HONG KONG — A high-profile gathering in Taiwan this weekend to discuss Hong Kong's troubled ties with mainland China seems likely to draw Beijing's ire and further strain already tense relations across the Taiwan Strait, those tracking developments in the region say.
Because mainland leaders have promoted Hong Kong's quasi-autonomous relationship with Beijing as a potential model for bringing Taiwan under their control, criticism of that experiment -- known as one country, two systems -- is always irksome to Beijing. But a conference in Taiwan that includes outspoken pro-democracy advocates from Hong Kong seems certain to rile the mainland.
A key concern of mainland leaders since Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty six years ago has been that the more free-wheeling political environment in the autonomous region, which saw major demonstrations against the local government last month, might be a breeding ground for trouble elsewhere in greater China.
Meeting organizer Taiwan Advocates has close ties to former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui and others eager to promote the island's separate identity from the mainland. Lee's suggestion four years ago that Taiwan's ties with Beijing should be conducted on a "state-to-state" basis so enraged Beijing that efforts toward normalizing relations have still not recovered.
Lee is scheduled to open the two-day conference Saturday morning at a hotel in central Taipei with Taiwan's current president, Chen Shui-bian. Beijing has tried to isolate Chen since he was elected 3 1/2 years ago, mainly because of his party's pro-independence leanings.
Lee and Chen have consistently rejected the two-systems formula outright, as do Taiwan's opposition Nationalists, even though they favor eventual reunification.
The conference is "politically significant," said Yuan Yi, a regional specialist at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "It's going to give lots of natural ammunition to support [the organizers'] beliefs."
The street demonstrations in Hong Kong have fueled such interest that sponsors said they moved the meeting to a larger venue to accommodate the 600 people who have registered to attend the conference. They say that's about 50% more than initially expected.
The participation of political figures from Hong Kong who have been frequent critics of the one-country, two-systems experiment seems likely to complicate Hong Kong's relations with Beijing, already unsettled by last month's protests.
Taiwan Advocates spokeswoman Meili Chow insisted that the group had no intention of stirring controversy. In a telephone interview, Chow said the conference had been initially planned for late June, before the protests in Hong Kong, but was postponed because of the SARS outbreak.
"This is just a conference. We don't want to provoke anything," she said. "We want to take a close look at the political and economic changes in Hong Kong in the six years since it returned to Chinese rule."
The leader of Hong Kong's pro-democracy Frontier Party, Emily Lau, also defended her right to speak at the conference and the right of about 20 others from Hong Kong to attend.
"It's important for Hong Kong and Taiwan to have a dialogue," she said. "Going there doesn't mean I agree with everything that's said, and saying that my going to Taiwan is [politically] dangerous isn't a very strong endorsement that one country, two systems protects free speech in Hong Kong."