For the first time ever, the central government is this week holding a series of high-level dialogues with democrats in Hong Kong on the development of democracy after years of viewing them as subversives bent on overthrowing the mainland government. No doubt, the talks are partly aimed at perpetuating the split in democratic ranks, since the Democratic Party refused to be drawn into the 'de facto referendum' planned by the League of Social Democrats and the Civic Party.
The contacts this week, which may be followed by future meetings with Qiao Xiaoyang , deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, are unlikely to result in any breakthrough. But the meetings are highly significant in that they reflect a new willingness on the part of Beijing to engage directly with the democrats.
The process should lead to greater understanding on topics such as Beijing's concern for maintaining stability and prosperity, and the democrats' desire to eventually get functional constituencies abolished. The talks may well lay the groundwork for how future amendments to the Basic Law will be drawn up to allow for universal suffrage elections for the chief executive in 2017 and for the entire legislature in 2020.
No doubt, Beijing will not want to undercut Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, so liaison office officials will probably not offer any concessions relating to the 2012 political reform package, at least not without first going through the motions of consulting Tsang, since that is within his remit.
The opposite is true of the debate between the chief executive and Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, a leader of the 'de facto referendum' campaign, which was a damp squib. Eu no doubt will want to debate such issues as whether the universal suffrage elections of 2017 will be 'genuine', and to ask for a commitment that functional constituencies will be phased out by 2020. However, she should understand that those issues are outside the remit of the Hong Kong government, though they can be discussed with the liaison office. As the chief executive said in his invitation, the Legislative Council 'will soon make a historic decision on the methods for selecting the chief executive and for forming the Legislative Council in 2012'. The purpose of the debate will be 'to allow the public to better understand the arguments for and against the council's approval of the government's package.'
The proposed debate is a bold move by the chief executive and one that may work out well for him. At the very least, it should clarify the issues for the public and let voters understand that supporting the 2012 package does not mean making concessions on universal suffrage.
The moderate democrats are unhappy that they have been left out in the cold, which is understandable. Some way should be found to involve them, such as allowing them to ask questions of the debaters. The debate's main purpose should be to enable the public to better understand that the 2012 package is not directly linked to how universal suffrage elections in the future will be held.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou just did something similar. He debated with opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen on the merits of the economic co-operation framework agreement with the mainland. While Ing's public support remains higher than Ma's, support for the accord is now much stronger among Taiwan's electorate.
Similarly, once Hong Kong voters understand that the package will bring some reforms in 2012 while not excluding future ones, public support will probably grow, putting pressure on legislators to back it. Greater public support may not result in legislators deciding to back the package, but it would certainly help.
The stakes are high. If the political reform package is vetoed again, just as it was in 2005, it will make Hong Kong difficult to govern, at least by Tsang. In fact, he may be seen in Beijing as someone who cannot get things done.
Thus, Tsang has much to gain and little to lose from the debate.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator