BEIJING (AP) _ Democracy activists trying to register what would be China's first opposition party in almost half a century of communist rule said Friday that officials might approve their historic application.

Activists Xie Wanjun and Liu Lianjun were encouraged when Shandong province officials did not summarily dismiss their attempt and said they would grant the application if it met all national laws, dissident groups reported.

One official showed the dissidents a government memo saying the application was being considered, the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said.

``We cautiously appreciate the positive gesture made by the Chinese government towards the long expected relaxation of the taboo on free association,'' the Washington-based Free China Movement Network said in a statement.

Dissidents have been trying to register the China Democracy Party since President Clinton visited China in June. Police in eastern Zhejiang province in July arrested, and later released, 12 democracy campaigners connected with the group.

In their initial application, the Shandong activists said the China Democracy Party did not intend to challenge the Communist Party.

Beijing has long allowed a few small parties that support government policy, but the ruling Communist Party has not permitted an independent opposition party since coming to power 49 years ago.