BEIJING -- During rare talks the past two days on human rights in China, American officials asked China to release from jail about 150 prisoners believed to be held for their political or religious activities, a ranking U.S. State Department official said yesterday.
Chinese officials "only listened politely" and did not immediately respond to the request or provide any details about the prisoners, said Richard Schifter, assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, who arrived Monday night.
But U.S. Ambassador James R. Lilley characterized Mr. Schifter's 16 hours of discussions with various Chinese ministries as "a significant step" toward improving Sino-U.S. relations. Mr. Schifter's talks covered political and religious freedoms, theTibetan situation, feared reprisals against politically active Chinese studying in the United States and China's family-planning restrictions.
"Having gone through the last 18 months since [China's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators], I would say attitudinally there's been a sea change," Mr. Lilley said.
"Judging from the way the issue was handled here a year ago, with people snarling at each other over the table, the fact we were engaged in a dialogue on human rights is a major step forward. Whether this ends up in concrete results remains to be seen."
Another U.S. diplomat involved in the talks was not optimistic about the near-term results, though: "We got nothing concrete from the Chinese. We've still got a long way to go toward making any progress."
Mr. Schifter's visit -- the first official visit here by a high-level State Department official since suppression of last year's protests -- follows a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen and President Bush on Nov. 30 at the White House.
It marks a further softening of U.S. political sanctions enacted last year against China, though some U.S. economic and military sanctions remain.
The Sino-U.S. dialogue on human rights comes as China is reportedly moving to put on trial at least a dozen leading dissidents arrested after last year's protests. At least two of the jailed protesters face charges on the capital crime of sedition, their families have said.
Chinese officials were likely open to Mr. Schifter's presentation because of their fears that the U.S. Congress will challenge next year President Bush's decision to renew China's most-favored-nation trade status with the United States.
Several congressmen recently told Chinese officials that continuation of China's trade status depends on China's improving its human rights record.
U.S. officials would not provide Mr. Schifter's list of about 150 prisoners, though they said that among them is China's best-known dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who has been in jail since the crushing of a pro-democracy movement in 1979.
Others on the list are democracy activists arrested last year and earlier; Tibetans believed to be jailed for their political or religious views, and Catholics and Protestants jailed for conducting religious activities outside China's state-controlled churches, Mr. Schifter said. The list was compiled with the aid of human rights groups.
In a related development, Ge Xun, a Chinese physicist studying at Texas A&M University, left China safely yesterday after spending a week here in a futile effort to find out about the status of one of those facing execution, Wang Juntao, a XTC 32-year-old editor. Fearing that Mr. Ge might not be granted a needed exit visa, U.S. diplomats had pressed China to allow him to leave.