Action speaks louder than words, as the saying goes. And a picture is worth a thousand words. Legislator Frederick Fung Kin-kee probably had both in mind when he presented the central government's liaison office director, Zhang Xiaoming, with a collection of sieves at a Legislative Council lunch. It was to make the point that pan-democrats wouldn't tolerate any sifting of chief executive candidates Beijing didn't like.
That was nearly two months ago. The tone of the public debate has shifted markedly since then. There is less repetition of the mantra from the loyalists of the need to screen out undesirable candidates, which, of course, means pan-democrats. Even some big guns from the pro-establishment camp now concede that the exclusion of pan-democrat candidates would make a mockery of Hong Kong's first chief executive election by universal suffrage.
I wouldn't call that a U-turn, more a slow awakening to the fact that the 2017 election has to been seen as credible not just by Hong Kong people but the world. A sifting of candidates would rob it of any credibility. Hong Kong - which gradually disappeared from the global political radar screen after the handover - would instantly reappear as a big flashing dot. That dot would flash even more furiously if the central government used its Basic Law power to veto a chief executive elected by the people.
Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, a Beijing loyalist, warned in a recent TV interview with me that riots would break out if the central government refused to approve a chief executive elected by the people. Legislator James Tien Pei-chun, considered a maverick from the pro-establishment camp, told me Beijing's veto power was, in reality, unusable because its use would plunge Hong Kong into an unprecedented political crisis. Executive councillors Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, both from the loyalist camp, have made it clear in recent weeks that we should forget about screening.
So where does that leave the central government? With two realities it may find unpalatable but must swallow: Beijing must not rig the election process to ensure an outcome it desires and pan-democrats must be allowed to become candidates. Failure to do these two things would unleash the full fury of Occupy Central.
There is no real appetite among moderate democrats to press ahead with mass civil disobedience. They know it's like dropping a bomb that could cause far more destruction than intended.
The way out for the central government lies in one word: trust. In pressing for what they call true democracy, pan-democrats say Beijing must trust that Hong Kong people are smart enough not to elect a leader who would confront the central government.
Beijing, understandably, will find it hard to do this. Trust is a two-way street. The spiteful mistrust the pan-democrats have for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the Communist Party hasn't exactly reassured Beijing. But the central government has only two cards to play: trust Hong Kong people or risk political havoc. Trusting Hong Kong people to do the right thing will be much less of a gamble.
Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. firstname.lastname@example.org