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Hong Kong Democrats Meet Beijing Official Ahead of Pro-Democracy Rally


Beijing invited pro-democracy legislators from Hong Kong to a meeting in the mainland, in a move widely seen as an attempt to cool the atmosphere two days ahead of a large pro-democracy demonstration in the territory. But the legislators say the meeting did little to change their plans for the rally.

In a surprise move, Beijing asked a group of democratic lawmakers to a meeting across the border on Friday to discuss political reform plans with a senior government official.

But at the end of the meeting, the democrats were quoted saying that mainland officials had said nothing to deter them from opposing the reforms. They also said they would proceed with a mass rally on Sunday, which up to 100,000 people are expected to attend.

Anthony Cheung, political scientist at Hong Kong's City University, believes the meeting was arranged to try to cool emotions and improve relations with the democrats before the march.

"I guess the intention of the central government must be to convey some positive messages or gestures. I don't think they want to agitate pro-democracy people too much just two days ahead of the march," he said.

Beijing officials have said they are committed to ultimately allowing Hong Kong's citizens to elect their leaders by universal suffrage - in line with the provisions of the Basic Law, the territory's post-colonial constitution.

But Beijing has never given a timetable for when that will happen - despite repeated calls from many people in Hong Kong for faster action.

The city, a former British colony, returned to mainland sovereignty in 1997, but retains a somewhat autonomous government and Western-style civil liberties.

Hong Kong's chief executive is picked by a Beijing-backed committee of 800 people. Only half of the members of the 60-seat Legislative Council are directly elected. A government reform plan would double the size of the selection committee and add 10 seats to the legislature.

The city's Chief Executive Donald Tsang argues the plan is the only way to advance democracy and that rejecting it would strain relations with Beijing.

But democratic legislators vow to vote down the plan later this month.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Ronnie Tong says the reform package does not go far enough.

"Most importantly, it ignores the question when we should achieve universal suffrage and how we are going to get there," he noted. "The only way we can force the government to come back to the negotiating table is to vote against the present package and to ask the government to come back with a timetable as to when we can have universal suffrage."

The city has seen several mass protests over the past few years, calling for greater democracy and opposing security legislation that some feared would curtail civil rights. One protest, in July 2003, drew a half million marchers. Although the rally was peaceful, its size startled the city's leaders and mainland officials, who then gave up plans to push through the security legislation.

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