Beijing first indicated the release of Wei Jingsheng was on the cards when Justice Minister Xiao Yang hinted in September that the veteran dissident would be eligible if he met 'certain conditions'. Although Mr Xiao did not make a clear commitment at the time, he obviously drew a line between Mr Wei and former student leader Wang Dan whom he said was too healthy to qualify for parole. Negotiations between Beijing and Washington over the release of dissidents started months ago but picked up when President Jiang Zemin's US state visit neared. US officials had clearly indicated to their Chinese counterparts that any releases should be of a magnitude sufficient to match the pomp and ceremony the US afforded Mr Jiang during his state visit. The first clear indication that a move was pending came last Thursday when US Ambassador James Sasser said that more releases of mainland dissidents would come in the 'next few weeks'. The release was apparently held back until after Mr Jiang's visit to avoid embarrassment to the President when he was in the US and to ensure that Mr Jiang, not Mr Wei, would receive maximum publicity from the visit. Lau Chin-shek, ousted legislator and a core member of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, characterised Mr Wei's release as an exchange between China and the US. Robin Munro of Human Rights Watch/Asia said the release was to thank the United States for its treatment of Mr Jiang during his recent visit. 'This is China's way of saying 'thank you' to the Clinton administration for giving President Jiang a full ceremonial state visit to Washington,' he said. China started the hostage game years ago when the US took a hardline stance in confronting Beijing on issues ranging from the Olympic Games to annual renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status. The 'exchanges' reached their height in 1993 when Mr Wei was first released from jail. The release was widely believed to be tied with Beijing's attempt to land the 2000 Olympics. It was followed seven months later with the exile to the US of Tiananmen Square dissident Wang Juntao, and his partner Chen Ziming was released months ahead of the annual MFN renewal.