The sharp change in the fortunes of leading democrats in the political scene could not be more dramatic. In March last year, former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming was a traitor - in the words of mainland Vice-Minister of Commerce An Min. The director of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong, Gao Siren, ridiculed democrats as daydreamers when they expressed a wish to visit Beijing. In the midst of a wave of patriotic talk, a group of local deputies of the National People's Congress demanded a public apology from Mr Lee over his democracy-lobbying trip to Washington. Nineteen months on, Mr Lee was a VIP touring Pearl River Delta cities in a Legislative Council delegation led by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Lee Wing-tat and Cheung Man-kwong, Martin Lee's party colleagues who are at the core of a democratic alliance labelled by Beijing as subversive, could walk the streets and chat with residents in Guangzhou during a two-day visit. After 16 years of acrimony and stand-off following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, ties between the central authorities and the democrats - a key plank in the complex mainland-Hong Kong interface - are heading towards reconciliation. Allen Lee Peng-fei, a veteran politician and a deputy of the NPC, said: 'The door of communication is open. More dialogue and contacts are in the pipeline.' Noting Beijing had put aside patriotism as a political principle in handling Hong Kong issues, a long-time pro-Beijing figure, Lau Nai-keung, observed drastic changes in the political ecology. 'The notions of 'patriotism' and 'democracy' no longer function as the dividing line in society. Most people are patriotic democrats. The days of excessive politics and social divisiveness will be gone. Economic and livelihood issues will dominate the agenda for a long period of time. 'For political activists, it is a new political ecology. It's a big challenge.' Lo Chi-kin, a political analyst and public affairs consultant, said the central government had sent a message via the delta visit that it saw the democrats as part of the Chinese people. 'That Beijing has abandoned the political baggage is part of its drive towards rebuilding a new political order in the city.' Described as the first step of a thousand-mile journey, the Guangdong visit marks the end of the beginning of a fundamental change of Beijing's strategy towards Hong Kong after the July 1 rally in 2003. A groundswell of grievances against the Tung Chee-hwa leadership soon drove the momentum of democratic change and Beijing played hardball with the political dissent. A blitz of publicity on Deng Xiaoping's thoughts and patriotic talk in late 2003 and early last year became the curtain raiser to a decision in April last year to rule out universal suffrage for 2007-08. Yet, about the same time, the mainland authorities also began to reach out to the moderates in the pan-democratic camp. At a broader level, mainland officials have fostered contact and dialogue with a wider section of the community. As the political and economic scene settled, Beijing surprised the community by changing the man at the helm of Hong Kong. Mr Tung resigned, citing health reasons. Once dismissed as a remnant of British colonial legacy, Mr Tsang was elected unchallenged for the two-year term. Mr Tsang has pledged to mend fences between the democrats and Beijing. Allen Lee said Beijing's strategy towards Hong Kong had been heavily tilted towards Mr Tsang ever since he took over as chief executive. 'Whatever Donald proposes, Beijing is giving its best support,' he said. 'Strategically, it helps bolster the authority of the Tsang administration. More important, it represents a major change in the strategy of Beijing. It is now talking directly to the people here. 'The [President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao ] leadership has attached much importance to the nurturing of a harmonious society. Democrats took up about 60 per cent of votes in elections. It would be wrong to put them in an adversarial position. 'The political winds of change are blowing. Even big canons such as Tsang Hin-chi have moderated their comment on the democrats. They certainly know which way the wind blows.' Known as a vocal democrat-basher, Mr Tsang, who sits on the NPC Standing Committee, responded mildly to fears expressed by Martin Lee about the danger of democrats falling into a political trap. Speaking after returning from the delta visit, Mr Lee was worried democrats would play into Beijing's hands and back down over their principled stance on universal suffrage. The mild words of Tsang Hin-chi, uncharacteristic of his sharp tongue, are in line with the positive spin by Hong Kong-based mainland officials over the so-called ice-breaking trip. Another local NPC deputy, Peter Wong Man-kong, said the rising overall strength of China in the past few years has emboldened the Communist Party leadership to face up to the Hong Kong and Taiwan questions squarely. 'The leadership feels self-assured about talking to the Kuomintang in Taiwan and the democrats in Hong Kong,' he said. 'If they could put aside the decades-long rivalry with the KMT, the issue of the democrats is not a big deal.' Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a leading political scientist at City University, said the major change of policy made possible under the Hu-Wen leadership would prevail in time. 'They shook hands with the KMT's Lien Chen and James Soong [Chu-yu] of the People First Party. They let [Taiwanese liberal writer] Li Ao in. They no longer feel unease talking to people with dissenting views,' he said. '[But] at the end of the day, it is the old united front tactic - practically speaking, they do have to find a solution to constitutional reform development. 'The whole approach is still aimed at managing a difficult situation caused by the imperative of bringing incremental democracy forward, but not solving the problem at its roots.' That said, Professor Cheng pointed out that the warming of the political atmosphere would make the push for democracy more difficult. He lamented the fact that the city's democratic development had gained momentum largely from economic malaises and government failures. 'When circumstances change, we are not able to create our own agenda and relate it to democracy,' he said. 'We have to tackle the issue in light of the change of Beijing's strategy.' Former chairman of the Democratic Party, Yeung Sum, said Beijing had come to realise the damaging consequences of its erroneous policy of isolating the democrats since the 1989 protests. 'Politics is full of dynamics. The subject of June 4 used to be taboo. Now they are prepared to respond in the process of dialogue. When circumstances change, the content of dialogue will also change,' Dr Yeung said. Raymond Wu Wai-yung, a local NPC deputy, is adamant Beijing has never treated the democrats as an enemy of the people. He said tough talk on issues such as patriotism was aimed at putting pressure on the democrats for them to return to the right track. 'Rather than waiting for the democrats to learn, Beijing has taken the first step of reconciliation,' he said. 'I have no idea what will be the next step. It's an interactive process. Hong Kong people have been damaging their own autonomy in the past eight years. [When it was seen that] Hong Kong people could not manage their own affairs well, Beijing stepped in.' Lau Nai-keung, who sits on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said Beijing's move to distance itself from the 'love China, love Hong Kong' force in its latest change of tack would have a profound impact on the political scene. He said Beijing could no longer manage Hong Kong affairs by turning to its core supporters - the 'love China, love Hong Kong' force - to back the government on specific policies. 'Beijing and the liaison office will have to interfere directly in times of crisis.'