THE collective sigh of relief at the announcement that Douglas Hurd and Qian Qichen are to meet on April 18 has been swiftly stifled. The Joint Liaison Group's (JLG) failure to make progress on even the least contentious issues bodes badly for the outcome of the foreign ministers' discussions. In China's present mood, it seems Mr Qian is merely fulfilling the formal obligation, imposed by the Airport Memorandum of Understanding, of a twice-yearly meeting with the Foreign Secretary. That, however, is an improvement: in 1994, the two men managed to meet only once. But it is hardly the kind of progress Hong Kong expects or requires from the two sovereign powers entrusted, by treaty, with its welfare, prosperity and stability. Whatever China's assumptions about its rights and its ability to set up its post-1997 government and legislative framework without British help and without serious disruption, the people of Hong Kong need reassurance. The list of JLG failures is itself impressive. Rarely has the final communique gone into such detail about the agenda, or produced such an exhaustive list of what remains to be resolved. But it has all-too-often registered no progress on any front. If it cannot so much as decide when to meet again, what hope can there be of agreement on the really thorny issues vital to the transition of the legal and judicial system and the economy. The row over the establishment of Court of Final Appeal is causing the most concern. This key institution has become a hostage for both sides. Domestically and internationally the court is the symbol of the territory's judicial independence. A Sino-British battle which puts that independence at risk also puts the future of Hong Kong at risk. This is one quarrel where compromise must be reached.