Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 5 News List

China invites HK democrats to talks

SEEKING COMMON GROUND The mood in Hong Kong has been poisonous since Beijing dampened hopes for democratic reform, but things may be looking up


China yesterday signaled its readiness to hold historic talks with Hong Kong democrats with whom it has been locked in a six-month tussle over democratic reforms.

Communist leaders in Beijing routinely refuse approaches by the city's democrats and have even barred the movement's leaders from entering the country.

But with relations between the former British colony and its leaders in Beijing at an all-time low, an official in China's Hong Kong Liaison Office has said it is time to talk.

"To enhance communications and have sober-minded talks with people with different views will benefit Hong Kong's social harmony and stability," the official was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua news agency.

"It is the central authorities' wish and the common demand of Hong Kong residents to have sober-minded communications and face-to-face frank exchanges with those people, as well as seeking common points and jointly create an atmosphere of peace and harmony in Hong Kong," the statement said.

The statement came in response to an apparent charm offensive by Hong Kong democrats to pave the way for talks to end a crisis sparked by Beijing's ruling in April against swift electoral reforms in the territory.

Reformists say the move marked the beginning of a new era of hardline communist rule, breaking promises of a "high degree of autonomy" Beijing made when Hong Kong's sovereignty passed from Britain to China in 1997.

Democrats, among them Yeung Sum (楊森), the head of the movement's leading force, the Democratic Party, have called for an easing of tensions between the two.

Last week veteran pro-democracy legislator Lau Chin-shek (劉千石) appealed for a less combative stance by democrats and rights campaigner Christine Loh (陸恭蕙) suggested reformists should tone down the vitriol in protest banners.

Yesterday's statement said Beijing would do more to seek the views of the territory.

"We will take a more active attitude to have exchanges with people from various walks of life and social strata," it said, "in an effort to maintain the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong and seek happiness and well-being for Hong Kong compatriots."

The statement also acknowledged calls in Hong Kong for universal suffrage to elect the next chief executive, in 2007, but denied the central government had been turning a deaf ear to them.

"The allegation that the central authorities had not listened to Hong Kong residents' suggestions ... goes against the facts," the statement said.

But, according to Xinhua, the official said "it does not matter that some Hong Kong people do not understand the central authorities' decisions for the time being. It is possible to seek common points while reserving differences."

Democracy campaigner Bishop Joseph Zen (陳日君), the leader of Hong Kong's 250,000 Roman Catholics, said Beijing's call for talks was encouraging.

"Positive comments from Beijing are good," Zen said. "Everyone should make efforts to improve the political atmosphere and both sides should take substantive action."

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