The decision by the democrats to adopt a more conciliatory and communicative approach towards the mainland is surprising - but sensible. It suggests a new sense of reality is forming among some of Beijing's fiercest critics, not of meekly accepting reality but of dealing with the reality of Hong Kong's legal and political position. The move was mainly motivated by the realisation that confrontational tactics are likely to lose the pro-democracy camp votes in the September election. But the shift signifies more than that. It reflects a recognition that progress on the political front can only be made through greater communication. In this sense, the decision is a victory for realism, pragmatism and common sense. The change in tone is striking. Martin Lee Chu-ming, branded a traitor by Beijing earlier this year, will soon propose a motion in the Legislative Council calling on the public to 'join hands' with the central government. Even the often fiery Emily Lau Wai-hing is talking up her gentle side. But the change, while significant, is more of tactics than of principle. The democrats are not going to discard their basic beliefs. Nor should they. Any negotiation involves an element of compromise in reaching the final result. However, this does not mean ditching strongly held views right at the start. The value of the new, softer approach is that it will further mutual understanding and respect between the democrats and Beijing. This can only help Hong Kong's aspirations for political reform, by opening new channels for dialogue - a means of explaining Hong Kong people's views, values and traditions and of offering reassurance that moving towards universal suffrage is a natural step that will improve political stability here. This must work both ways. So far, the response from the central government has been disappointing. But it is to be expected, given the long history of mutual antagonism. The opening gambit, how- ever, is not necessarily a pointer to the future. Building mutual trust is going to take a long time. At least the Hong Kong government's chief adviser, Lau Siu-kai, seems reasonably optimistic. A more immediate concern for the democrats is that they respond to the mood of the Hong Kong people. How would we expect the majority to feel after the turbulent year we have just experienced? Most people will stand by their desire for universal suffrage. But they will be anxious about Beijing's attacks on Hong Kong political leaders and worried about prompting further hardline action from the mainland. They would likely be nervous when they see certain democrats advocating a combative approach. If polls conducted by the Democratic Party suggest its popularity has dropped, this is likely why. The new line, therefore, makes good political sense. There is an element of risk: the move may well split the pro-democracy camp. However, the division would be of a kind that political parties elsewhere have had to face. On one side will be those who wish to stick rigidly to their principles even if this means not achieving anything. These purists will always have their place. There will also be those who wish not only to fight for their beliefs, but to do so in a way that is likely to bring results. These are the politicians more likely to win the support of Hong Kong people. The high popularity ratings enjoyed by Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, for example, indicate a preference for a more reasonable, moderate approach. Voters should be made aware of these milder voices in the democratic camp so they can make an informed choice in the election. But getting the message across to Beijing is more important. That way, perhaps, the democrats will no longer be lumped together by the central government and - wrongly - seen as having a secret agenda seeking independence. The olive branch extended by the democrats this week might be prompted by political necessity. But it bodes well for future relations with the mainland.