The Sunday Times reports the de facto head of Beijing's official Patriotic Church Liu Bainian (pictured) has said on several occasions he would like to welcome the Pope to China once an agreement of mutual recognition has been reached.
Talks between China and the Vatican have intensified over recent months prompting observers to believe the Chinese may be seeking to announce a deal before the Olympic Games in August.
While the Vatican says it has received no formal invitation, observers say Liu's words would have been uttered only with approval from the highest levels.
A senior Vatican official said that "contacts are going ahead and we are somewhat optimistic."
However the official said any idea of a papal visit before the Olympics in August 8 was "very unrealistic."
There are at least 10 million Catholics in China but their congregations are divided between the official Patriotic Association and an underground church whose members have endured martyrdom and imprisonment since the communist revolution in 1949.
Last June the Pope addressed a letter to Chinese Catholics in which he praised the devotion of the clandestine church but also urged reconciliation and unity among Christians.
China repents and seeks to woo Pope (The Sunday Times 17/02/08)