The pro-democracy bloc of Hong Kong's elected lawmakers has been allowed back onto the Chinese mainland for the first time since the 1989 massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The group joined its legislative colleagues in talks with senior Chinese Communist Party officials, but the meeting underscored the vast gap that exists between the democrats and Chinese officials.
The two-day trip to neighboring Guangdong province Sunday by 59 of Hong Kong's 60 elected legislators produced an unprecedented exchange of candid views between Chinese Communist Party officials and their critics in Hong Kong.
During a meeting with Guangdong's Communist Party chief, Zhang Dejiang, some outspoken lawmakers raised the issue of democracy in China. They also called for a reversal of China's stand on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, in which hundreds and possibly thousands of pro-democracy protesters died.
China has always insisted the crackdown was necessary to protect national stability, a position that Zhang, a member of the party's governing Politburo, repeated during the meeting. Zhang cut off Hong Kong lawmakers who tried to debate the subject further, saying there was no point in discussing the issue if the two sides disagreed.
The meeting disappointed some lawmakers. Others acknowledged that the gap between the two sides could not be narrowed by a single visit. Lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, who was among those who debated Zhang on the Tiananmen issue, said he hoped the two sides could build trust over time.
"We are here to express ourselves, and I think they [Chinese officials] understand our viewpoint, so that mutual understanding can develop," he said.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who arranged the visit, described it as "a good start" that could lead to further discussions. The official China Daily newspaper called it a "historic" visit.
Some of the lawmakers participating in the trip had been barred from entering the mainland and branded as traitors since criticizing Beijing's actions in the 1989 incident.
Political analysts say the trip is a political gesture by Beijing to try to win the opposition over. In 2003 and 2004, the central government was rattled by mass protests, in which the pro-democracy coalition played a major role, demanding direct elections in Hong Kong.
Currently, a committee of pro-Beijing appointees selects the chief executive, and only half of the members of the legislature are elected by direct public vote.
Hong Kong's government has been discussing proposed reforms to how the territory elects its leader and lawmakers. The details of the plan have not been made public, but Beijing, which has effective veto power over Hong Kong decisions, has already ruled out direct elections by 2007, when Chief Executive Tsang's term expires.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The principle of universal suffrage is enshrined in the former British colony's mini-constitution, but the document is vague on the timing.