Hong Kong democrats seek more talks with mainland

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers on Monday sought more talks with Beijing on political reform in the city after a historic first meeting with a senior Communist Party official ended in acrimony.

They said tense opening talks with Zhang Dejiang, party chief of the southern economic powerhouse province of Guangdong, should be just the beginning and they should be allowed to continue pressing their case.

”It is clear there will be more dialogue,” said Albert Chan, one of a group of 25 lawmakers who have been calling for universal suffrage since the former British colony reverted to China in 1997.

”Hopefully next we can go to Beijing,” he added.

Democrats, who are agitating for reform of an electoral system that entrusts selection of the political leader to a Beijing-backed committee, said on Sunday their opinions had been dismissed offhand by Zhang.

The meeting in a hotel in Guangzhou, the capital of the nation’s economic heartland, came during an ice-breaking tour of mainland China aimed at ending years of feuding between the pro-democracy lawmakers and the mainland’s communist leadership over Hong Kong’s political future.

Democrats said the closed-door talks faltered on democrats’ demands for a swift transition to full democracy and on calls for the Chinese government to apologise for the brutal 1989 crushing of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement.

”He [Zhang] reacted angrily,” said veteran activist Leung Kwok-hung, who was initially refused entry to the meeting until he covered a T-shirt bearing slogans critical of the 1989 massacre.

The visit to the mainland was the first for many democrats banned from entering the country after criticising the brutal military operation. It was supposed to have been a symbolic start on the road to closer ties between lawmakers and the Chinese government, who have argued bitterly over the pace of democratic change.

The democracy movement’s spiritual leader Martin Lee put on a brave face as legislators toured a Honda car plant and Guangzhou’s sprawling university on the second day of the tightly choreographed visit.

”If this is the first step I think it is okay,” Lee told reporters. ”No-one knows if there will be a next step.”

A ruling by Chinese officials last year which stymied hopes for reform by 2007 — when the next chief executive must be selected — brought relations to their lowest ebb.

China opposes swift reform in Hong Kong for fear it will destabilise the economy, a conduit for investment fuelling the mainland’s economic growth, and to prevent similar calls across the border.

Only half the 60-seat legislature is directly elected and the majority pro-Beijing camp complained that Sunday’s talks had been hijacked by their rivals.

”We should have talked more about the economy,” said Liberal Party leader, tycoon James Tien.

The visit to four of southern China’s booming industrial cities — Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan and Zhongshan — has been full of symbolic gestures that Martin Lee said indicated China’s willingness to open dialogue.

On day one Lee was seated at the top table of a lunch banquet with communist cadres and colleague Audrey Eu was seated in the front row of talks with Zhang.

”There is no democracy here but they have allowed dissenting voices to be heard,” Lee said. – AFP



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