Hong Kong's pro-democracy lawmakers, some of whom had been barred from China for more than a decade, crossed into the mainland at Beijing's invitation and held a contentious meeting Sunday with a member of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo about political reform and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The Chinese government had long refused to hold any official talks with Hong Kong's democrats but invited the entire 60-member Legislative Council on a two-day tour of the southeastern province of Guangdong. The move was a conciliatory gesture after months of acrimony over China's refusal to expand direct elections in the former British colony.
The schedule on the first day of the visit was heavy on sightseeing, with mainland officials eager to highlight the remarkable economic progress that China has made in the past decade. Hong Kong's democrats acknowledged the achievement but said it was not enough.
"I was not too surprised to see the rapid economic development in China," said Lee Cheuk-yan, a lawmaker banned from the mainland since being arrested and expelled in 1989 for giving money raised in Hong Kong to the students leading pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. "I would have been much happier if I had been able to see developments in human rights, democracy and people's freedoms here."
In a meeting with the provincial party chief, Zhang Dejiang, in Guangzhou, Lee pressed for a reversal of the party's official position that the government's use of force that day was justified. The military crushed the protests on June 4, 1989, leaving hundreds if not thousands dead and prompting widespread outrage in Hong Kong ahead of its scheduled return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Participants said Zhang replied that only a minority of people supported "redressing June 4" and insisted the party had handled the "incident" correctly. When other pro-democracy lawmakers in the closed-door meeting objected, Zhang said the conversation had grown disagreeable and that any further discussion of the subject would be a "waste of breath," participants said.
"That was really bad," said Emily Lau, leader of the pro-democracy Frontier party. "Mr. Zhang had said we could have an honest dialogue, but when we raised the issues that the Hong Kong people are concerned about, he got angry."
One pro-democracy lawmaker, Leung Kwok-hung, a veteran street activist, was initially barred from the meeting because he was wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Redress June 4" on it. He was allowed in after putting on another shirt and a jacket. He told reporters he then lectured Zhang for several minutes about Tiananmen and democracy.
Earlier in the day, Leung embarrassed the authorities by wearing a T-shirt showing a lone man stopping a line of tanks during the Tiananmen crackdown and by shouting, "Long live democracy!" in a subway station in the southern city of Shenzhen.
Hong Kong's pro-government lawmakers said it was inappropriate for the democrats to raise political issues at the meeting with Zhang, arguing that the session was supposed to be a courtesy meeting.
But Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed chief executive, Donald Tsang, who joined the lawmakers on the visit, said the exchange was friendly and "a very good start."
"I believe it was a very frank and candid exchange, and Party Secretary Zhang has stated very clearly his own position, and there was enough mutual respect on the matter," he said. Analysts said the visit was an attempt by the government to improve its image in Hong Kong before Tsang unveils a plan to reform the territory's political system next month. China has rejected public demands for direct elections to choose Hong Kong's next chief executive and all of its legislators. Tsang is said to have obtained Beijing's support for minor changes intended to make the system slightly more democratic while ensuring its allies win most offices. For example, Tsang is expected to propose that a 1,600-member committee stacked with supporters of Beijing choose the next chief executive, instead of the current 800-member committee.
Pan reported from Beijing.