Today's funeral for the man who opened China to the world, Deng Xiaoping, may be remembered for more than just a commemoration of his historic achievements.
The fact that his successors halted their funeral preparations to hold talks with the new US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, may well mark the start of a new US-Chinese effort to work out their differences rather than agitate them.
Ms. Albright ended her nine-nation, 11-day world tour in China, a sign that she sees the world's most populous nation as a centerpiece to US foreign relations. And Chinese President Jiang Zemin, eager to show he can manage ties with Washington, made time to hold substantial talks with her yesterday.
"What we heard from Jiang Zemin is that they really want to go forward in the relationship with the US," said a US administration official. "It is a sea-change from mid-1995, which saw the bottoming out of US-China relations."
Albright failed to make any breakthrough on US requests for release of political prisoners. "I told it like it is" on human rights, she said.
But said the administration official who briefed reporters: "There was less ideological posturing and more down-to-earth pragmatic talks."
Albright stressed the other benefits of warmer ties with Beijing. "There's a potential for cooperation between the US and China in responding to global threats, including terrorism and environment."
She also set out a "roadmap" for important bilateral visits, including a visit to China next month for Vice President Al Gore and a visit to the US later this year by Jiang.
Washington's new policy of "engagement" with China is designed to bring China onto the global stage while also working quietly to bring more human rights into the Communist-run nation.
Albright said that although her discussions with Chinese President Jiang and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen covered disagreements over trade and human rights, "my main mission is to talk to China about the complicated relationship we have."
A senior US official attempted to downplay reports that Beijing and Washington are close to an agreement on the freeing of a number of imprisoned Chinese dissidents.
The US and Europe are in the process of deciding whether to sponsor a resolution condemning China's denial of basic rights to its 1.2 billion citizens at an annual United Nations meeting next month, and have asked Beijing for a positive signal before then.
But the senior American official said that no deal has been finalized on forgoing the UN action in exchange for China's pledge to release political activists and sign two human rights conventions.
The Clinton administration has adopted a low-key approach to sensitive human rights issues, and in the past publicity on planned Chinese prisoner releases has sometimes led to Beijing's backing out of the deal.
The secretary of state arrived in Beijing just hours after a memorial cortege transported the body of Deng to be cremated at Babaoshan, or Eight-Treasure Mountain, a cemetery reserved for leading figures in the Chinese revolution.
The simple but solemn procession passed through the Avenue of Eternal Peace, the main boulevard bisecting Beijing, as thousands of carefully selected mourners waved flowers, banners, and portraits of the leader.
By day an army of plainclothed police and by night uniformed guards stood sentinel over Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of Beijing, to ensure that no wreaths were placed at the center of the plaza.
The authorities are apparently afraid that families or friends of the victims of the Army's assault on the square in mid-1989 might take the opportunity to place their own memorials among tributes to Deng.
Deng's order to use tanks and troops to retake Tiananmen from student protesters still looms over not only the people of Beijing, but also Sino-US ties.
"US-China ties have never recovered following the Tiananmen Square incident," says a Chinese official. "America's perceptions of China since 1989 have turned from white into black despite significant improvements in human rights since then."
Many American scholars agree with that assessment. But the new US policy is trying to reverse that. "Our relations with China," Albright added, "are key to stability and prosperity in the 21st century."