Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen was telling the plain but grim truth - the views of Hong Kong people are a 'reference' in the political game surrounding universal suffrage. However sincere and open-minded the government may be in gauging people's views, he made it clear the switch to universal suffrage would be determined by a three-party mechanism as stipulated under the Basic Law. Any change to electoral arrangements, the Basic Law says, requires a two-thirds majority of the legislature (of which only half is directly elected), the consent of the chief executive and the approval of the National People's Congress Standing Committee. While trying to talk up the importance of consensus, Mr Tang refrained from making a categorical pledge that they would put forward any proposal that receives majority support from society for approval through the three-party mechanism. This is simply because there are clear indications that the wish of the majority of people to elect the chief executive and all legislators by 'one person, one vote' at the earliest possible time will not be entertained by Beijing and its loyalists in Hong Kong. True, Beijing has not categorically ruled out universal suffrage in 2012, but the writing is on the wall. Taking its cue from Beijing, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, whom Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen described as 'close comrades' on Tuesday, has announced the earliest possible time for a popular vote is 2017. On the surface, the option of universal suffrage in 2012 is still on the menu. But realistically, it is not a dish the government can deliver at the end of the consultation exercise. By championing the notion of 'people-based' governance, Mr Tsang is aware of the importance of engaging with the public in the reform review. By seemingly putting all possible options on the table, he is anxious to convince doubters that the people's views genuinely matter and that he wants to be an honest broker in finding a deal acceptable to everyone. An air of scepticism, however, prevails. The fact that the green paper is being broken down into options and sub-options has given ammunition to critics that the government has at best needlessly complicated the exercise, and at worst confused the public. As a result, there will be practical difficulties for ordinary people in giving their views on the options and also for the government to collate the opinions and draw conclusions at the end of the consultation period. It will give rise to conspiratorial thinking that the open-ended design is aimed at giving the government maximum room to pick and choose from a diverse range of opinions in order to serve its political purpose - just as it has routinely done in many other consultation exercises.