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In another nod to international human rights concerns, Chinese authorities have freed Wang Dan, one of the most prominent leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

New China News Agency reported yesterday that Mr. Wang, 23, has been paroled almost a half year before his four-year sentence was due to end in July.

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Released at the same time was fellow 1989 dissident Guo Haifeng, who along with Wang was the last of the Tiananmen activists imprisoned for counterrevolutionary crimes, the news agency said.

Wang is the most visible of several dissidents released in recent months by China to placate world outcry over human rights abuses. Beijing's softening toward some political activists comes as the country faces a tougher fight to maintain US trade concessions under the administration of President Clinton.

Mr. Clinton, who singled out Beijing for harsh criticism during the US presidential campaign, will have to decide whether to extend China's most favored nation trading status in June.

The latest release also comes only a few weeks before China hosts an international inspection team for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games.

Beijing is a front-runner for the competition, which the ruling communists see as a linchpin in rebuilding the country's international reputation.

A history undergraduate at prestigious Beijing University in 1989, Wang soared to international prominence as a leader of millions of Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets of Beijing. After the Army massacred hundreds of protesters on June 3 and 4, the student leader headed the government's most wanted list. He was arrested in July 1989.

Although China is trying to buff its image, hundreds of political activists remain in prison. Even as Beijing's aging communist leaders struggle to put 1989 behind them, a number of dissidents involved in earlier protests in the mid-1980s and late 1970s are still under detention.

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Earlier this month, Wang Xizhe, an activist involved in the Democracy Wall protests of 1976, was released from detention in Guangdong Province. But other dissidents of the same era, such as Wei Jingsheng, continue to serve lengthy prison terms.

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