Hong Kong, with its rule of law and high degree of autonomy, is internationally recognised as China's freest city. Now it has the chance to add to its list of cherished civil liberties - the right for all its voters to choose their next leader through one person, one vote.
But the process towards such an election is uncertain, requiring a lot of horse trading and compromise - and some political scientists worry that in deciding how to run this poll, the city could sink into a governance crisis.
On December 29, 2007, the National People's Congress Standing Committee decided that in 2017, Hong Kong's chief executive may be elected by universal suffrage. What that means has been hotly debated ever since - with some saying the language was a solemn promise, others fretting that the language falls short of a commitment. According to the Basic Law's Article 45, the city's version of a constitution, the vote for chief executive shall be done "upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures". More than three million registered voters could cast ballots.
Simple as it may seem, the five-month public consultation that starts today will inaugurate three years of planning that will decide if universal suffrage can really be achieved. What is finally put forward will require the approval of two-thirds of the legislature - 47 of the 70 members, including at least four pan-democrats - and the endorsement of Beijing and the chief executive.
These are the main issues that are likely to be debated:
1. Formation of the nomination committee: The Standing Committee's 2007 decision stated that "the nominating committee may be formed using the current provisions regarding the Election Committee", which last year grew to 1,193 members.
There's also a debate about how many people will make up the nominating committee. Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei has said that since the current Election Committee, with four sectors of roughly 300 members each, is already "broadly representative", the future nominating committee should also have four sectors: business, professional, political and a social and labour group.
Some Beijing loyalists believe the four sectors should have an equal number of members. But Basic Law Committee member Albert Chen Hung-yee disagrees. He proposed doubling the size of the political sector by including all 412 directly elected district councillors.
Chen and Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a Civic Party lawmaker, also suggest giving the nominating committee a broad mandate since the Election Committee was chosen by about 250,000 voters - fewer than one-tenth of the city's registered electorate.
2. Method of nomination: Article 45 states that the nominating committee shall name chief executive candidates "in accordance with democratic procedures", but it didn't define those procedures.
Last year, three candidates - Leung Chun-ying, Henry Tang Ying-yen and Albert Ho Chun-yan - stood for election after each securing support from at least 150 Election Committee members, one-eighth of the 1,193-strong committee.
But Li says that the nominating committee will pick candidates "as an organisation", not as individual members. Chen says that would require each candidate to get the support of one-eighth of nominating committee members. If more than five people secured support, he says, the committee would have to choose through an internal ballot, selecting five candidates.
Pan-democrats oppose that idea, saying it could bar dissident voices from the race. Tong suggests making the process easier: a candidate could run after garnering the support of just one-tenth of the nominating committee's members. The pan-democrats' Alliance for True Democracy advocates letting the public name candidates. Beijing has reservations about the idea.
3. Limits on the number of candidates: The Standing Committee's 2007 decision stated that the nominating committee shall suggest "a certain number of candidates" to be chief executive. Li and Beijing loyalists say that means there should be a cap on the number of candidates.
A limit, Li argues, could avoid the complications and costs of having too many contenders. Pan-democrats say that limiting the choice would be a pretext for eliminating candidates unacceptable to Beijing.
4. Multiple rounds of voting: The current Chief Executive Election Ordinance allows an unspecified number of voting rounds if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent in the first round. Pan-democrats favour that approach. If dozens of candidates are nominated, only the top two would enter a second round. Tong suggests using a preference system to avoid multiple rounds.
Chen suggests that Beijing could appoint the first runner-up if the central government deems the winner unacceptable. Li ruled out someone "confrontational" towards Beijing.