Pan-democrats got a rare glimmer of hope last week, when Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor appeared to open the door to a plan that would let the public recommend - but not nominate - candidates for chief executive in 2017.
Lam raised eyebrows across the political spectrum with a cautious welcome for a proposal on reform by a group of academics, under which a hopeful who collected about 70,000 signatures would have their name put before the nominating committee that will choose candidates.
The government's No2, who is leading a consultation on political reform, only said that the plan "seemingly doesn't deviate from the legal requirement" and later clarified that she needed more time to study it. But her comments were seized upon by pan-democrats as an indication that compromise could yet be possible ahead of a meeting between lawmakers and mainland officials in Shanghai tomorrow.
Could the plan yet form the basis of a reform proposal that would secure a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council and be approved by Beijing?
"The government has all along refused to rate any particular proposals [before the consultation ends]. But Lam surprisingly commented on the academics' proposal, giving views that seemed to deviate from those of Beijing and also from the hawkish side of the pro-establishment camp," said Cheung Man-kwong, a former Democratic Party lawmaker who joined negotiations with Beijing officials that helped push through a previous reform plan in 2010.
How candidates are nominated is the key sticking point in the reform process. The Basic Law stipulates that a "broadly representative" nominating committee will pick candidates. But pan-democrats fear local and central governments will use the mini-constitution to impose a model that makes it impossible for Beijing's critics to run.
Under the academics' model, the committee would consider any candidate with the support of at least 2 per cent of voters, but would also have the discretion to reject them: this would be no "rubber stamp". Crucially, however, candidates would need the support of just one-eighth of committee members to run in the general election. Assuming the committee is based on the election committee that chose previous chief executives, it is likely to be stacked with Beijing loyalists, meaning a system requiring majority approval would likely filter out pan-democrats.
But hurdles remain.
Peking University professor Rao Geping, a member of the Basic Law Committee, earlier ruled out so-called public recommendation as unconstitutional, while fellow committee member Lau Nai-keung this week poured scorn on the idea.
But pan-democrats linked Lam's more moderate tone to another comment she made this week: that she planned to give up public life in 2017 rather than run for the top job herself.
"I believe Lam is trying to search for the consensus on reform instead of planning to climb the career ladder … [ruling
out running] makes her more courageous in handling the task," Cheung said. "She doesn't want to solely reflect the voice of the pro-Beijing hawks."
Cheung believes the plan, put forward by 18 pan-democratic-leaning scholars, is the most moderate yet to emerge from the pan-democratic side, to the extent that some in the camp consider it too mild.
It would be almost impossible to forge a consensus if Beijing and its loyalists are to veto a moderate plan like this ... a plan which already faced criticism from some pan-democrats," Cheung said.
The scholars' idea isn't the only attempt to find middle ground. Former chief secretary and lawmaker Anson Chan Fang On-sang also urged compromise. Her Hong Kong 2020 group proposed adding directly elected representatives to the nominating committee so it would meet the Basic Law criteria of being "broadly representative".
But while the likes of Dr Chan Kin-man, a key figure in the Occupy Central pro-democracy campaign, believe Beijing would spark an outcry if it rejects middle-ground options, some Beijing loyalists see the scholars' idea as anything but moderate.
Unionist lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin was among them.
"After all, they only give up public nomination but insist on a low threshold - which is what the pan-democrats want genuinely. I don't see they have made any concession," Wong said.
Setting a low threshold may also violate the legal framework for reform, Wong added, given that Beijing officials had made clear the committee would put forward candidates collectively.
The public may get to give a view on the plan this summer, when Occupy Central holds an electronic "referendum" to decide its favoured option for reform. It will shortlist three options at its third deliberation day on May 6, before the June 22 vote.
"I hope the three chosen proposals would include plans with and without public nomination," said Lo Kin-hei, vice-chairman of the Democratic Party.
But those looking for signs that a moderate plan might win over officials should note that, even as she welcomed the academics' idea, Lam said she remained "pessimistic".