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By Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Chinese dissidents held out hope on Friday that Communist authorities might approve their application to register the first democratic party since the 1949 Communist revolution.
A spokesman for visiting U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson hailed the news.
``That would be a major breakthrough,'' Jose Diaz said by telephone from the Tibetan capital Lhasa, where Robinson arrived on Thursday as part of a 10-day visit to China.
Chinese authorities did not outright deny that a new political party may be allowed.
But a statement from the State Council, or cabinet, lambasted a Hong Kong-based human rights group that broke the news as ``misleading public opinion.''
The Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China issued a statement saying that an official in Jinan, capital of eastern Shandong province, told two dissidents on Thursday that the government was considering their application to form the Chinese Democratic Party.
Later, one of the dissidents, Liu Lianjun, said officials told them that they would consider the application once they met ``basic criteria,'' such as a registration fee, a headquarters and list of 50 party members.
``I think this is a big advance. It is unavoidable, because society's trend is toward onward development of democracy,'' Liu said in a telephone interview.
Asked to comment on the Hong Kong group's statement, the State Council said the group had ``fabricated rumours on several occasions.''
``It is intentionally misleading public opinion and we feel utmost regret,'' a statement said.
``The Shandong province department of civil affairs did not receive, and is not processing, an application by the so-called Chinese Democratic Party.''
But the cabinet statement stopped short of an outright denial.
Qin Yongmin, one of three pro-democracy campaigners who tried to register the same party in the central city of Wuhan on Friday, said authorities could be trying ``delaying tactics.''
Alternatively, Communist officials could be luring dissidents into a trap, he said.
``We cannot rule out the possibility that it is a plot to 'lure the snake out of the hole','' Qin said, quoting a Chinese proverb.
The trio were told they would receive an answer in one month, Qin said.
The Hong Kong statement said a Jinan official, reading from a prepared text, told dissidents the government was considering approval, but with conditions.
The party must have registered capital of 50,000 yuan (US$6,000) and provide its address, a list of 50 of its members and a brief description of its chairman, vice-chairman and secretary.
``But whether Beijing is really lifting the ban in earnest, or just doing something for Mrs Robinson to see, remains to be seen,'' the Hong Kong report said.
The Jinan official who talked to the dissidents would neither confirm nor deny the report by the group.
Frank Lu, the spokesman for the Hong Kong group, said the party was expected to have a membership of more than 100.
In June, a group of dissidents in Hangzhou, capital of eastern Zhejiang province, tried to register the same party with the provincial department of civil affairs when U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived for a visit.
After Clinton left, Chinese police rounded up 13 Hangzhou dissidents. All have since been released.