BEIJING - Last May, police detained Li Guangqiang, a Hong Kong businessman, for smuggling thousands of Bibles to a Christian sect in China. Under the nation's anti-cult law, Li, 38, faced charges that human rights activists feared could cost him his life.
President Bush asked the State Department last month to investigate Li's case. Last weekend, mentioning concern for Li's health - he has hepatitis B - the Chinese government suddenly set him free.
"It was remarkable," said Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who has worked as a legal adviser to the families of Chinese prisoners. "One minute the guy is charged with an offense that could get him a death penalty; the next minute, he is out."
Li's reversal of fortune was extraordinary, but the circumstances surrounding his release were not. Every year, China detains people because of their politics or religious practices. Then, just before a visit by a major U.S. official, Beijing lets a few out to generate goodwill and improve its international image.
Human rights activists refer to the practice as "hostage politics" and see it as a cynical exercise in public relations. In advance of President Bush's arrival here for a two-day visit beginning Thursday, the Chinese government is again using prisoners like poker chips.
"That's the most disheartening aspect of this process," says Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director for Asia, for Human Rights Watch. "In some cases, these individuals become pawns in a power game between these two governments."(Police detained more than 40 foreigners yesterday in Tiananmen Square after the largest demonstration to date by overseas members of the banned spiritual meditation group, Falun Gong. Foreigners detained on the square were "reprimanded" but treated humanely by authorities, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It accused them of violating laws barring illegal assemblies and "evil cults" - Beijing's official designation for Falun Gong.)
In addition to Li, last month China released Ngawang Choephel, a Tibetan musicologist who attended Vermont's Middlebury College as a Fulbright scholar in the mid-1990s. Choephel, 36, was making a documentary film on Tibetan music and dance when he was arrested in 1995. He had served one-third of an 18-year sentence on spying charges.
Officials in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia also released a U.S.-based businessman last month from detention in a Chinese hospital. The businessman, Liu Yaping, had been held on charges of tax evasion. He says he has been beaten unconsciousness by police.
Cohen, who is advising Liu's family, says his client is a casualty in a local power struggle. Liu, 48, has permanent resident status in the United States, but he cannot leave the Chinese city where he is staying, Hohot, or the country because officials refuse to return his Chinese passport.
Human rights activists and prisoners' families are naturally glad when the government frees prisoners, but they say such releases do nothing to change China's systemic repression.
"I'm happy for those individuals," said Xiao Qiang, executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based group. "But it is pure PR, window-dressing by the Chinese government."
In the past, the release of certain prisoners convinced some activists that the world's last major communist regime was beginning to loosen its political stranglehold on the country. But after each round of releases, the government usually cracks down again.
Take the case of Wang Dan, one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. In advance of President Bill Clinton's visit here in June 1998, Wang was released from his 11-year sentence for "plotting to subvert the government."
At the time, Chinese dissident Qin Yongmin hailed Wang's release as a sign of greater political openness. "Otherwise, I would not be here to be interviewed," Qin said at the time.
By the end of the year, Qin was behind bars, serving a 12-year sentence for helping organize the China Democracy Party, the nation's first opposition political organization.
After the crackdown on the Tiananmen democracy movement in which Chinese soldiers slaughtered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters, human rights took center stage in China-U.S. relations.
Clinton threatened a trade war with China unless it improved its record. When it became clear China wouldn't budge, Clinton backed down, and human rights began to play a smaller role.
Since Clinton's visit to Beijing, the most recent by a U.S. president, the country's human rights practices have worsened.
In 1999, the regime outlawed Falun Gong and detained thousands of adherents. The group claims that 350 practitioners have died from torture or mistreatment while in custody.
Local officials have also conducted demolition campaigns to destroy churches that refuse to submit to government control. In South China's Fujian province, police engineered the dynamiting of about 20 churches.
Human Rights in China estimates that the regime holds at least 5,000 political and religious prisoners, including Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan independence activists, labor organizers and democracy advocates. Most languish in anonymity.
The three prisoners freed in the past month were rarities. Li was released because his case involved something highly symbolic - Bibles - and captured the attention of President Bush. Liu, the businessman held in Inner Mongolia, got out because his wife hired Cohen, who lobbied U.S. lawmakers to press for his release.
And Choephel, the Tibetan filmmaker, was freed because of his connection to Vermont, where friends and the state's congressional delegation appealed to the Chinese government on his behalf.
While the sudden release of individual prisoners continues to generate attention in the West, quieter efforts for institutional change in China's legal system are likely to have a broader impact.
Appealing to the Communist Party's desire to reform and modernize the country's legal system, scholars here and abroad are pressing for the abolition of such antiquities as "re-education-through-labor" camps.
The camps, which hold an estimated 260,000 inmates, permit officials to hold people for up to three years without trial. While the camps house some political dissidents, the vast majority of detainees are petty criminals, including drug users and prostitutes.
"To abolish the system of 're-education-through-labor,' to lay out a possible process for doing so, that would be a major step forward," said Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch.
If history is any guide, the trickle of prisoners will probably halt after Bush leaves Beijing. Cohen, the American attorney, says officials have told his client, Liu, "that until Bush's departure from Beijing, they are going easy on him. But when [Bush] leaves, officials have said: 'You better remember, we can sock it to you.'"