The visit by Du Qinglin, head of the Communist Party's United Front Work Department, to Hong Kong suggests that the party will become more active here and will function more openly than before.
The stated purpose of the visit was to launch the Hong Kong chapter of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification. Interestingly, the body has been functioning in Macau for five years and has chapters in more than 80 countries around the world but, until last Thursday, did not exist locally.
Pan-democrat legislators had hoped that Mr Du would meet them so that he could understand the yearning for democracy here. In the end, he only met so-called 'patriotic' personalities and promised that he would convey their thoughts to the central government.
Not surprisingly, most of the views he heard from deputies to the National People's Congress, members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and business leaders did not call for speeding up the pace of democracy but rather warned against the Legislative Council expanding its powers. This is laughable given that the Hong Kong legislature is so weak it cannot even propose legislation.
But Mr Du did say something that can be interpreted as support, of sorts, for the development of local democracy: that Hong Kong was a model for Taiwan in implementing 'one country, two systems'.
Of course, Taiwan is a full democracy now and there is little interest there in emulating Hong Kong on that score. But if in the central government sees Hong Kong as an example to Taiwan, then Beijing might be less reluctant to allow universal suffrage to be properly implemented here. Otherwise, Taiwan will see Hong Kong as more of a negative example than anything else.
The setting up of a Hong Kong chapter of the peaceful reunification council reflects Beijing's desire for the special administrative region to play a bigger role in cross-strait relations. It is, of course, part of Beijing's united front activities and is meant to mobilise support within Hong Kong for Chinese attempts to reintegrate Taiwan politically with the mainland.
The chapters of the council in various parts of the world are, in fact, united front groups of ethnic Chinese in those countries that are associated with Chinese embassies and consulates. Thus, they are effectively extensions of the Communist Party and the central government. Last year, Beijing mobilised overseas Chinese around the world to support the international legs of the Olympic torch relay, which encountered pro-Tibetan demonstrators in Europe and America.
President Hu Jintao , recalling the words of Mao Zedong , said on July 10, 2006, that 'the united front is an important magic weapon of the Chinese Communist Party to govern and rejuvenate the country'. In 2007, the party's Central Committee called for greater efforts to 'direct Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese inward towards their motherland'.
Now, the united front has openly moved into Hong Kong. Here, as elsewhere, united fronts target individuals with political influence, high social status, economic prowess or significant achievements.
The Hong Kong chapter was launched at a grand opening in the Convention and Exhibition Centre before thousands guests. Of course, courting Hong Kong's elites has been going on for decades, but the setting up of the peaceful reunification chapter is a sign that Beijing no longer feels inhibited about its united front activities here.
As most Hong Kong people, including the pan-democrats, oppose Taiwanese independence, this is one area where Beijing is unlikely to encounter much opposition. But, with its united front machinery in place, it can be used to promote any of Beijing's policies, not just cross-strait relations.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.