The country's leadership, long sensitive to the embarrassment of releasing dissidents, is showing more confidence and flexibility.
The arrival of the celebrated Chinese rights activist Chen Guangcheng in the U.S. after years of prison and house arrest raises the larger question of what the whole incident will come to mean in terms of the status of dissidents in China and in U.S.-China relations.
In the years immediately following its suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989, the Chinese government often did respond to pressure from Western governments by reluctantly releasing a jailed dissident or two before critical events when it felt the country had something at stake. But, the experience of feeling compelled to yield to Western demands -- never mind how just they were -- was still one fraught with such historical sensitivity, that it was agonizingly painful for Beijing to do so. High officials continued to give in only because yielding to U.S. or European demands did help smooth the way towards getting something else that they wanted or needed, such as an important summit meeting between presidents, prime ministers or foreign secretaries or attaining some other long-sought goal like the rights to hold an Olympic Games. But, as China's rise continued to bolster its clout in the world, the Chinese government soon became far more resistant to such foreign pressure.
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At the same time, another quite counter-intuitive revelation seemed to dawn on Chinese leaders. Just as they were becoming more resistant to pressure, they also seemed to conclude that in certain instances, it was probably better to just exile dissidents and "get them off the lot," so to speak, so that they would not continue to be an endless source of damaging international criticism and bad publicity. They seemed to pragmatically conclude that the cost/benefit ratio of yielding to outside pressure and removing the source of the irritation and contention was actually pretty favorable to them.