The Chinese government has invited the Hong Kong legislature to tour the neighboring province of Guangdong next month, including pro-democracy lawmakers who have been banned from the mainland for more than a decade, the territory's new chief executive announced Tuesday.
The invitation appeared to be a conciliatory gesture aimed at improving the government's image in Hong Kong after a long period of tension over its refusal to expand elections in the former British colony. The move could also boost support for Donald Tsang, the career civil servant whom the Chinese government selected in June to lead the territory.
Speaking at a news conference in Hong Kong, Tsang said he would accompany the 60 members of the Legislative Council to China's southern Guangdong province on Sept. 25 and 26. He promised to obtain visas for the 25 pro-democracy legislators, including 12 who have been barred from traveling to the mainland since they led mass demonstrations in 1989 protesting the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.
"This arrangement bears testimony to the central government's support for and goodwill towards Hong Kong," he said. "Getting into the Pearl River Delta, though it might seem a small step, is a gigantic stride towards a relationship of mutual trust and understanding."
Leaders of Hong Kong's pro-democracy parties, who have long urged China's Communist leaders to open an official dialogue with them, welcomed the invitation and said they hoped it signaled new willingness by the government to work with them.
"I hope it will eventually lead to more contacts with state leaders," said Lee Wing-tat, chairman of the Democratic Party. "Certainly, we hope there would be chances where we can discuss Hong Kong's political reforms with mainland cadres."
"The visit is long overdue," said Emily Lau, leader of the pro-democracy Frontier party. "There is no reason why some Hong Kong Chinese and some elected representatives of the public are banned from going back to their home country."
Anthony Cheung, a political analyst who heads Synergy Net, a policy research institute in Hong Kong, described the invitation as a significant breakthrough. But he said it appeared timed to soften the impact of a soon-to-be-released report in which Tsang is expected to reject popular demands for direct elections to choose the territory's next chief executive.
Tsang said the lawmakers would meet with local officials in Guangdong, including the provincial party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, a member of the Communist Party Politburo. He added that he expected the lawmakers would refrain from any "radical action" during the visit and instead lay the groundwork for further talks with Chinese leaders.
The legislator most likely to cause problems for the government, Leung Kwok-hung, a pro-democracy street activist popularly known as "Long Hair," said he would accept the invitation but declined to rule out an attempt to stage a protest while on the mainland.
Ng reported from Hong Kong.