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China is once again engaging in human rights diplomacy. This week the government in Beijing released dissident Xu Wenli, one of the country’s most famous human rights activists. It is tempting to applaud this long-overdue development, but the truth is that Mr. Xu should not have been in jail in the first place. Worse, his release is more proof of China’s readiness to use human beings as pawns in its attempts to forge better relations with the United States. This practice must stop.

Mr. Xu, now in his late 50s, has spent more than 16 of the last 21 years in prison as a result of his political activities. He was first jailed in 1982 after being convicted of “counterrevolutionary activities”; in fact, his crime was advocating more political freedom for Chinese and participating in the Democracy Wall movement of 1979. He was in prison for 12 years and was released in 1993.

Unbowed, Mr. Xu continued to campaign for more freedom. He was arrested again five years later, this time for “the crime” of helping to organize an opposition democracy party. The Chinese government moved quickly to crush the fledgling movement and arrested and imprisoned its founders and supporters. He was charged with “secretly planning the founding of the so-called Beijing and Tianjin regional Party Committee of the China Democracy Party, with the purpose of subverting state power.” His trial lasted only 3 1/2 hours.

Mr. Xu was diagnosed with hepatitis shortly after returning to prison. The authorities were prepared to let him go into exile abroad under the terms of a medical parole, but he refused the offer. As his condition worsened, pressure on the Chinese government to release him increased, as did pressure on Mr. Xu, by his family, to accept exile abroad.

Mr. Xu’s release owes much to the sustained pressure of human rights activists around the world, for whom he is a poster child, and the U.S. government. Earlier this month, Mr. Lorne Cramer, the ranking human rights official at the U.S. State Department, visited China and pressed for Mr. Xu’s release along with that of thousands of other Chinese detained on human rights charges. By one estimate, 3,000 people have been charged with “state security offenses” — previously known as “counterrevolutionary activities,” in turn a shorthand for demanding more political freedom — and 90 percent of them have been sent to prison. The other cofounders of the China Democracy Party remain in jail.

Human rights activists credit Mr. Xu’s release to Beijing’s desire for better relations with the U.S. Mr. Cramer’s visit marked the resumption of an official human rights dialogue between the U.S. and China. During his visit, Mr. Cramer reportedly pushed China to release more than 200 political prisoners. Earlier this week, China did release two labor leaders detained earlier in the year for organizing worker protests. According to Mr. Cramer, China has also agreed to reissue invitations to the U.N. special rapporteurs on torture, religious freedom and the arbitrary detention working group.

There is concern that Chinese concessions come at a high price. For example, human rights groups worry that Washington was too quick to add the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group that wants independence for Xinjiang, one of China’s western provinces, to its list of terror organizations. They fear the move will justify Beijing’s crackdown on dissent in the province and elsewhere. Only days after Mr. Cramer visited Xinjiang, a local political leader called for an intensified effort against separatists and religious extremists.

Although the U.S. has specifically denied endorsing the Chinese crackdown against dissidents, it continues nonetheless. This week’s releases follow a string of arrests. They include a number of individuals whose only crime was posting prodemocracy articles on the Internet or signing a petition addressed to the Communist Party Congress in November that called for a reversal of the official verdict damning the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests.

Clearly, Beijing’s release of high-profile activists cannot be mistaken for genuine respect for human rights. The government’s conditioning of release upon foreign exile is proof that it is not serious about making progress in this field. Worse, China has a ready supply of dissidents that it can use for leverage when dealing with the West.

To Beijing, human rights campaigners are nuisances to be crushed or used as circumstances dictate. That is the reality of China’s “respect” for human rights. It takes much of the joy out of celebrating Mr. Xu’s release.

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