Beijing's top official in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, is ready to "tackle all questions" at a lunch with the entire Legislative Council - and pan-democrats vowed to voice their strong demand for universal suffrage.
The unprecedented occasion, revealed yesterday, will be the first time the central government's liaison office has sat down with lawmakers from all shades of the political spectrum since the 1997 handover.
It is understood that Zhang, a Basic Law expert who took over as director of the liaison office at the end of last year, is prepared to talk with the pan-democrats on sensitive issues - as Beijing has come to realise the importance of expressing its views directly.
A source familiar with the arrangement said: "Zhang is ready to take whatever questions are raised from the lawmakers."
The source said that as well as lunch, to be held in the dining room of the new Legco offices next Tuesday, Zhang will tour the building. "He will take the opportunity to get to know more about Legco's operations and lawmakers," the source added.
While pan-democrats were busy planning what to say, Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing stressed that it is a social gathering - not an occasion for a serious debate on political reform. He said there would be no specific topics for discussion over lunch.
"As for lawmakers who wish to express their opinion to officials of the liaison office, such as handing over petition letters, I believe we all understand that we should respect each other," he said. "I am not worried that there will be any chaotic scenes." Tsang, who extended the invitation to Zhang last week, said the head table will include legislators from all major political parties, both pro-establishment and pan-democratic.
Labour Party chairman Lee Cheuk-yan said he hoped the lunch would lead to better communication, especially on political reform. He called for Zhang to refute remarks made by National People's Congress Law Committee chairman, Qiao Xiaoyang, in March that the city's chief executive must not confront the central government.
Qiao's remarks gave rise to concerns that an electoral "screening" mechanism could be imposed to block potential pro-democracy candidates.
Lee also planned to submit petitions to Zhang calling for accountability for the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Radical League of Social Democrats lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung will call for the release of Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was jailed in December 2009.
Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said she would tell Zhang that Hongkongers hoped universal suffrage could be achieved as soon as possible, and the liaison office should stop "meddling" in the city's internal affairs.
Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said while the lunch showed Zhang was a relatively open official, it could further reduce Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's authority.
"As the administration is unwilling to start a consultation on political reform, [Beijing's representatives] have to contact the lawmakers directly," Ma said.