MORE than 100 leading Chinese scholars and political dissidents are meeting in Toronto to discuss how they can adopt a more unified approach. Exiled activists and intellectuals such as Liu Binyan, Wan Runnan, Liu Qing, Wuer Kaixi, Hu Ping, Wang Juntao, Shen Tong and Cheng Yi will join the biggest meeting of dissidents since 1993. China's best known dissident Wei Jingsheng will give a speech at the one-day conference. The forum, organised by Chinese Alliance for Democracy, the Federation for Democratic China and Beijing Spring Magazine, will focus on how dissident groups can become a mature opposition in China. It will also discuss the ethical standards of activists. There will also be a candlelight vigil at the University of Toronto to commemorate victims of the June 4, 1989, crackdown. Federation chairman Michael To said it was now the time for dissidents to strive for greater unity. 'There are some disagreements among groups and individuals, some are just emotional and personal arguments. I hope they can put their differences aside and concentrate on how to strengthen the democratic forces,' he said. The timing of the conference was particularly good, he said, because Mr Wei and Wang Dan had both been released. 'Our team of exiled activists is getting stronger,' he said. Alliance chairman Frank Wu Fangcheng said the response to the meeting had been good and many dissidents groups had agreed to join the forum. However, the absence of a number of leading dissidents has cast a shadow over the forum's theme of unity. The absentees include Wang Xizhe, Wang Ruowang, Yan Jiaqi, Chen Yizi, Wang Bingzhang and Xu Bangtai. Wang Xizhe and Mr Yan have opted to attend a pro-democracy seminar being held in Macau instead. The Chinese Democracy and Justice Party, another leading dissidents' group in the United States, has only sent its vice-chairman Cheng Yuan to Toronto. Wang Dan declined to attend, saying he had to arrange his studies at the University of California in Berkeley. Chau Shing-hong, chairman of the Vancouver Society to Support Democratic Movement, said it was natural for Wang Dan to stay in the wings for a while and see how overseas democratic movements operated before attending any important events held by dissident groups. Mr Chau, who was not invited to the conference, said he did not expect any exciting developments from it. He said there was still a long way to go before different groups joined hands. 'Many exiled activists still consider themselves the 'big brother' or hero of the democratic movement. Unless they give this up, it will be difficult to talk about co-operation,' he said. But he asked: 'How can they achieve their goals without being united into some sort of alliance?' There are dozens of Chinese human rights and pro-democracy groups overseas, mainly in the US, many of them small and heavily reliant on donations. 'Some dissidents even treat their work in dissident groups as a way to make a living,' Mr Chau said. 'This is really a problem. You have to keep a high profile to keep the level of donations. So they will fight against each other for exposure and media coverage.' Mr Chau said many Chinese expatriate groups in the US and organisations in Taiwan had stopped funding overseas dissidents after an allegations about the misuse of funds. 'They have had millions in donations in the past few years and they don't tell the public how they spend it,' he said. There has also been harsh criticism of the conduct of some dissidents. Wang Bingzhang, a founder of the Chinese Democracy and Justice Party, was alleged to have used a forged passport to sneak into China and Hong Kong. He is now facing charges in the US. In addition, Li Lu, one of the core student leaders of Tiananmen Square, fought with another dissident Paul Zhang at the Columbia University campus in New York last month during a function welcoming Wang Dan's release. 'Such incidents really undermine the credibility of dissidents,' Mr Chau said. Mr To and Mr Wu denied existing dissident groups had to merge to form a big party, but they acknowledged funding was a concern. 'We have to be more unified but this does not necessarily mean we have to merge,' Mr To said. 'We can solicit more funds when there are more groups. A merger may be a good thing for the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Movement in China, but not for us.' He said dissident groups needed a strong leader for future democratic movement and that Mr Wei would be a good choice. 'I think Wei is getting more interested in being a leader of different groups,' he said. Mr Wei had said soon after his release in October that he was not interested in becoming the leader of the democratic movement for China. But even if Mr Wei did agree to take the role, many would oppose him. Controversy arose after Mr Wei's release from jail when foreign media crowned him the 'Father of Democratic Movement'. Wang Xizhe and fellow activist Liu Gang said in public that Mr Wei did not deserve the title.