BEIJING: The most notable part of Madeleine Albright's brief, one-day visit to China was that it happened at all. The Secretary of State was the only Western leader permitted to visit Beijing during a six-day mourning period following the death of Deng Xiaoping, a development Albright said was "an extremely good sign" that China will move toward even greater cooperation with Albright's mission: to press China's leadership on human rights. According to a New York Times report, China is close to a deal that would include signing two key U.N. covenants on human rights, and conducting a good faith release of up to eight political prisoners. But if any progress was made Monday, Albright wasn't talking. "We admitted we had a difference on it," she said after five hours of talks with top Chinese officials. To say the least. Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen denied outright that China has imprisoned political dissidents, insisting that those jailed were "sentenced criminals." Gracefully gliding past Qian's semantics, Albright noted that there is "still time" before the U.S. goes a step further and backs a European-sponsored resolution condemning China's human rights record. The U.S. has also opted to wait until bilateral talks in mid-March before sounding China on allegations that it is violating pledges to slash exports of missile technology and chemical weapons components. Also put off: the booming U.S.-China trade deficit, which clocked in at $39 billion in 1996.