Chinese officials sent by Beijing to assess the seriousness of a growing political crisis in Hong Kong have met some pro-democracy lawmakers to gauge their views, a newspaper reported yesterday.
The officials' visit follows huge opposition to an anti-subversion bill that opponents fear will threaten Hong Kong's Western-style freedoms.
The mass-circulation Apple Daily reported that the visiting Chinese officials asked whether "outside forces" may have helped mobilize a massive rally on July 1 to oppose the bill. The newspaper did not elaborate.
The public outcry has forced Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa -- who was hand-picked by Beijing to rule the territory since it was handed over by Britain six years ago -- to delay the bill, which he had hoped to pass on Wednesday.
It also prompted calls that he stand down as the territory's leader. The bill would outlaw treason, sedition and other crimes against the state and impose life prison sentences for many offenses.
Opposition lawmaker James To of the Democratic Party confirmed yesterday that people he believed to be Chinese officials had requested separate meetings with at least two Democrats. He declined to name them and said he had no other details of the meetings.
The Chinese officials, including some from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the Foreign Ministry, have come to gauge viewpoints on the anti-subversion bill and assess the seriousness of the political crisis, according to pro-Beijing politicians.
To, who has met with such officials on previous occasions, said they usually only identified themselves as researchers or advisers to pro-Beijing newspapers.
The Chinese government's willingness to meet with the Democrats is unusual as the party has long been viewed as a troublemaker by Beijing. More than 10 of its key members, including party chairman Yeung Sum, have been banned from visiting mainland China.
Yeung said he had not met with the Chinese officials.
"The collection of Hong Kong people's opinion this time is on a very large scale, similar to what was done before the first election of the chief executive," one unidentified pro-democracy politician, who met with the officials, was quoted as telling Apple Daily.
Some 500,000 people joined the march on July 1 -- the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China -- to oppose the security bill.
On Wednesday, there was a second rally of an estimated 50,000 people outside the legislative chambers.
The crisis has prompted numerous calls for Tung and some key officials to resign. China's central government voiced support for Tung earlier in the week.