IT has been a good week for Macau, with visiting mainland official Lu Ping lavishing praise on the enclave, and news that most of its civil servants have rejected the offer of a pre-handover bolthole in Portugal. The contrast with Hong Kong could hardly be greater. Mr Lu spent several hours in discussion - and even dined - with Macau Governor-General Vasco Rocha Vieira. Yet only days earlier, he insisted that he was 'too busy' to see either Governor Chris Patten or Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang in Hong Kong. There was even a visit to the site of Macau's international airport, due to open in December, which Mr Lu praised as a fine example of 'Sino-Portuguese co-operation'. That was in stark contrast to the highly negative tone he had adopted over settling the remaining elements of the Chek Lap Kok funding dispute, during his eight-day stay in the territory. No one was in any doubt that the contrast was intended. Observers in the enclave concede Macau is reaping the benefits of the recent Sino-British rows over Hong Kong. China is being deliberately 'nice' to the enclave to try to demonstrate to the territory that the route to a smooth handover lies in following General Vieira's avowed policy of consulting Beijing on everything he does. In General Vieira's case, that has meant steering away from any move to increase democracy, and instead erecting a monument a year commemorating 'Sino-Portuguese friendship', and extravagantly praising Chinese Premier Li Peng. 'China has full confidence in Macau's smooth transition as the Chinese and Portuguese governments have co-operated in an excellent manner over the past few years,' Mr Lu declared. 'Hong Kong should learn from Macau's experience. A genuine smooth transition can only be achieved as long as both sides work smoothly together.' As if to prove him right, last week's conveniently-timed release of a survey of Macau's 6,000 civil servants with Portuguese nationality found that only 740 plan to leave before the enclave reverts to Chinese sovereignty in 1999. Mr Lu even toned down Beijing's previously-strident demands that the Macau Government stop being so 'sluggish' about localising its civil service, and boost the use of Chinese as an official language. Instead he praised the steps they have taken in this direction. Yet the irony is that, for all last week's politically-motivated talk about the smoother handover being in the enclave rather than Hong Kong, at a practical level Macau is far less prepared than the territory for its reversion to Chinese sovereignty. In Hong Kong, locals now fill virtually all the policy secretary and other top governmental posts that the Basic Law stipulates can only be held by Chinese nationals after 1997. The only exceptions are Attorney-General Jeremy Mathews and Independent Commission Against Corruption chief Bertrand de Speville, and they are both expected to be replaced by locals within the next nine months. In Macau, by contrast, there are no Chinese in any of the seven under-secretary posts that are the enclave's equivalent of Hong Kong's policy secretary posts, and which - under Macau's Basic Law - must also be filled by locals after the handover. Most are filled by ethnic Portuguese nationals who will leave before 1999. Only two are mixed blood Macanese: Under-Secretary for Health and Social Affairs Ana Maria Perez and Under-Secretary for Education, Administration and Youth Jorge Rangel, who has often been tipped to be the enclave's last governor before the handover. Even they - like all 3,000 Macanese in the enclave's civil service - are Portuguese passport holders, making them ineligible to hold any top posts after 1999, unless they agree to renounce their passports. Although the Macanese and 2,000 ethnic Portuguese officials are in a minority, within the enclave's 16,000-strong civil service, they dominate its upper echelons far more than their British counterparts in Hong Kong. In the judiciary, the situation is even worse. Not one of Macau's judges is Chinese. Most are ethnic Portuguese, including Supreme Court President Farinha Ribeiras, who is expected to be replaced by another of his compatriots when he returns to Lisbon next year. Some attempts have been made at localisation, including a crash course to train Chinese judges and public prosecutors, including eight from the mainland, sparking scare stories about judges being imported from across the border. But progress has been hampered by linguistic difficulties, since most official business is still conducted in Portuguese, in contrast to Hong Kong, where the internal working language within the Government is increasingly Cantonese. 'It's not so easy to localise as in Hong Kong,' said civil service union legislator Dr Alberto Madeira Noronha. 'In Hong Kong, people are educated in English, but here there are only a few dozen Chinese who know Portuguese.' Last week's survey results may help ease earlier concerns about the potential for a '1999 meltdown' in Macau's civil service, if the Portuguese passport-holders who dominate its upper ranks decide to leave en masse. They show only 178 have opted to take up the offer of a job in Lisbon, with 347 seeking lump-sum compensation, and 215 opting for early retirement. Yet there is nothing to stop more leaving - passport in hand - if the economic or political situation takes a turn for the worse. Grassroots politicians in Macau say the only solution is faster localisation of the civil service, but complain this has been made less likely by China's conciliatory attitude towards the enclave's administration: which means Beijing is no longer pressing them to speed up the pace of localisation. 'Macau has really benefited a lot from the arrival of Chris Patten,' said one observer. 'Before then, Lu Ping was quite pro-British and anti-Portuguese, but now it seems Macau can do no wrong.' Since Mr Patten's arrival, China's early misgivings about Macau's plans for its own airport were swept to one side. Beijing even intervened on Macau's behalf, to ban its pushy neighbour across the border, the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of Zhuhai, from building a rival international airport of its own. Undeterred, Zhuhai has nonetheless built a $3.67 million airport, 50 per cent bigger than Beijing's, due to open on Tuesday. Although only supposed to handle domestic flights, aviation officials in the SEZ aim to be operating international services within a few years. But Mr Lu last week came to Macau's defence, insisting there was no question of allowing that. Yet many in Macau remain nervous about Zhuhai's plans. City mayor Liang Guangda hopes to hold international exhibitions, and build a bridge to Hong Kong. But some fear the SEZ has still greater ambitions. While Hong Kong vaguely worries about the threat from a resurgent Shanghai, in Macau there is concern that the enclave may not even survive as a separate entity. 'We will become just flowerpots,' warned pro-democracy legislator Alexandre Ho Si-him, the man once known as 'Macau's Martin Lee'. 'I'm not very optimistic about the future,' he said. 'We have very little to compete with Zhuhai. Macau will slowly fade away and just become another city in China.' A post-1999 takeover by Zhuhai would be perfectly feasible. The 1,000-square-kilometre SEZ is five times the size of Macau, and already the dominant economic partner, with a population of 600,000 to the enclave's 400,000. But it would leave Macau as little more than a satellite town for tourists and gambling. And, if that happens, then fears of a civil service 'meltdown' may be the least of Macau's concerns, as the enclave contemplates whether its handover will really be as smooth as it is now being promised.