It is a year from now, and the leaders of the Special Administrative Region Government take the stage in the Convention and Exhibition Centre to be sworn in by President Jiang Zemin . Most are no surprise: Tung Chee-hwa as Chief Executive, while Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang and Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen are re-appointed to their present posts. The only shock comes when Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming is named as Secretary for Justice, the post-colonial equivalent of Attorney-General. It is a magnanimous gesture, setting the seal on China's rehabilitation of someone it formerly labelled as subversive. Improbable though this scenario may be, it would offer great benefits to Beijing as the business leaders and Preparatory Committee members privately pushing for such an appointment never cease to remind mainland officials. Short of arresting Mr Lee (which is not even the preferred solution of hardliners) it holds out the best means of taking out of circulation someone seen as a trouble-maker in the sensitive post-handover period. Better still, it allows Beijing to continue its United Front strategy of divide and rule. By offering Mr Lee an appointment he could scarcely refuse, it would split the democratic camp, wrong-foot British and US critics, and implicate him in the policies adopted by the incoming government. Even though such an appointment is highly unlikely ever to come to pass, the fact that it is being canvassed at all reflects the strength of pressure from China's closest allies for a rapprochement with the democrats. Nor are such efforts necessarily doomed to failure. Just a week after the Beijing airport stand-off, in which eight members of the United Front Against the Provisional Legislature were refused entry to the mainland and had their travel documents confiscated, there is renewed cause for optimism that China may yet adopt a more flexible stance. Independent legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai's 90-minute meeting with the Xinhua News Agency last Wednesday, in which officials listened to her criticisms of the provisional legislature, suggests that China is prepared to permit a dialogue with some members of the democratic camp. How far such tolerance extends will be demonstrated during her forthcoming visit to Beijing, when it will become clear whether Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Director Lu Ping will agree to see her. Even if he refuses to do so publicly, it seems likely that Mr Lu has already held secret contacts with other leading democrats. Not all the Democratic Party leadership are on the blacklist brandished by public security officials during the Beijing airport confrontation. Some continue to have no difficulty crossing the border and informally meeting mainland officials, possibly including Mr Lu. There would be nothing unusual in this. Former Xinhua director Xu Jiatun reveals in his memoirs how he maintained secret contacts with Mr Lee and fellow democrat Szeto Wah, even at the height of China's post-Tiananmen denunciations of them. So it would be no surprise for Mr Lu to be having similar contacts, with a mutual agreement to keep them confidential. The problem is that, given the present political climate in Beijing, such informal contacts can do no more than keep open the lines of communication. On an issue of such extreme sensitivity, Mr Lu could not possibly engage in any substantive discussions about the terms for building bridges between China and the democrats, without the explicit authorisation of top leaders. That would require a change of policy, probably at Politburo level, and there is no sign of that as yet. The hope must be that continued pressure from within the pro-China camp for a reconciliation with the democrats will eventually lead to a reappraisal of Beijing's present hard-line stance. If and when that happens, the channels of contact that already exist should make it possible to execute a speedy rapprochement.