Hong Kong columnist meets Premier Wen
Veteran Hong Kong columnist and former local National People's Congress deputy Ng Hong-mun has had a 90-minute audience with premier Wen Jiabao which political commentators see as Beijing trying to show it is more open to criticism.
Ng, whose columns in the Chinese-language Ming Pao have been increasingly critical of the Communist Party, visited Wen's office in Beijing on Saturday for a discussion during which, he said, Wen told him the central government lacked people who were willing to tell the truth.
They also touched on sensitive topics such as the forthcoming Hong Kong chief executive election and political reform.
What raised more eyebrows, however, was that Wen's wife, Zhang Peili, was at an event after the meeting and was shown in one of two photographs accompanying a press release issued afterwards.
Zhang, 68, has rarely been seen at any official occasions with the premier, including his visits to foreign countries, which sparked rumours that the couple had divorced.
Political commentators believe, however, it is because Wen has not wanted his political career to be linked with his wife's jewellery business, which could conflict with his carefully maintained frugal image.
Zhang, former vice-president of the Chinese Jewellery Association and the head of a Beijing diamond and jewellery company, reportedly has huge influence in the industry. Wen's predecessors, such as Zhu Rongji and Li Peng , often took their wives overseas.
Ng - an NPC member for 32 years who stepped down in 2007 - said Wen invited him to hear his 'in-depth analysis which gives inspiration' and they talked about one of Ng's recent columns judging the quality needed for Hong Kong's next chief executive.
'I said in the commentary that whoever can stabilise Hong Kong can win the top job,' Ng said. 'Wen laughed when hearing my comments, but did not say who would be a suitable candidate.'
Ng also quoted Wen as saying that the lingering influence of 'cultural revolution' and 'feudalism' values has deterred mainlanders from speaking the truth.
The only state leader to advocate political reform and tout 'universal values', Wen told cadres on April 19 to 'speak the truth'.
He made a similar appeal to the nation's official writers' association nearly five years ago and created waves twice last year by discussing political reform - in an interview with CNN and during a visit to Shenzhen.
Hong Kong-based China observer Johnny Lau Yui-siu said the rare meeting appeared to be aimed at constructing an image that Beijing is open to criticism, but this did not necessarily mean it was ready for political reform.
'Beijing is seeking to convince the traditional leftists, who feel marginalised after last June's electoral reform, that they are still important,' he said. 'While Wen may have asked for Ng's opinions on the next chief executive, Beijing has been asking around in Hong Kong for some time.'
Additional reporting by Fiona Tam