Is there a pan-democrat Beijing would allow to run?
It's the big question in reform debate, and one name crops up regularly - Anthony Cheung
Tanna Chong and Gary Cheung
The prospects for electoral reform do not look rosy, with Beijing and the pan-democratic camp at odds over the meaning of the simple phrase, "love the country, love Hong Kong".
That's the sentence with which top mainland officials have summarised the central government's basic requirement for any chief executive candidate.
But while debate rages over barely understood technicalities like "public nomination" and "block voting", the question many want answered is much more straightforward: what candidate - if any - with a democratic background would be acceptable to Beijing? And would it be too much to ask that they do a good job of running the city if elected?
It's a question that has crystallised since Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, a veteran Beijing loyalist, observed that unless the lack of trust between the capital and the pan-democrats was resolved, the technicalities were moot.
A feasible solution to that issue of trust would be to ensure a candidate acceptable to both camps could enter the race.
One such person, according to someone close to the government, is Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, the secretary for transport and housing.
Cheung, a former vice-chairman of the Democratic Party and one-time political scientist at City University, chaired the political group Meeting Point, which merged with the United Democrats in 1994 to form the Democratic Party.
Known for his moderate stance on political and social issues, Cheung was ousted from the vice-chairmanship by the party's radicals, known as the Young Turks, in 1998. He quit the party in 2004. He was appointed an executive councillor in 2005 and became president of the Institute of Education in 2007.
"The fact that the central government approved Cheung's appointment as a minister is an indication of Beijing's trust in him," the government-connected person said on condition of anonymity.
Tsang said in January that none of the tabled electoral reform proposals could bridge the divide between Beijing and pan-democrats.
"It will take a candid talk between both sides, where each shares their anxiety, to build trust and narrow the divide," he said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
A lawmaker loyal to Beijing said Cheung was up to the job.
"He is one of the few ministers to do his job well," said the lawmaker, who is a member of the Housing Authority chaired by Cheung.
A veteran pan-democrat agreed that Cheung would be one of the few people acceptable to Beijing if he ran in the chief executive race.
Asked whether the minister was interested in running for chief executive or willing to stay in the administration beyond 2017, Cheung's press secretary said: "Professor Cheung has committed to serving the current term government until June 2017. He has not made any commitment to be in government beyond 2017."
Meanwhile, buzz has already started over which pan-democrats could become ministers in a post-2017 government. Names frequently mentioned include Undersecretary for the Environment Christine Loh Kung-wai and Community Care Fund chairman Dr Law Chi-kwong.
The person close to the government said Loh, who belonged to the pan-democratic camp when she was a lawmaker in the 1990s, had the potential to become a minister.
Loh would not comment on whether she was willing to stay in the government beyond 2017. With regards to Law, Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin said the fund chairman was "smart and non-partisan" when he sat on statutory bodies.
But he added: "Political reform is more about building the system than talking about who is acceptable and who is not."
A pro-establishment politician who is on good terms with pan-democrats suggested the democrats could support a candidate they considered acceptable to run in the 2017 chief executive election in return for a more flexible electoral system.
"By promising not to field their own representative in the 2017 election, pan-democrats could press the central government to pledge a less stringent nomination threshold," the politician said.