Twenty-seven months ago, Premier Wen Jiabao mounted a charm offensive in Hong Kong to soothe the economic and psychological pain of people affected by a protracted economic downturn deepened by the Sars crisis. He hugged children of an Amoy Gardens family who had suffered from Sars, shook hands with ordinary people at a shopping arcade, and presided over a ceremony to mark the sealing of a trade accord called the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement between the mainland and Hong Kong. Shortly after his departure, more than half a million residents vented their anger and grievances against the government's handling of the Article 23 legislation and the Sars crisis, among other things. Pressure for the sacking of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa mounted. Tension in the city's political scene, and in mainland-Hong Kong relations, grew. Images of the 'people's premier', the July protests, the drama over the battle for full democracy, the departure of Mr Tung and the ascendancy of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen remain vivid in Hong Kong's collective memory of the post-July 1 political tale. A sense of deja vu will prevail this weekend, when Vice-President Zeng Qinghong arrives here tomorrow for a three-day visit. That it will be the first of its kind by a state leader after the July 1 rally in 2003 says a lot about the sea changes in the political landscape. Mr Zeng will make another first when he dines with all legislators - including radical democrat 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung and veteran Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming - at a welcome dinner at Government House on Sunday, together with a list of who's who in the city. People familiar with the visit say Mr Zeng wants as much contact with people as possible this trip. Days before his visit was announced, Mr Tsang revealed Beijing had accepted his recommendation of a trip by all legislators to Guangdong on September 25 and 26. It is described as an ice-breaking trip, since ties between the democrats and Beijing were frozen after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Likening their political game with the central government to a tennis match, Democrat legislator Cheung Man-kwong said it was always a game where every ball would be served by Beijing under the power structure of 'one country, two systems'. 'We lose the power to serve a game under the present situation,' he said. 'Democrats are being positioned as kind of between 'us' and 'them'. We are no longer being seen as enemies, but we are also far from their friends. We have become marginalised.' By giving equal treatment to all legislators at an official banquet here, Mr Cheung said Mr Zeng had adopted the approach taken by the late Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Liao Chengzhi . Liao had suggested the idea of 'Hong Kong issues being handled in Hong Kong ways'. Inviting the democrats - many of whom have been denied entry into the mainland since 1989 - to join the trip, Mr Cheung said, had removed the political barrier in relations. Mr Cheung, whose home visit permit was denied renewal because of his role in a pro-democracy alliance, said the denial of entry into the mainland was a key tactic adopted by Mr Tung to isolate some leading democrats. The hostilities and mistrust between the democrats and the government had bred instability and undermined effective governance, he said. 'The Hu Jintao -style of leadership on the mainland is being applied to Hong Kong. Stability, harmony and effective governance have become the catchwords,' he said. 'First, they gave the boot to Mr Tung, then hand-picked Donald Tsang. After that, they began to reunite different forces. By reaffirming our role in the political system, they hope to keep our influence and impact to a minimum.' A local deputy to the National People's Congress, Allen Lee Peng-fei, said the olive branch given to the democrats was in line with the policy of Mr Hu in championing the growth of a harmonious society on the mainland. 'The last thing Beijing wants is another half-million rally. For them to avoid it, they know they have to talk to the democrats. This will significantly dilute the political fallout of the electoral reform proposal when it is announced,' he said. Speculation has been rife that the government is considering deferring the publication of its mainstream political reform package from the end of this month until later next month. While insisting on their stance on full universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008, some pro-democratic legislators maintain they will not support any reform proposal without a substantive improvement in democratic reform. They have vowed to put their demand for dual universal suffrage directly to Mr Zeng during his visit. Some democrats have also indicated they will urge Beijing to reverse its verdict of the June 4 crackdown. Mainland officials said the major purpose of Mr Zeng's trip was to give a confidence booster to Hongkongers about the future. His presence at the grand opening of Disneyland is aimed at highlighting the mainland factor within the city's tourism development. The mainland is expected to become a major source of visitors to the Lantau Island theme park. Officials hinted Mr Zeng would not delve into any details about the electoral arrangements, while reiterating major principles such as the ultimate goal of full universal suffrage and a public say in the process. Chan Kin-man, of the Chinese University's sociology department, said developments that had unfolded since the resignation of Mr Tung could bolster Beijing's self-confidence that it had made the right decisions. He said the mindset of Beijing had been that the crux of problems in Hong Kong lay not with the system, but with the people who implemented it. The return to political peace and stability after the removal of Mr Tung reinforced this to them, Professor Chan said. 'Opinion polls still show 60 to 70 per cent of people support dual universal suffrage by 2007 and 2008. But their belief in democracy has not been translated into intense power for change. Two years on, Beijing understands better the political aspirations of people. 'The crux of the matter is to make sure the small number of core democrats won't be able to mobilise people to the streets again to push for democracy. Beijing is moving to help defuse a political crisis before it becomes one,' he said. Professor Chan, who is regularly consulted by mainland researchers on Hong Kong issues, said Beijing was apparently keen to learn the public reaction to their initiatives during Mr Zeng's trip. 'A lot depends on how the democrats react. It will be an interactive process. If the democrats respond positively, it will further ease the political atmosphere and open up more possibilities for contacts,' he said. 'Beijing has stuck to a longstanding approach of 'feeling the stones when crossing the river'. They do not seem to have already formulated a comprehensive game plan. When there's a lot of uncertainty because of the lack of basic trust, their natural instinct is not to over-promise on the issue of dialogue. 'Under the present circumstance, gestures and informal chats are quite important in boosting basic trust, without which it will be difficult for both sides to go into details.' Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, a political scientist at City University, said Mr Zeng's visit would send a message of Beijing's support of Mr Tsang. He said Beijing's approval of the democrat's Guangdong visit was a clear attempt to give credit to Mr Tsang for mending the fences between Beijing and the democrats. 'I suspect the central authorities may have already given broad consent to the government proposal on electoral reform. The purpose of the trip is for him to consolidate support from pro-government, pro-Beijing legislators over the model.' Professor Cheung said Beijing's increasingly aggressive approach towards Hong Kong contrasted sharply with the lack of a comprehensive, full game plan from the democrats. Mr Zeng may be a political unknown to the people of Hong Kong, but Professor Cheung said he believed he was an extremely professional and skilful politician with whom the democrats would find it difficult to deal. Two years after Beijing adopted a more aggressive approach towards Hong Kong, the central government now felt relaxed with the political scene, Professor Cheung said. 'With the winds of political change blowing strong, the democrats are unable to find their feet. Beijing feels more confident in taking the initiative to deal with them. To Beijing, the [political fallout of the] July 1 rally is over.'