THE mainland legal experts' current visit to Hong Kong is a welcome sign that Beijing has heard the anger provoked by the surgery it plans to perform on the Bill of Rights. It sees the need to do more than it has in the past to try to win the 'hearts and minds' of those who will soon become its citizens. China's willingness to listen to raised voices in Hong Kong and to respond is a big step forward. It contrasts with the Basic Law drafters' refusal to come here in the aftermath of the June 4 crackdown (for fear of encountering a hostile response) and with the failure to send any similar mission to explain last year's decision to establish a provisional legislature. So it is a pity that what could have been a perfect opportunity to calmly discuss and diffuse tensions over the issue was marred by the legal experts' insistence on preaching solely to the converted, and by Xinhua's (the New China News Agency) attempts to portray the Bill of Rights as part of a conspiracy by 'international anti-Chinese forces and the agents of the British side'. Other than a lunch with Chinese-language newspaper editors, the three mainlanders will leave Hong Kong today without having met anyone outside the ranks of China's appointees in the territory. Not even a press conference was arranged, although the trio should have had little difficulty handling one, since at least one of the experts, Beijing University Professor Wu Jianfan, has often talked with the Hong Kong press in the past. Friends speak up Friends speak up This insistence on only listening to local allies conveys an unfortunate (and probably unintended) impression that China is not interested in the views of other sections of society. Fortunately, the more credible of Beijing's appointees have not hesitated to speak out. Much credit should go to the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, members of which have voiced their opposition to the plans to amend the Bill of Rights, from the moment the Preliminary Working Committee's (PWC) legal sub-group disclosed its intentions. Hopefully they will continue to speak up, since Beijing is more likely to respond to the protests of its friends than to those expected from the British during the Joint Liaison Group session that begins tomorrow. Lengthy process ahead Lengthy process ahead Yesterday's intervention by Chief Justice Sir Ti Liang Yang, one often mentioned as a contender for the post-1997 position of Chief Executive, will also add to the pressure for a change of stance. Few in Hong Kong would object to his proposed alternative: that it should be left to the future Special Administrative Region's legislature to decide the fate of the Bill of Rights and six amended ordinances, the original versions of which the PWC sub-group want to restore. It seems Beijing is unlikely to agree: the mainland experts have ruled out any consideration of this option - at least in the near future. But the process of invalidating the laws will be a lengthy one. The sub-group's proposals have still to be endorsed by a full plenary session of the PWC, followed by the yet-to-be-established Preparatory Committee. Then they will have to be promulgated by the National People's Congress Standing Committee and this may not happen until a few months before the handover. That allows plenty of time to continue to point out to Beijing how much better Sir Ti Liang's proposed alternative would be for stability, prosperity, and public confidence in Hong Kong. This struggle to persuade China to change its stance over the Bill of Rights will be a long-term one. But it will only have a chance of success if all those who have already spoken out can mount a dialogue with Beijing by continuing to express their views over the coming 20 months.