THE LATEST step China has taken to work its way back into minimal international favor is the release of Fang Lizhi, a dissident astrophysicist sometimes called the ''Chinese Sakharov,'' and his wife Li Shuxian. They took refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing a year ago to escape charges that they had instigated the demonstrations that ended with tanks firing on people in the streets and China's image newly stained. With the help of American diplomacy, a face-saving solution was finally worked out in which Chinese officials achieved their prime purpose of asserting authority over the couple and, in return, the couple departed ''for medical treatment'' and to do research in Britain. The United States promptly hailed ''this humanitarian action'' as ''a farsighted, significant step that will improve the atmosphere for progress in our bilateral relations.''
No doubt the political impulse was strong on both sides. The Chinese are still smarting from the obloquy they earned by crushing the democracy demonstrators championed by Mr. Fang. The industrialized democracies and the U.S. Congress are weighing major decisions affecting China's access to the world economy, and so this was a crucial moment for Beijing to play the Fang card. The American government has made a costly political investment in normalizing relations with China. President Bush had every right to feel the Chinese were lagging in their response. Hence the gratitude, expressed to excess by the White House spokesman, for the complex transaction that freed Fang Lizhi.
It leaves a China with hundreds or more other political prisoners who do not enjoy the comforts of celebrity and least of all the protections of a rule of law. It also leaves a China with a government so narrow, grim and unaware that it actually admits without seeming embarrassment, in its statement on the release of Mr. Fang, that it compels citizens to be faithful to ''the Four Cardinal Principles (i.e., principles of adherence to the socialist road, to the people's democratic dictatorship, to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought)." Mr. Fang had no hesitation in declaring that he opposed the Four Cardinal Principles -- a view he recognized as violating the Chinese constitution. The authorities found here ''repentance.'' Others will find honor and self-respect.