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Moderates prepare for high-level reform talks|
Beijing to take informal dialogue to next stage
SCMP Fanny W. Y. Fung, Gary Cheung and Ambrose Leung
May 18, 2010
Moderate pan-democrats are set for their first formal high-level meeting with Beijing's Hong Kong representatives since 1989, as the dust settles from Sunday's by-elections.
Such a meeting, expected to be at deputy director level at least, would take to a new stage the informal dialogue already going on between the central government's liaison office and the Alliance for Universal Suffrage on political reform.
The last formal meeting between democrats and the liaison office, in 2004, was at a lower level, with officers of its research department.
The alliance, formed by 13 moderate pro-democracy groups, has twice met Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen to seek dialogue with Beijing. Its convenor, Dr Fung Wai-wah, said it had received a positive response from the Hong Kong government and "other sources" more than a week ago.
The mainland side had initially suggested a preparatory meeting last week, but the alliance suggested postponing talks until after the by-elections to avoid having any influence on the polls, Fung said.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said the government was working to set up communication between "major political groups" and the central government.
"I hope to create opportunities for pan-democrats and relevant people from the central government to understand each other," he said. "But some people have different ways of talking. If one stirs up quarrels and acts rudely during a talk, there will be no discussion."
The moderates refused to join the Civic Party and League of Social Democrats in their campaign to make Sunday's Legco by-elections a "de facto referendum" on political reform. The groups triggered the polls by having five of their lawmakers resign.
A moderate pan-democrat said: "It is a natural that Beijing prefers starting the formal dialogue with moderate pan-democrats with talks between the liaison office and them in Hong Kong. It would be too dramatic if the first formal contacts took place on the mainland."
This pan-democrat, speaking anonymously, said: "The message we got is that Beijing's dialogue with us will not be affected by the turnout in the by-elections." Only 17.1 per cent voted on Sunday.
In April 2004 officials from the liaison office's research department met three pan-democratic legislators to discuss the interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People's Congress Standing Committee, which ruled out universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008. But there has been no high-level formal contact since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and the departure of Xu Jiatun, head of Xinhua's Hong Kong branch, forerunner of the liaison office.
There have been informal talks over the years, and Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan disclosed last month that middlemen authorised by Beijing had been conducting talks with the party on the reforms since the Lunar New Year.
Ho said he hoped the forthcoming dialogue would be conducted in an open manner.
"I hope to give a formal and public account of the meeting. It will show the mutual recognition of a normal arrangement, and mutual respect."
The alliance earlier laid out three demands as conditions for passing the government's electoral reforms for 2012: that a candidate for chief executive in 2012 would not need more nominations than at the last election; that functional constituencies would be scrapped by 2020; and that elections in 2012 and 2016 would be more democratic than the previous round of polls.
A member of the alliance, who declined to be named, said it would reiterate the three points at the meeting. "But Beijing sending officials to the meeting doesn't mean it will compromise ... It may concede on one or two points among the three we raise, or nothing at all. We can only try our best to negotiate for the best package," the member said.
Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, spokeswoman for the campaign for a "de facto referendum", said her party supported communication with Beijing and negotiations for more democratic reform proposals. On whether her party would now join the alliance and the negotiations, Eu said: "Until now, the Alliance for Universal Suffrage has not invited the Civic Party to join. They have their own rules and the alliance is not a group anybody can join automatically by their own initiative. It is by invitation only."
Still, she said it had long been a tradition for pan-democrats to maintain transparency and minimise speculation, should there be any negotiations going on.
Asked whether the record-low turnout for a Legco poll had dented hopes that the by-election card could be played in negotiations, Eu said Beijing had better listen because the 500,000-plus votes her party and allies received was a strong show of public desire for universal suffrage.
Tsang said: "The most important thing now is to put aside arguments such as whether it was a by-election or a referendum. We have to look forward and gauge consensus in the community. We should respect those who chose to exercise their rights and cast their vote yesterday. But at the same time, we should not ignore the views of the silent majority who chose not to vote, many of whom believed that the by-election was an abuse of the electoral system and a waste of taxpayers' money."