Thousands of rifle-toting Chinese soldiers, bolstered by armored vehicles and helicopters, marched in Hong Kong (search) on Sunday, an unprecedented display of Beijing's military might in the former British colony.

Chinese officials say they staged the parade to strengthen Hong Kong's relations with the People's Liberation Army (search). But it comes at a time of tension over the expected victory of pro-democracy candidates in September elections.

The parade "displays the army's strength and determination to maintain Hong Kong's prosperity and stability," said Wang Jitang, commander of the PLA's Hong Kong garrison.

In an apparent goodwill gesture, the army invited pro-democracy lawmakers to the event, held at a barracks on the outskirts of town. Yeung Sum, Hong Kong's top opposition party leader, watched the parade with eight other Democratic Party lawmakers.

"They are very well-trained and disciplined and leave us with a lasting impression," he said, but added it was "just a ceremony and not real communication."

About 3,000 soldiers wearing the army's signature green uniforms and carrying rifles marched crisply in formation, escorted by armored vehicles and helicopters.

They were decked out in the green uniforms typical of members of the People's Liberation Army, which won control of mainland China for Mao Zedong's Communists (search) in a 1949 civil war.

It was the first time China has organized a military parade in Hong Kong, where many view the army with suspicion, especially since its brutal suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed and people in Hong Kong hold annual vigils in memory of the victims.

While the PLA has maintained a presence in the former British colony since it reverted to Chinese rule seven years ago, the troops keep an extremely low profile, mostly confining themselves to their barracks.

Despite the suspicion, Sunday's parade generated intense interest. People reportedly began lining up before dawn to get a good vantage point.

Hong Kong has enjoyed Western-style civil liberties since its handover to Chinese rule, but only limited democracy. The mini-constitution, the Basic Law, sets out universal suffrage as an eventual goal, but specifies no timetable.

In a first step, voters will choose 30 of 60 lawmakers in September elections, with the remaining seats to be filled by special interest groups such as business executives, doctors and bankers.

The voters are expected to side overwhelmingly with anti-government and pro-democracy candidates, which could spell political trouble for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Many in Hong Kong are unhappy with Tung, who was picked by a pro-Beijing committee. China decreed in April that residents cannot democratically choose his successor in 2007 or all lawmakers in 2008.

Ma Lik, leader of Hong Kong's top pro-Beijing party, said the central government is sincere about improving relations with pro-democracy lawmakers.

"But this has to be done step by step, not overnight," said Ma, chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. "This will be good for Hong Kong's stability and societal harmony."

Ma declined to comment on whether the move will calm public anger and boost the chances of pro-China candidates at the elections.