Martin Lee Chu-ming yesterday retracted a proposal for electoral change he put forward a day earlier and apologised to his critics in the pan-democratic camp, saying he had "let them down".
The dramatic U-turn by the founding chairman of the Democratic Party underlined the gap between Beijing and the pan-democrats on political reform.
It was also an indication of the dilemma facing pan-democrats - whether to open talks on practical issues, such as the rules for nominating chief executive candidates within the parameters set by Beijing; or stick to its call for "genuine universal suffrage".
Lee had proposed that candidates for the 2017 chief executive election could be nominated via a screening process.
But he conceded it was "a rash decision" to put forward the controversial plan for universal suffrage before seeking advice from fellow pan-democrats.
"I believe this is the wrong time to post my opinion, particularly for what I said would be acceptable to me as the bottom line," Lee said. "After reflection, I have no hesitation that I should retract that proposal."
Lee said he was "under no pressure" to make the U-turn and added: "I apologise to all people concerned … particularly my long-time supporters. But my fight for democracy certainly will not end and I will continue to fight for a fair and open election."
Lee had suggested at least five candidates be admitted into the 2017 race, allowing at least one pan-democrat to compete.
But this would mean accepting the 1,200-strong nominating committee, with its formation based on the existing election committee, and that the candidates be nominated by the committee "as a whole", as suggested by Qiao Xiaoyang , chairman of the National People's Congress Law Committee.
The idea got a warm welcome from government loyalists. Tai Kung Pao, a pro-Beijing newspaper, said Lee's proposal was "way better" than the action proposed by the Occupy Central movement. But the Alliance for True Democracy - a coalition of all 27 pan-democratic lawmakers - said it was unacceptable.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, convenor of the alliance, said Lee had made a wise decision to withdraw the proposal. "Our bottom line - for the past 30 years - is genuine universal suffrage," he said.
Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said the lesson to be learned was that any idea should be discussed widely before being made public
Tam Yiu-chung, chairman of the Beijing-friendly Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, was disappointed Lee retracted the idea so soon. He said: "It will add difficulties in reaching a consensus to achieve universal suffrage."
Ma Ngok, of Chinese University, said Lee's proposal had accepted "too low" a standard for universal suffrage. "Lee should realise he is not helping the cause of the pursuit of democracy."