FOR a year, Western voices called on Chinese leaders to allow astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuxian to safely leave their sanctuary in the US embassy in Beijing. Happily, that event has taken place. Fang is in England, where he will do research at Cambridge University. Fang's release partly vindicates George Bush's recent decision to renew most favored nation (MFN) status for China - though we think Mr. Bush should have made MFN renewal conditional on clear human rights improvements in China.
Important as Fang's release is, it hardly constitutes a change of heart in Beijing. Allowing Fang to leave was easy for China's leaders. It makes for good public relations prior to two events - Congress's upcoming vote on upholding MFN for China and the July 9 Group of Seven economic summit in Houston, where sanctions against China will be reviewed.
Since the bloodletting in Tiananmen Square last June, most commercial bank loans to Beijing have been cut off. Swapping one troublesome, pesky dissident for a possible renewal of millions of dollars is a pretty good deal. In a cynical twist, Fang can be used by Beijing as a symbol of improved treatment of China's political prisoners.
What the high-profile Fang actually symbolizes is some 30,000 dissidents still imprisoned in China, according to Asia Watch. That Fang must go into exile symbolizes the ugly grip Beijing has on all forms of internal questioning. For example, officials have just dismantled the respected Shanghai World Economic Herald, a newspaper of conscience for China's democracy movement.
A fundamental political regeneration is needed in China. Fang can speak of this in the West. While he agreed upon release not to engage in activities against China, this should not prevent Fang from critiquing China since, as he points out, he has nothing against the nation of China at all. It's China's corrupt leaders he must speak the truth about.
In Fang's view, China's leaders are on the run. As he wrote last year: ``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.''