Thu, Dec 01, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Beijing extends `olive branch' to Hong Kong

RARE MEETING Nineteen of Hong Kong's pro-democracy lawmakers will meet a senior parliamentarian in China tomorrow, just days before a planned political protest rally


Pro-democracy opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong agreed yesterday to meet a Chinese official in a landmark meeting viewed as an olive-branch effort by Beijing to cool a row over political reform here.

Beijing has invited 19 pro-democracy lawmakers to meet senior parliamentarian Qiao Xiaoyang (喬曉陽) in China tomorrow.

The meeting comes days before tens of thousands are expected to take to the streets on Sunday in a march against a government proposal to reform the former British colony's electoral system.

It will be only the second time in almost 20 years that many of the lawmakers, banned from China because of their political views, would have been allowed onto the mainland.

Despite media speculation that many would refuse to attend, veteran legislator Emily Lau (劉慧卿) said democrats had met early yesterday and agreed to accept the invitation.

"We have been asking for meetings with senior leaders so we will accept," Lau said. "We would ideally like to meet leaders in Beijing, but this is at least a start."

Analysts and lawmakers believe the invitation issued on Tuesday was hoped to take some of the sting out of Sunday's planned march.

However, Lau said there was nothing that could be said by Qiao that would convince them to call off the rally, expected to attract some 150,000 people.

"If they refuse to listen to our demands, then it will be a march in protest, but if they give us what we want, it will be a celebratory rally," Lau said.

Democrats called the march in protest at a government proposal to reform the city's electoral system, which currently provides for the selection of political leaders by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing elites.

The lawmakers said the proposals do not go far enough to achieving the post-colonial Constitution's goal of full democracy, the timing of which has been the cause of a protracted feud between democrats and the government since the city reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

The opposition has vowed to vote down the proposal, threatening a potentially paralyzing constitutional crisis, unless the government offered a timetable for full democracy.

Lau said they would carry their demand to Qiao and invite the official, a member of China's National People's Congress, to attend the march.

"We don't have high expectations that we will even be listened to but we should at least try when we have the opportunity," she said.

The meeting will be the second between democrats and Chinese officials since they met Guangdong Province's Communist Party leader Zheng Dejiang (張德江) in Guangzhou as part of a charm offensive by China to improve relations with Hong Kong's legislature.

Lawmakers are due to vote on the reform bill this month and the territory's Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) is pinning much of his credibility on the way he handles the thorny democracy issue.

On Tuesday Tsang sought to quell the row by offering a broad two-year plan in which officials would decide what sort of political system to adopt, but gave no indication of when one-person-one-vote would be implemented.

Pro-democracy Legislator Mandy Tam (譚耀宗) warned that the meeting with Qiao, planned for the southern Chinese boomtown Shenzhen, could be counterproductive to China's hopes of discouraging people from Sunday's march.

"If it is seen that the people's wishes are not being listened to by China it will do the opposite of what they want and send more people onto the street," Tam said.

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