IN THE coming months, thousands of column inches will doubtless be devoted to speculating over who will be chosen as the Special Administrative Region's (SAR) first Chief Executive. Fuelled by recent reports that President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng have already begun short-listing potential candidates, press and public interest in the identity of the person who - according to the Basic Law - is meant to rule Hong Kong after 1997 is sure to continue to grow, until the formal choice is made next year. After that will come further speculation over what policies will be adopted by the new appointee, be it surveyor Leung Chun-ying, former civil servant John Chan Cho-chak, or, even more unlikely, Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang. Yet, according to legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai, and the 18 colleagues who supported her during last week's Legislative Council debate, all this will be a distraction from the real issue: true power, after 1997, will lie with the local Communist Party chief, rather than Hong Kong's Chief Executive. That is still speculation at this stage. But, whether or not it eventually comes to pass, it is now clear the SAR's autonomy will be curtailed in another highly-worrying way which, as yet, has attracted little attention. According to recent Chinese-language press reports, senior mainland official Lu Ping, and his Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, have decided they enjoy being able to tell the territory what to do too much to relinquish such power after 1997. That means the office will continue beyond the handover, even though its ostensible remit will have been fulfilled, once Hong Kong and Macau have been reunited with the rest of China. Supposedly, Mr Lu and his colleagues will be staying on to act as a 'bridge' between Beijing and the SAR. In practice, that means the State Council - the ruling arm of the central government - will simply consult the office before it takes any decision affecting Hong Kong, and presumably leave them to relay the relevant orders back to the territory. Mr Lu, already generally considered more powerful than the Governor of Hong Kong, will retain that status after 1997 - by ensuring he ranks at least as highly as the SAR Chief Executive. It all sounds a long way from the Joint Declaration's promises of a 'high degree of autonomy' and 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong'. That is still more so, if Ms Loh is correct in her predictions of a post-1997 Communist Party secretary controlling party cells in every college, court, and branch of government. But all this should come as no surprise. The Communist Party's presence in Hong Kong is hardly a secret. Locally-based Xinhua (the New China News Agency) officials and staff in mainland-funded enterprises privately admit they are members. Most political commentators and journalists also have a good idea of the identity of the Communist Party's leading local members, including some well-known Hong Kong figures. Even some of China's friends long ago warned that, whatever the Basic Law may say, Hong Kong should expect less - not more - autonomy after 1997. 'We can't behave in sovereign China as we behaved in sovereign Britain, acting as a virtually self-governing colony,' said former chief secretary Sir David Akers-Jones, now an adviser to Beijing. If that was true before the bitter Sino-British battles of the past three years, it is doubly so now, with China paranoid about anything done in Hong Kong. This explains reports that large numbers of mainland cadres are being trained, to be stationed in the territory as 'liaison personnel' after 1997. The only question which remains is whether all these erosions of Hong Kong's autonomy would have happened, even without the political reform row. Governor Chris Patten's team argues this made no difference, since Beijing was always intent on total control. However his opponents say it was only Britain's mid-1992 change of policy that deprived Hong Kong of any real chance of autonomy after 1997. History will have to judge who is right, and who is wrong.