IF THERE is one mainland official who commands a degree of respect in the territory, it is Hong Kong and Macau Affairs chief Lu Ping. Delegations return from Beijing singing his praises. British and Hong Kong officials enthuse about how much easier he is to deal with than local Xinhua (New China New Agency) chief Zhou Nan. Governor Chris Patten was an early fan. In the early days of his governorship, he showered praise on Mr Lu, although it stopped after the silvery-haired Shanghainese denounced him as a 'man of guilt for 1,000 years'. Elsewhere the local love affair with Mr Lu continues unabated. Even arch-opponents praise him. 'Lu Ping's good news for Hong Kong,' Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming said in an unguarded moment. It is easy to see why. Mr Lu knows the territory better than other Chinese officials and displays an understanding of its way of life almost unique among cadres. This is why there was such surprise over last week's outbursts on the transfer of civil service files. Nothing could have been more calculated to destabilise the civil service Mr Lu had so often pledged to preserve. Yet China will gain nothing from these attacks that it could not have acquired without them. Mr Patten's table-banging response is somewhat disingenuous in this respect. Former Chief Secretary Sir David Ford and others made it clear long ago that the administration would supply China with performance appraisals of top civil servants - one of the demands the local leftist press is currently making on Beijing's behalf. Even the sensitive subject of who holds foreign passports could readily have been resolved behind closed doors, had that been what Mr Lu wanted. While the Governor is right to say no list of successful applicants under the British nationality scheme could ever be handed over, Beijing's goal could have been achieved through different means. The Government has a good idea which top civil servants plan to remain beyond 1997. It really amounts to a list of those who do not hold foreign passports, since anyone who wants to stay on must comply with the nationality restrictions in the Basic Law. But it is information which, in this form, the Government will have to hand over if China asks for it in the Joint Liaison Group. However, Mr Lu seemed to have little interest in that, even admitting he had no idea what information he wanted. 'I don't know what it is,' he said, adding only that what the Governor 'does not want to give I want to have'. That amounted to a tacit admission he was only out to cause trouble. Some suggested it was because his health was faltering, even that a nervous breakdown was looming. But there is no evidence to support such fanciful speculation. Others suggested Mr Lu's advancing years were taking their toll. Yet, at 67, he is still young in mainland terms. It seems more likely he is guarding his back, taking care amid all the jockeying now going on in the communist leadership, ahead of Deng Xiaoping's death. As with previous, otherwise inexplicable, outbursts - such as the attack on Financial Secretary Sir Hamish Macleod's first budget, in 1992 - Mr Lu's latest attacks may have been intended primarily for domestic consumption by his bosses in Zhongnanhai, where such blasts at the British always go down well. British officials who have seen him in action say Mr Lu not only defers to President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, he 'jumps like a rabbit when they speak'. The likes of Mr Lu have to do this to survive. For, although often falsely portrayed in the Hong Kong press as a senior mainland official, he is small potatoes, lacking the family ties and Communist Party connections that provide the only true security of tenure in the Chinese leadership. This is why Mr Lu puts watching his back ahead of reassuring Hong Kong civil servants. And, if he can do it once, he can do it again. Expect more bizarre attacks in the months to come.