Right from the start the arrest and trial on the mainland of Hong Kong businessman Lai Kwong-keung had all the ingredients needed to set off a major Sino-US diplomatic row. And, for all the recent progress made towards warmer ties between the two countries - most notably brought about by Beijing's strong support for the United States' war on terrorism - this incident highlighted the still large ideological gulf between the two administrations. Of course, it was in neither country's interest to exacerbate the situation; but it is unlikely that President George W. Bush, a Republican, would have had much choice but to take up the cause of a man detained - and initially facing the death penalty - for distributing Bibles. For an American, and indeed anyone who believes in religious tolerance, voicing opposition to such an arrest on principle is unavoidable. For the mainland, the case - legally at least - was clear: Lai's smuggling of 16,800 Bibles amounted to an 'illegal operation', after an earlier charge of 'using a cult to undermine enforcement of the law' was dropped. It is unlikely the Christian sect Lai belongs to - the curiously named 'Shouters' - has been reclassified by Beijing and no longer fits the criteria making it a cult; but its members will no doubt take heart from Lai's release. With Lai now back in Hong Kong after being freed on medical grounds - Beijing's usual euphemism for leniency - any necessity President Bush feels to take up Lai's case with President Jiang Zemin at the two leaders' summit later this month will be eased. Nevertheless, many people will be left with a sense of unease that Lai's release came about wholly because President Bush referred to his case as an issue of concern back in early January, and because Beijing is extremely eager to let nothing mar its current good relations with the US and the atmosphere surrounding the forthcoming summit. But, in reality, it is possible to take a great deal of heart from this application of pragmatic politics. Neither country would gain from ratcheting up tensions over this issue. And in truth it is likely that Lai's arrest in the first place was something senior administration figures in Beijing would have sought to avoid; junior officials with little or no grasp of the consequences of their actions are almost certainly to blame. Nevertheless, the case - happily concluded - illustrates just how delicately poised is the relationship between the two countries and how easily, almost unwittingly, it can be upset.