We all know that in a soccer match, every player must understand and perform his role if the team is to win the game. By contrast, the public was left perplexed by the actions of another team: the pan-democratic lawmakers who joined last weekend's trip to Shanghai.
The key question was: what did they want to achieve? To have a debate with Beijing about arrangements for universal suffrage at the 2017 chief executive election? Or to protest? Or both, if that could be possible? It seems some failed to give sufficient thought to this question before boarding the Shanghai-bound flight.
The first challenge, ironically, was not how to deal with Beijing officials but how to react to the activities of one of their own: radical "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, who headed home after being told he could not cross the border with slogans and T-shirts with messages seeking the vindication of the 1989 democracy protests.
Yet Leung had been one of the first to accept the invitation to join the trip. While most pan-democrats questioned whether they were being lured into some kind of "trap" by Beijing, Leung made it crystal clear from the outset he intended to protest to Beijing officials over the crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Some jokingly suggested that Leung's actions would help enable a smoother discussion with a focus on political reform, rather than a repeat of a 2005 visit by lawmakers, when Leung ended up debating June 4 with Zhang Dejiang , now Beijing's top man on Hong Kong affairs and chairman of the Nation People's Congress, then Guangdong party secretary. For Leung, it was mission accomplished. Whether he managed to get into Shanghai or not, his confrontation with customs officials and high-profile protest were seen by all.
Those pan-democrats who did go spared no effort in changing what Beijing had called a "study and exchange tour" to allow local lawmakers to observe Shanghai's development into "political talks", which they set as a precondition for their participation. They demanded a separate meeting with Beijing officials, and skipped most other events on the itinerary, dismissing them as mere "sightseeing".
This may help explain why a split emerged in how pan-democrats reacted to the airport affair, rather than a united front to support Leung. Some decided to stay on in Shanghai and discuss 2017 come what may; some decided to leave to protest; finally Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit cancelled his flight and called off his plan to join the trip later.
The divide shows a lack of co-ordination on tactics for negotiation, if not a lack of consensus on their stance towards Beijing.
Equally, the "Long Hair" episode illustrated Beijing's unwillingness to compromise on matters pertaining to its principles. June 4 and the vindication of the protests remains the biggest taboo on the mainland today. It was no surprise to see Leung, whose intention was to protest about June 4, made unwelcome.
In politics, a lack of unity reduces a group's bargaining power. It's as simple as that.
This fact was also well illustrated by how Beijing handled arrangements for the trip. When pan-democrats requested a separate meeting, Beijing never said yes. But the tricky thing was that it never said no, either.
Eventually, the "separate meeting" was facilitated when Beijing-loyalist lawmakers left the venue. It is well known that Beijing does not want to recognise the pan-democratic camp's "equal status" in political talks. But Beijing also knows well that the camp is split, and that those who joined the talks could not claim to represent the whole bloc.
"Long Hair", the icon of radical politics in Hong Kong, played his role as a professional protester well enough this time. But for those who met Beijing officials in Shanghai, and others who claim to be less radical and willing to talk to Beijing for the sake of Hong Kong's democracy, defining a clearer role for themselves is a pressing matter they must devote some serious thought to.