For the first time, lawmakers from across Hong Kong's diverse political spectrum have sat down to lunch with Beijing's top envoy in the city, Zhang Xiaoming. The topic discussed was the one that ultimately defines the "one country, two systems" concept - the goal under the Basic Law of universal suffrage. The ice has been broken. The way ahead may be uncharted and the omens not all positive. But the waters must not be allowed to freeze over again if Beijing and pro-democracy forces are to narrow their differences enough for there to be any prospect of a consensus on universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive election.
The lunch in the Legislative Assembly dining hall was described as a social gathering by the host, Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing. It was indeed congenial, given the pan-democrats' strained relations with Beijing. But such an unprecedented gathering had to have political overtones. Zhang got down to business in a pre-lunch speech.
He made it clear Beijing has boundaries when it comes to the composition and role of the nominating committee - the key institution in the implementation of universal suffrage for the election of chief executive. He hinted there should be screening of candidates - anathema to many in his audience, but consistent with statements by top officials that people who oppose Beijing could not rule Hong Kong.
Prompted by a gift from a lawmaker of a boat made of a sieve, he said conventional wisdom was that a sieve could screen out unwanted seeds.
Zhang also sounded a warning if the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement in support of democracy should implement its ultimate plan to paralyse the central business district with a 10,000-strong crowd. It would be a disastrous contravention of the law, he said, with lasting consequences.
Zhang told lawmakers the central government was sincere about introducing universal suffrage in Hong Kong so long as it followed the path laid down in the Basic Law and the 2007 ruling by the National People's Congress Standing Committee.
Above all, universal suffrage depends on trust and consensus. With just four years to go, there is a need for early dialogue on the electoral arrangements. Zhang said he welcomed further dialogue and expressed a preference for meetings with small groups in future. The democrats should seize any opportunity. The two sides have much to discuss.