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Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (R) listens as Zhang Dejiang (L), who chairs China's communist-controlled legislature, speaks as they visit the foyer of a newly built public housing block due to open later this year in Hong Kong on May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Anthony Wallace/Pool

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By Clare Baldwin and Stella Tsang

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong visit by a top leader of China's Communist Party, which included talks with pro-democracy lawmakers, was an "important breakthrough" in relations between Beijing and the city, an influential Chinese newspaper said on Thursday.

The visit by Zhang Dejiang, the third most senior member of the Communist Party, follows a period of tension in Hong Kong after tens of thousands took to the streets in 2014 to press for full democracy.

The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula meant to preserve its freedoms, but the refusal of Beijing to allow full democracy for a 2017 city election has raised fears for its autonomy.

Resentment has simmered, and some democracy activists have even raised calls for independence, a previously taboo issue. Security was tight for Zhang's three-day visit that began on Tuesday.

The Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling party's People's Daily newspaper, said there was no chance of independence for Hong Kong but it called Zhang's meeting with the pro-democracy members of the city's legislative assembly an "important breakthrough".

Hong Kong should give the legislators room to act politically, and they should be allowed to call for the ouster of the pro-Beijing chief executive of the city.

"Although it is a sharp demand for the pan-democrats to have asked Zhang to replace the current chief executive, that is part of their rights to ask," the newspaper said in an editorial, referring to pro-democracy city legislators.

Zhang said repeatedly he had come to listen, and his meeting with the veteran democracy campaigners, and the editorial in a state-run newspaper, were unprecedented.

While it was not clear what action Beijing might take as a result of the visit, one of the legislators said it could signal a new stance on Hong Kong.

"It is an unprecedented move," said Emily Lau, chairwoman of the city's Democratic Party and one of four pro-democracy lawmakers to attend a reception with Zhang on Wednesday. "It may show that they want to handle things a bit differently."

"The situation here is pretty grim ... it's not just the pro-democracy camp, but the business community, the professional people, the grassroots people, they are all deeply unhappy, dissatisfied, frustrated and some feel hopeless," she said.

Another lawmaker who did not attend the reception but is a long-time democracy activist, said Beijing authorities appeared to have realised that a tough stand against calls for greater democracy risked stirring demands for independence.

"They realised the problem with very hardline confrontation is that they are losing the middle to a more separatist view ... especially the young people," said Lee Cheuk-yan.

"I think they believe with a softer posture maybe they can gain the good faith of the people of Hong Kong and avoid the problem of spreading views against China and separating from China."

(Reporting by Clare Baldwin and Stella Tsang; Additional reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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