BEIJING -- State-run TV news served up as its lead item last night a scene long awaited by China's hard-line leaders: Premier Li Peng warmly greeting a delegation of American politicians.
The five U.S. congressmen, led by Representative Michael G. Oxley, R-Ohio, represented the first delegation of U.S. lawmakers to meet with top-level Chinese leaders since China's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators here in June of last year.
The congressmen said here this morning that, in their more than one-hour-long meeting with the Chinese premier yesterday, they delivered a strong message linking U.S. concerns over human rights violations in China to the outcome of the U.S. Congress' continuing debate over renewal of China's favorable-trade status with the United States.
The legislators' recall of Mr. Li's response was not unanimous.
Three of the five congressmen said the premier indicated that China would soon resolve the fate of an estimated 350 to 400 prisoners still held in jail as a result of last year's protests, perhaps by releasing some of them.
The other two congressmen said they came away from the meeting with no such perception.
Whatever the Chinese response, the meeting almost certainly symbolized for China's leaders another step toward ending the international isolation brought on by the killings of hundreds of protesters near Beijing's Tiananmen Square last year.
Although the congressmen stressed that concern in the United States over China's human rights situation remains a stumbling block in Sino-American relations, there has been a quietly evolving trend in the last several months of much of the world's coming back around to China's doorstep.
The European Community, for instance, removed last month economic sanctions it had imposed. The World Bank and Japan are resuming lending to China. Foreign businessmen are trickling back.
Since last summer, China has established diplomatic ties with Indonesia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August, China has been highly cooperative with the United States in the U.N. Security Council.
The Persian Gulf crisis in particular has provided China with an opportune context in which to recapture some of its lost status as a player in world affairs.
Western nations continue to hold off on military cooperation as well as high-level visits, but, as a Western diplomat noted, "China's image has definitely improved, and the mood toward China is certainly better."
Nonetheless, many diplomats and other analysts believe that China has a long way to go.
"Over the past year, and particularly in the past four months, China has undergone a quiet recovery," said Michel C. Oksenberg, a University of Michigan political scientist. "But I don't think that it has fully recovered from its isolation, and I think that it's premature to say that total recovery is in sight."