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China has agreed to discuss the cases of 235 political prisoners for the first time. However, after high-level talks Monday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said overall human rights progress was still lagging.

He called his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen "an important step" to better U.S.-China relations.Improvement on human rights, including release of political prisoners, is a precondition to renewing China's favorable trading status, which benefits both China and U.S. businesses.

Christopher said China had agreed to respond in detail to the United States on 235 specific detainee cases, many relating to the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Not included were 100 other Tibetan cases on which the United States is seeking information, officials said.

Qian also said Beijing would discuss the cases of nine relatives of dissidents who have been prevented from emigrating.

"We have not made enough progress to justify my saying there has been significant overall progress," Christopher said after a morning talks.

Qian, in a photo session before their talks, had told reporters, "We don't believe the question of human rights should be linked to the question of trade, but we are ready to discuss all these issues."

They agreed to intensify their contacts on human rights discussions.

Christopher also pressed Qian to use China's influence with North Korea to further progress on inspections of North Korea's nuclear facilities and raised concerns about forced population control in China.

Even as Christopher and Qian met, reports from Hong Kong quoted a U.S.-based religious group saying that Chinese authorities have detained three Roman Catholic priests and two bishops who led prayers in defiance of the ruling Communist Party.

U.S. officials said they were unfamiliar with that case, but Shattuck told reporters that Christopher made clear to Qian the Clinton administration would not take kindly to any "slippage or backsliding on human rights during the time that progress is being sought."