On July 2, Jude Shao, an American businessman who had been incarcerated in Shanghai since April 1998, walked out of Qingpu Prison after being released on parole. A graduate of Stanford University’s School of Business and a Shanghai native, Shao was arrested in that city on charges of fraud and tax evasion tied to his medical-equipment export business—charges that many believe were concocted by authorities. Sentenced in 2000 to 16 years’ imprisonment, Shao had served over 10 years in prison by the time of his parole. His long-sought release has been heralded as a step forward in human rights diplomacy, reflecting both a warming of US-China relations and a commitment to respecting China’s own laws and regulations governing parole.

The parole closely followed the resumption of the official Sino-US dialogue on May 26, when Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human rights and Labor David Kramer held talks with a delegation led by Wu Hailong of China’s Foreign Ministry. Before then, the official dialogue had been frozen for more than five years. Shao left prison within two days after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held cordial talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and other officials in Beijing, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

That the parole was the effective result of Shao’s frequent appearance on prisoner lists and recent normalization of human rights relations cannot be underscored enough. The most asked-about prisoner ever in US-China dialogues, Shao had a legion of ardent supporters, including high-ranking members of the Bush administration and Congress as well as his former university classmates who created their own advocacy movement. Over the years, Dui Hua also put forth significant effort on this case to help secure Shao’s release.

Shao was paroled in an atmosphere of goodwill and mutual respect—and in accord with principles of law. In honoring set regulations, China’s judicial authorities acknowledged that Shao had met the legal requirements for parole under Article 81 of China’s criminal law; he had served at least half of his original sentence and promised to remain in Shanghai if released. Shao can leave China for good after his probation period is complete, in 2013, but he is also eligible for reductions and may return to the United States even earlier if granted medical leave.

Especially after the earthquake on May 12, the encouraging resumption of the Sino-US dialogue can be seen as an indication of Beijing’s commitment in restoring positive relations in the area of human rights diplomacy. More specifically, the decision to release such a high-profile prisoner as Shao shows that Beijing is well aware of the value of measured engagement on human rights issues in the run-up to the Olympics in August and beyond.