, which has increased the financial interest in political stability here, have hindered the latest batch of dissidents from winning widespread support in the increasingly divided international ethnic Chinese community.
In fact, according to government sources here, Wang's release came after the government carefully reviewed the consequences of its freeing of Wei, under nearly identical circumstances, in November. Like Wang, Wei was secretly granted a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and placed aboard a Northwest Airlines weekend flight bound for Detroit.
Since his release, Wei, 47, has taken up residence at Columbia University in New York, testified before Congress and traveled widely to foreign capitals to meet politicians and appear before human rights forums.
Sunday in Rome, where he was visiting as a guest of Italy's Radical Party, Wei linked Wang's release to international criticism of Beijing's human rights record. He told Associated Press: "I think the Chinese Communist Party wants to diminish the pressure that's being exerted on it. That's why they are liberating us one by one."
He added: "When people are being used as pawns in a kind of market, how can you say there has been a bettering of human rights?"
In the Chinese government's estimation, however, Wei too posed more threat to China's image when he was in jail than he does in freedom outside the country. While he has impressed many, Wei, who spent nearly 20 years in the depths of the prison system here, has alienated others, particularly in the factionalized overseas dissident community.
By freeing Wei, Wang and other dissidents, the government here is making what one human rights activist described as a "utilitarian calculation" that they will eventually join the ranks of other exiled, once prominent dissidents who have since faded into oblivion.
Once they are gone, there are few easily recognized names to replace them.
According to official reports, China's prison system still holds nearly 2,000 political prisoners jailed under the country's notorious "counterrevolutionary" statutes. Those laws were finally repealed last year, but, despite appeals from Human Rights Watch/Asia and other organizations, the government has so far refused to review the cases of people convicted of breaking them who remain in jail.
In addition, an estimated 200,000 Chinese have been sent to "reeducation through labor" camps across China, often for political activities. But few of these people have the name recognition of a handful of prominent dissidents who have already been exiled.
"We have hundreds and hundreds of cases on file," said Munro, of Human Rights Watch/Asia. "Many are very shocking cases where the person has been in jail for 15 years or more simply for having said what he thinks."
Contributing to this report were Times Hong Kong Bureau Chief Maggie Farley and, in Beijing, special correspondent Anthony Kuhn.