The communist government in China has proposed holding direct talks with pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong. The overture could signal a thawing of relations between Beijing and its critics in Hong Kong. China has suggested 'sober-minded' talks with Hong Kong's democrats to ease tensions with the mostly-autonomous Chinese territory. The official Xinhua news agency published the comment by a Beijing official late Sunday.

China's proposal is a response to gestures by Hong Kong's democracy advocates who have backed away from strident criticism of the central government in the past week.

Beijing has ignored meetings with democrats, calling them traitors and unfit to participate in Hong Kong's political affairs.

Bishop Joseph Zen, head of Hong Kong's Catholic Church and a pro-democracy advocate, said Beijing's announcement is an encouraging sign. The bishop said positive comments from Beijing are good and everyone on both sides should make efforts to improve the political atmosphere.

Relations between Beijing and the democrats have become especially bad in the past year. Hong Kong's chief executive - backed by Beijing - tried to push for stringent new security laws that limited some civil freedoms - but he was forced to scrap the plan in the face of popular outcry when 500,000 people took to the streets last July 1.

Since then, the democrats have been trying to capitalize on the activist mood to push for popular elections, which are promised in Hong Kong's 1997 constitution. That aim was derailed in April, when China's parliament said Hong Kong was not ready for direct elections.

Analysts here say it appears both sides hope to reduce tension before a particularly divisive political season gets underway.

Another pro-democracy protest march will be held in Hong Kong this July 1. And in September, Hong Kong will hold legislative elections in which the public will choose 50 percent of the seats. The democrats are leading the polls and could take a majority in the assembly, beating pro-Beijing parties.

Hong Kong was promised a high degree of political autonomy when Britain returned the colony to China in 1997. But in recent years Beijing has publicly exerted greater influence over Hong Kong's political reforms while providing increased economic support for the city.