Hong Kong democrats looked on the bright side of Chinese President Hu Jintao's call for stable political reform yesterday, saying his decision not to slap them down in public meant there was room for dialogue.
But both lawmakers and analysts cautioned that the lack of criticism did not mean Beijing would soon be persuaded to allow full democracy in the former British colony.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of wide-ranging freedoms but senior Chinese officials have often accused pro-democracy activists and lawmakers of disloyalty. And Beijing has never failed to make clear it calls all the shots.
The legislators blocked the Beijing-backed reform package last week as it did not set out a timetable for full democracy and had expected strong words from Hu when he met Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang in the Chinese capital on Tuesday.
Instead, Hu merely said that any political change in Hong Kong must be gradual.
"It is a good sign because the central government has not seized the opportunity to attack us, which it would have done in the past. So there's room for future dialogue," said legislator Albert Ho, vice chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party.
Political analyst Timothy Wong agreed: "Since Hu came to power, whether on Hong Kong or Taiwan, he has been communicative and open. And even with this rejection (of the reform package), he doesn't seem to want to take an antagonistic stance.
"He has not openly criticized (the democrats). So in future they will continue to engage the democratic camp."
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Tsang yesterday the city should focus its energies on the economy, and reiterated that any political change should be made in a "stable, healthy" manner.
"There are still some deep-rooted contradictions and problems that have not been totally resolved," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Wen as telling Tsang.
"I hope the Hong Kong government and people in all sectors can come together and focus their energies on developing the economy and improving livelihood and protect harmony in society."
Tsang said he had only had time to discuss Hong Kong's economy with Wen.
"I met the premier for only 45 to 50 minutes. We couldn't speak about many things, so we only spoke about economic matters," he told reporters at a press briefing.
China has already ruled out universal suffrage in 2007/08, when Hong Kong's next leader and batch of lawmakers will be chosen.