Beijing's chief executive in Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, and members of the pro-democracy opposition met on Friday for the first time in eight months, in an attempt to resolve differences before a major demonstration scheduled for July 1 to demand elections in this former British colony.
But Tung said afterward that the Chinese leadership, which in April ruled out expanding elections in Hong Kong for at least eight years, would not open direct talks with the democrats any time soon. "It takes more than a single cold day for the river to freeze three feet deep," he said, quoting a Chinese saying.
Opposition leaders expressed disappointment and urged residents to continue pressing for democratic reform by joining the July 1 march. More than 500,000 people participated in a protest on the same date last year, stunning China's ruling Communist Party and leading Tung to withdraw a stringent internal security bill backed by Beijing.
Organizers have told police they expect at least 300,000 people to take part in this year's demonstration. Pro-democracy activists are demanding elections to choose Tung's successor in 2007 and all of the territory's lawmakers in 2008, and they have accused the Chinese government of violating the high degree of autonomy it promised Hong Kong by refusing to allow the elections.
They have also accused Beijing of trying to intimidate the public. Three popular radio talk-show hosts who supported democratic reform quit their jobs recently, saying they had received threats from people with ties to the Chinese government. Exacerbating fears of mainland interference, authorities on Friday announced the arrest of at least two Chinese police officers in Hong Kong under suspicious circumstances.
The government said seven mainland men, including two identified as officers from neighboring Guangdong province, were arrested for loitering in a wealthy neighborhood after residents reported they were acting suspiciously. The men told police they were tracking a suspect and were released on bail, the authorities said.
Mainland police are prohibited from operating in Hong Kong, and opposition lawmakers called for an immediate investigation. In an unusually strong statement, Tung also expressed "serious concern" and said it was "absolutely unacceptable" for mainland officers to conduct investigations in the territory.
Tung met Friday with leaders of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition group here, and a lawyers organization that also supports political reform, after prominent pro-democracy figures said last week they were willing to step back and seek reconciliation with the Chinese leadership.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Tung said the sessions were useful, and he promised to continue meeting with opposition leaders and try to persuade Beijing to meet with them, too. He also pledged to help pro-democracy activists barred from entering the mainland since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to obtain permission to visit relatives there.
But Tung, who was appointed by Beijing after the territory's return to Chinese rule in 1997, said the problem could not be resolved immediately. While mainland officials have welcomed "enhanced communications," they have also shown no willingness to compromise, insisting that their decision to rule out elections is final and that the democrats must accept China's one-party political system before any dialogue with them is possible.
"The remarks about three-foot-deep ice by Mr. Tung showed that he was not sincere," said Szeto Wah, a pro-democracy lawmaker who met with Tung and the leader of a group that organized a vigil to mark the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. "Was he suggesting that our relations with the central government are like frozen ice? . . . That is not much different from telling us to come clean or else we shall be frozen forever."
Audrey Eu, a member of the lawyers group that met with Tung, said the chief executive refused to lay out a timetable for political reform.
But leaders of pro-Beijing political parties said the meetings could be a good start. "It will ease social tension if China and the democrats can meet to talk," said James Tien, chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party. "Mr. Tung may try to arrange meetings between the central government and the milder members of the Democratic Party first."
Ivan Choy, a politics lecturer at Chinese University, said the meeting was an attempt by Tung to ease tensions before the march. "But the lack of concrete promises, without any action plan, means people will not be satisfied," he said.
Pan reported from Beijing.