China will offer Taiwan more autonomy than Hong Kong or Macao if it reunifies with the mainland, the Chinese foreign minister said Friday in a speech indicating a softening in Beijing's stance.

"As for Taiwan, we will adopt an even more flexible policy than that toward Hong Kong and Macao. Taiwan, once reunited with the mainland, will enjoy a greater autonomy than Hong Kong and Macao," Tang Jiaxuan said at a luncheon sponsored by the Asia Society and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.James Reardon-Anderson, professor of Chinese studies at Georgetown University, called the statement "quite a significant" one that may indicate a change in China's policy toward Taiwan.

"This might be a signal from somebody (in the Chinese government) trying to say that they ought to be more flexible," said Reardon-Anderson, who did not attend the luncheon.

Tang did not specify in his speech what "greater autonomy" Taiwan would receive.

Hong Kong reverted smoothly from British to Chinese rule in July 1997. The Beijing government promised to leave Hong Kong's political and economic structure generally intact under a policy of "one country-two systems." China will regain the tiny Portuguese colony of Macao in what it hopes to be an equally smooth transition in December 1999.

Tang's speech, made on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly debate, appears to back Taiwanese news reports this week that Chinese President Jiang Zemin hopes to make a major breakthrough on relations with Taiwan.

China and Taiwan have been making plans recently to resume negotiations. China broke off talks with Taiwan in 1995 in anger over the island's efforts to assert itself internationally.