For two Buddhist nuns jailed in Tibet - oceans and ages away from the US - a meeting with American clergy might have seemed like a dream.
Despite the presence of Communist officials, the two could tell the world for the first time about their journey from a nunnery to prison for antigovernment protests.
This encounter in the "Place of the Gods," as the Tibetan capital is called, was triggered by another meeting, in October, between the Chinese and US presidents.
Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton then agreed to widen bilateral contacts as a way to replace confrontation with cooperation in human rights. Beijing's permission to let a group of American religious leaders travel in China last month was the first mission toward that goal.
During Mao's 1949-76 reign, "there was zero religious tolerance," says Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who headed the delegation. Even recently, China saw criticism of rights abuses as "plots to overthrow communism."
"So our meeting with China's top leaders to discuss religious freedom was an unprecedented breakthrough," he adds.
The three American clerics began their tour of China in February with a rare visit to the heavily guarded, maze-like section of the Forbidden City that serves as the party's headquarters, says Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.
"We were very pleased Jiang Zemin opened the door to a dialogue on religious freedom," says the archbishop of a meeting with China's top leader. "Of course Jiang did not agree with everything we said, but he seemed friendly and listened carefully to our concerns."
Mr. Jiang many be opening many Chinese doors as the country moves toward the 21st century. He "seems to have undergone an epiphany since his state visit to the US, and is now much more willing to forge stronger ties with the West," says a senior government official here.
Indeed, there are myriad signs that as China moves onto the global stage as a growing power, it is stepping up a dialogue on its treatment of political and religious activists. And Beijing's long-held stance that human rights cannot be enforced across national boundaries is beginning to show cracks:
* In the last year, Beijing has opened or renewed rights talks with the European Union, England, Norway, Japan, and Canada.
* Several months ago, China allowed a United Nations delegation to interview detainees at prisons and labor camps, and is now negotiating with the International Committee of the Red Cross on similar visits.
* After signing a UN pact on economic and social rights, China's leaders invited the UN Commissioner for Human Rights to a meeting in Beijing.
* Beijing recently opened contacts with one of its staunchest critics, Amnesty International, and plans further talks soon.
"Our meeting with Amnesty could be seen in the West as a big step forward," says Zhu Muzhi, head of the semiofficial China Society for Human Rights. "Our view is that if we are treated as equals, we are willing to talk to anyone," says Mr. Zhu.
To be sure, one aim of China's three-year-old rights society is to deflect international criticism. "We hope that meeting with Amnesty will stop the group from writing reports that slander China in the global arena," he says.
Similarly, US State Department reviews outlining Beijing's use of police and prisons to silence outspoken priests and pro-democracy figures "depict China as a defendant in an American-manipulated trial," says Zhu. "Confrontation makes us enemies."
On the other hand, the recent US decision to drop sponsorship of a UN resolution criticizing Beijing "opens the door to dialogue on rights issues," Zhu says.
Despite the mixed signals, Beijing is forming ties with emissaries of religious or political liberty from the West who even a few years ago would have been labeled enemies of China. "China is beginning to realize as it takes a greater role in the world that it should adhere to international standards," Rabbi Schneier says.
During their two-week trip to China, the American clergy met with leaders of every religious stripe, including Muslim and Taoist figures, and talked with clerics both within and outside officially approved churches.
Beijing requires all religious groups to register with the government, and - somewhat ironically - to pledge allegiance to the officially atheistic Communist Party. Leaders of underground "house churches" who fail to register are subject to harassment, detention, or worse, according to the State Department's most recent report on China.
The US religious delegation raised the issue of registration during talks here, and "made a case for the release of some 30 religious figures who seem to be prisoners of conscience," says McCarrick. Although one has already been freed, the group has received no promises on those still in jail, he adds.
When the group met the two nuns held in one of Tibet's most notorious prisons several weeks ago, their names were added to the plea for clemency. The delegation, which traveled to Tibet's capital during one of the region's most important religious holidays, "asked for an amnesty in the spirit of the Tibetan New Year," says Schneier.
Altogether, "100 of the 600 inmates at the prison had been monks or nuns," says Schneier, who adds that the pardon request has not been answered.
Last week, Beijing said it intended to sign the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires members to guarantee its citizens democratic elections, freedom of speech, and the right to freely practice religion. "Even after we sign the covenant, China will never allow the chaotic protests that sometimes shake America," says Huang Nansen, another China rights society official. "But China's journey toward increased freedom is irreversible, and it is backed by the leadership," he adds.
A Western official here says that while some human rights groups may be disappointed about Washington's softer stance toward Beijing, the policy is already showing signs of bringing about long-range, systematic improvements here. "That trend can only be strengthened with wider Chinese-American contacts," he says.
Schneier agrees. "There has been tremendous growth in religious institutions here in the last 20 years," since the forging of Sino-American ties, he says. "Many problems remain, but they will be solved gradually as China builds a society that is ruled by law," he adds.