The senior Taiwanese official was undiplomatic when he said bluntly that Hong Kong would surely suffer after direct links across the strait resumed. That, the official was quick to add, was not necessarily a bad thing. 'It will force Hong Kong to explore [ways to strengthen] relations with us.' The official was speaking two months ago at an informal session in Taipei to a group of academics from the region, including Hong Kong, on developments in relations between the mainland and Taiwan. While reviewing with satisfaction the pace of rapprochement since the inauguration of Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, in May, the official said developments on the Hong Kong-Taiwan front left much to be desired. The Hong Kong government, he said, had been too conservative in forging ties with the Taiwanese authorities. With the pace of cross-strait developments speeding up in the past two months, the winds of change have at long last begun to blow across the waters between Hong Kong and Taiwan. Last week the mayor of Taichung, Jason Hu Chih-chiang, became the first Taiwanese official to be met formally by government officials during a visit to Hong Kong. He held separate meetings with Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung. Mr Hu, a leading figure of the ruling Kuomintang, testified to the change in ties. 'It's different from my previous visits,' he observed. 'When I previously met [Hong Kong government officials], we met as friends on a private and friendly basis. But this time, it's open and more on official ground.' He invited government officials to visit Taiwan, saying that such visits would be 'entirely possible'. In view of the present cross-strait situation and the status of Hong Kong in that relationship, contact between officials from Hong Kong and Taiwan no doubt remain a sensitive issue. Visits of high-ranking officials such as Mr Lam, not to mention Mr Tsang, to Taiwan hardly look a possibility in the near future. If the official contact between Mr Hu and Mr Lam and Mr Tsang represents a breakthrough, it is more symbolic than a substantive step towards a normal relationship. Under a set of rules issued by the central authorities in the 1990s, official contact between Hong Kong and Taiwan requires the prior consent of Beijing. But set against the background of a long-standing dearth of contact at both official and non-governmental levels in the past few decades, the Taichung mayor's trip is a sign of the shape of things to come in relations. The two places have agreed to set up an intercity forum to boost co-operation in such areas as tourism, trade, cultural exchanges and city management. The Trade Development Council set up an office in Taipei last month, and a non-governmental council on Hong Kong-Taiwan economic and trade co-operation is due to be inaugurated this year. Barring unexpected developments, there are good reasons to believe the momentum of reconciliation will gather more steam. More positive changes will surface after such policies as direct flights between the mainland and Taiwan and an increase in mainland visitors are proved to be mutually beneficial. The spillover effect on Hong Kong-Taiwan relations will then multiply. Although political constraints will remain for some time, relations look set to enter a new era, and co-operation on a wide range of areas could benefit both sides. A full, comprehensive government review of its policies on issues with Taiwan is urgently needed. This will help the formulation of new policies and provide support for groups and enterprises to cope with the challenges ahead and make the most of any opportunities that arise. This will include ways to facilitate exchanges, such as visa-free arrangements, and the adoption of a more flexible approach in fostering official contacts.