Beijing invites Hong Kong democrats to talks

Hong Kong's pro-democracy lawmakers Wednesday accepted an invitation by Beijing to attend a meeting with senior Chinese officials ahead of a major democracy protest, saying it was a welcome chance to exchange views on the city's hotly debated democratic reforms. As of Wednesday, about eight of the 19 opposition lawmakers invited had agreed to cross the border Friday to meet with Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary-general of the Chinese legislature's standing committee, and other top Chinese officials.

The meeting, which will take place in the southern Chinese boom town of Shenzhen, will come just two days ahead of a large-scale rally for democracy planned for Sunday in Hong Kong.

The meeting could help portray China as willing to listen to Hong Kong's aspirations for democracy, thus deflating momentum for the kinds of public marches that antagonize Beijing's communist leaders. Opposition lawmaker Emily Lau, who will attend the meeting, said the lawmakers have accepted the invitation even though some see it as simply a tactic to reduce the turnout for Sunday's march.

"Communication is something we've always agreed on. And if (Qiao) says negative things, he would even help boost the march turnout," she said.

The turnout at Sunday's march will be widely watched and is expected to be an important indicator of popular sentiment toward full democracy.

Hong Kongers were promised democracy as an eventual goal when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but they pick only half of the legislature, with the rest chosen by special interest groups. A committee of 800 chooses the territory's political leader.

Beijing has ruled out direct elections for Hong Kong's next leader in 2007 or for all lawmakers in 2008, saying a quick move toward democracy would threaten political stability and the economy, reports the AP. I.L.

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