BEIJING -- China, in an unexpected move to show an improving human rights record, announced Thursday the release of 211 people jailed since last year's crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, including several prominent dissidents.
Diplomats believed the release, the second announced since the crackdown, was aimed at blunting lobbying in the U.S. Congress to revoke a preferential trade status for China. Chinese leaders are known to be concerned over impending moves in Washington on the 'most favored nation' status.
Six dissident intellectuals were cited by name, with some believed to have already been released and under house arrest.
The statement, issued by a spokesman of the Ministry of Public Security and carried by the official Xinhua news agency, also said 431 other people were still under investigation and some were being prosecuted.
That number was the first Chinese authorities have given for suspects being investigated. The statement did not, however, say whether all were in custody or whether 431 was the total involved.
Western diplomats and human rights organizations say 10,000 to 30,000 people were arrested or detained in a nationwide dragnet after the Chinese army fired on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing last June 3-4, ending six weeks of demonstrations for greater freedom. At least hundreds died in the crackdown.
The ministry statement said 'another 211 lawbreakers involved in the turmoil and counterrevolutionary rebellion last year have been given lenient treatment and released upon completion of investigations.'
Among those named was Zhou Duo, a former executive of the Beijing Stone Group, a pioneering company that became involved in the protests and whose director, Wan Runnan, fled after the crackdown and now leads overseas dissidents.
Zhou was among four intellectuals who took part in a last-ditch hunger strike last June in Tiananmen Square. At least two others were previously released.
Also named were Cao Siyuan, who headed a Stone Group research institute; Li Honglin, former president of the Fujian Province Academy of Social Sciences; Dai Qing, China's best-known woman journalist, and two other prominent intellectuals.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said, 'We welcome this announcement. We are pleased that the official announcement contained the names of six of those released.'
'We believe that the interests of all parties would be best served by a full public accounting of the number and identity of those detained as well as those released,' Tutwiler said. She said the Chinese have not given any information on the number of political prisoners still in jail.
China has been trying to portray an improved human rights record, both to calm fears of renewed unrest at home before the anniversary of the crackdown and to quiet criticism in Western nations.
Especially troubling has been the 'most favored nation' trade status issue. Revocation, which Congress could base on human rights grounds, would cost China billions of dollars in exports.
President Bush, who must recertify China for MFN status by June 3, last week said he was disappointed in Beijing's lack of gestures on human rights.
'The timing is transparently linked to MFN,' said a Western diplomat. 'The question is how useful it is and how much effect it will have.'
A Chinese student still under investigation said Chinese leaders are showing they are 'afraid of intellectuals.'
'They're warming up a little but it's just on the surface to get our cooperation,' the student said. 'The party wants us to listen to them but not talk back.'
The release was the second announced. The government said Jan. 18 that 573 people were freed after investigations on similar charges.
The ministry spokesman said 431 'lawbreakers' were still being investigated by police, and 'some of the criminal offenders are being dealt with by judicial departments,' meaning prosecution.