Legco trip should be the first of many
The two-day visit by legislators to Pearl River Delta cities provided more opportunity for sightseeing than it did for more meaningful dialogue with mainland officials. But that should not detract from the significance of the trip. This was the first time that all 60 lawmakers had been invited, including 11 democrats who had not been permitted to cross the border since the Tiananmen crackdown 16 years ago.
The groundbreaking nature of the visit, which ended last night, was therefore to be found in the guest list rather than the schedule of events. What really matters is that the trip was able to take place at all.
Expectations were, therefore, not high. That is understandable. The visit is just the beginning of what will, no doubt, be a long and difficult process. It will take much more than a whistle-stop tour of the delta to develop a new, friendly relationship between the democrats and the central government.
But if judged by these realistic standards, the trip can be considered a success. It offered much to feel positive about. The pictures of democrats smiling while getting their first glimpse of the mainland in many years told their own story. The tour, which took in factories, universities, a community centre and a trip on the Shenzhen underground system, gave them an opportunity to catch up with the big developments that have taken place since they were last there.
There was also a little free time, which allowed some of the democrats to variously visit a bar, enjoy some dim sum with Guangzhou residents, play a game of badminton or attend church.
More important, however, were the opportunities for face-to-face discussions with mainland officials. Dialogue is, after all, the key to each side gaining a better understanding of the other and developing a relationship built on trust.
Such opportunities were limited. But discussions were possible at a two-hour meeting attended by Guangdong Communist Party Secretary and Politburo member Zhang Dejiang . The talks were generally cordial, with cross-border economic co-operation, food safety and the environment among the matters discussed. There was an apparently tense moment, however, when some of the democrats raised the question of reversing the central government's official verdict on Tiananmen.
Mr Zhang responded by bluntly telling them: 'If there is no common ground, there is no point for discussion.' This was clearly not the reaction the democrats had hoped for - but they can hardly be surprised. The democrats concerned knew they were raising one of the most sensitive issues for mainland officials. Mr Zhang could not have been expected to do much more than to cite the well-established official line.
But there is a positive side to that exchange. This is the first time the democrats have been able to raise the question directly with mainland officials. Four of the legislators were permitted to express their views before Mr Zhang cut in and gave his response. This was the most striking example of the 'frank communication' Mr Zhang had called for when delivering his address at the beginning of the meeting.
Aside from this exchange, much goodwill was shown by both democrats and mainland officials. Former Democratic Party chief Martin Lee Chu-ming was last year branded a traitor by one senior mainland official. But on Sunday, he was given a place at the top table for lunch alongside his mainland hosts. Democrats, for their part, toasted mainland officials. Even 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung seemed to tone down his protests.
The true test of whether this landmark trip has been a success is whether the democrats will be invited back. They should be - in the interests of both Hong Kong and the mainland. A better relationship will only be forged through further contact and dialogue. Next time, perhaps, the democrats may even be invited to Beijing.