Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing has raised eyebrows across the political spectrum after he quoted an "authoritative central government official" as saying Beijing would let someone who was popular but not to its liking run for the 2017 chief executive poll.
The suggestion, made on Thursday, deviates from the tough stance of top mainland officials on the city's political reform over the past few months.
It is also in stark contrast to the view held by many local Beijing loyalists that the central government leadership has already determined the framework and details of the election.
But analysts say Tsang's claims should not be written off. The Legco president has had close connections with the central government for more than four decades, so a conciliatory message, coming via him, may indicate Beijing has yet to make the final decision on how to elect the next chief executive by a "one man, one vote" system.
Given his stature in this camp, Tsang would have remained silent had Beijing already decided on the details of the 2017 election, said Brian Fong Chi-hang, the vice-chairman of the think tank SynergyNet.
"His move reflects the existence of different voices within the central government and that the top leadership has not made up its mind, although it has obviously rejected the idea of public nomination," Fong said.
He believed Tsang's purpose for revealing the message was to maintain a tolerable atmosphere for talks on political reform.
In recent months, mainland officials have made clear that those who are "confrontational towards the central government" cannot become chief executive.
Pan-democrats fear their candidates will be screened out. Their worries were fuelled by National People's Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang , who on March 6 set the parameters for electoral reform by saying Hong Kong should not copy Western models in implementing universal suffrage.
The state leader, who heads the Communist Party's leading group on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, said reform must follow the framework laid down in the Basic Law.
National security was at stake in implementing universal suffrage in Hong Kong, Zhang said.
Cheung Man-kwong, who as a Democratic Party lawmaker took part in talks with the central government on the 2012 polls, also saw Tsang's move as signalling that Beijing had not fully made up its mind, although hardliners were likely to have the upper hand.
Tsang, a leading moderate in the pro-establishment camp, has been seeking consensus on attaining universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive race.
Since the middle of last year, Tsang and his allies have been arranging banquets and meetings with pan-democrats in an attempt to draw both sides to the negotiating table. He has encouraged pan-democrats to join a trip to Shanghai next month so they can discuss reform with mainland officials.
He has also warned that Beijing would pay a heavy political price were it to ban a popular pan-democrat from the election.
Tsang joined the pro-Beijing Pui Kiu Middle School as a teacher in 1969, a year after he graduated from the University of Hong Kong's mathematics department with first-class honours.
He could easily have got a lucrative job in the government or in business. But he opted for a job at Pui Kiu paying HK$600 a month - less than half the HK$1,466 pay of an HKU tutor. He went on to rise through the ranks within the Beijing loyalist camp, founding the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong in 1992.