A glimmer of hope for political reform emerged yesterday when all 70 lawmakers - including radicals - were invited on a two-day trip to Shanghai next month, during which they may meet central government officials.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who announced the central government's green light for the visit for April 12 and 13, suggested there may be opportunities to discuss "matters of mutual concern".
The invitation even extended to pan-democrats, a number of whom have been deprived of their home return permits because of their dissenting views.
But at least one pan-democrat immediately turned down the offer, while others said they would boycott the trip unless it could facilitate discussion on political reform.
It has been four years since pan-democrats were last invited to visit the mainland.
Announcing the ice-breaking trip, Leung said: "I believe there will be opportunities for lawmakers and central government officials to exchange views on matters of mutual concern.
"There is still one month to go. I believe there is time for the officials to hear what the lawmakers want from the trip [and make arrangements]."
Details of the tour - including where they would visit, who they would meet and what would be discussed - would be worked out by the central government as soon as possible, Leung said.
Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said she would definitely boycott the trip, but her party colleagues would meet today to decide whether to accept the offer.
"I will never step on the soil of mainland China until I am allowed to travel freely," said Lau, whose home return permit has been confiscated.
Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit and "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung of the League of Social Democrats said whether they went depended on who they could meet and what they could discuss during the meetings.
Leung, who also lost his home return permit, said: "I might consider going if some substantial and fruitful discussion could be made in the trip. But don't count me in if it is solely for sightseeing."
Claudia Mo Man-ching of the Civic Party was surprised that the government had picked Shanghai as the destination instead of Beijing if reform was the topic.
The trip offer comes four years after 42 of the 60 lawmakers - including some pan-democrats - attended Shanghai Expo 2010.
And in September 2005, 59 of 60 lawmakers visited the Pearl River Delta in a trip organised by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who was chief executive at the time.
Both visits took place at a critical time when Hong Kong was discussing political reform.
A government source said Leung had played a key role in convincing the central government to arrange the trip.
"The chief executive's visit to Beijing last week, during which he met Zhang Dejiang , chairman of the National People's Congress, was instrumental in finalising the tour," the source said.
"Pan-democrats and central government officials are likely to discuss political reform during the trip to Shanghai."
At the centre of the electoral reform debate is how to put forward chief executive candidates for the popular vote in 2017. Pan-democrats want the public to be allowed to make nominations.
But there have been several signals from mainland officials that allowing voters to nominate candidates would violate the Basic Law, which states the city's leader should be nominated by a "broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures".
Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, who will lead the trip, said he was pleased about the invitation and hoped all members would take part.
Executive Councillor Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun said she hoped lawmakers would "behave and not protest during the Shanghai trip", as it would make Hong Kong look bad.