SINCE the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, delegation after delegation from various government branches and departments have visited Beijing to build up a network of contacts with the future sovereign. But the Government's information chiefs were always conspicuously missing. At least that was the case until yesterday when the director of Government Information Services (GIS), Irene Yau, and her senior aides began a series of meetings with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing. Nobody seems to have noticed the gap and even this maiden visit by the GIS heavyweights has failed to arouse strong interest in political circles. Strangely, people seem to have forgotten how important a role bureaucrats in liaison with the media have in the Chinese hierarchy, a syndrome probably best explained by a lack of trust in the GIS by the top brass of the present administration in recent years. Following the establishment of the Information Co-ordinator's (IC) Office in 1989, the sensitive role of the GIS as the Government's public relations adviser was effectively taken over by the information co-ordinator, a job monopolised by expatriate civil servants. Mrs Yau's outfit has been left mainly with the day-to-day routine of issuing press releases, organising publicity campaigns and publishing government reports. Sagging morale in the GIS became obvious as the IC's office started to take a more assertive role in mapping out the Government's PR strategy. The entire department felt increasingly marginalised. Even with the recent abolition of the IC's office, it remains to be seen whether Mrs Yau and her information corps will be brought back into the loop. But the future of the GIS does not only rest with its resumption of the sensitive PR role in the Hong Kong administration. A more serious question is how the department should position itself in the wider context of Hong Kong returning to Chinese rule. Given that information and media control are accorded with such a cardinal role in Communist China's governance, Hong Kong Government PR people who operate very differently from mainland propaganda officials will be wondering whether their style is set to change. Worries about whether they will be purged after 1997 are still a matter of concern among some officers. In the middle and junior ranks an oft-told joke is whether after the sovereignty change they should be taking orders from Xinhua or the Propaganda Department in Beijing. The banter reflects the prevailing anxieties and concerns in a department which has been offered no concrete assurances. Mrs Yau's official delegation appears to be aware of the possible sensitivity of the trip. Since it became public knowledge very little has been said of the programme except that there will be meetings with the Information Office and Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council. The delegation will also be paying calls on the Beijing headquarters of Xinhua; the Press and Publications Administration, which registers and monitors newspapers in China; the All China Journalists Association; and the China Central Television. They also plan to sit in as observers at the Foreign Ministry's weekly press conference on Thursday. Explaining the purpose of the trip, a GIS department official said the four-member delegation wanted to establish official contacts, to understand how their counterparts work and explain to mainland officials how the department operates in Hong Kong. While the visit was initiated by the department, no request had been made to meet anyone from the Propaganda Department or United Front Department, which works for the reunification of China and Taiwan. 'The GIS is not in the business of promoting propaganda and endeavours to United Front work,' said a GIS official. Presently, the GIS does very little work for the British Government except in matters with which Hong Kong has direct involvement. One example is publicity relating to visa applications to Britain as the Hong Kong Immigration Department is Britain's agent in the territory. When the Hong Kong Government does not have a direct involvement, GIS offers to help the British Government in facilitating the dissemination of press releases. Even when British ministers visit Hong Kong, the main PR work rests with the Foreign Office's own information team based at the British Trade Commission. On controversial issues affecting Hong Kong when the GIS or the IC's office offer PR advice to ministers, it is done through the Governor. Presumably, after 1997, any PR advice deemed appropriate for mainland officials' consumption will be channelled through the chief executive's office of the Special Administrative Region. If China agrees to maintain the present system which leaves little, if any, room for grey areas in how Hong Kong information officials should participate in China's PR, it will ease the concerns of many in the department. But the sensitive nature of the work and information may mean that the Hong Kong administration's PR arm cannot be totally immune from propaganda initiatives from Beijing. On domestic issues when Hong Kong may view matters differently from Beijing's party line, should the local information corps ignore the central government and propagate the Hong Kong view? On issues with international interests, such as human rights matters, should GIS take orders from the central government for a united position? On issues in which Beijing wants to influence local media, should the department help to spread the words of the central leaders and organise selective briefings to facilitate the dissemination of the messages? For individual media branded by China as unfriendly, should the GIS refuse to entertain them as the local branch of Xinhua presently does? For Hong Kong, under the best-case scenario, all these hypothetical questions are unnecessary as Hong Kong's information arm would continue to operate in the way it does today. But where are the guarantees and the promises? There haven't yet been any concrete assurances made by Beijing officials that this will be the case. If the worst-case scenario became reality after 1997 and the local government's PR machinery was run by the central government, it would totally destroy the credibility of GIS. These are serious questions Beijing has to address and that the GIS should not avoid. This week's visit provides a good opportunity to broach the subject with mainland officials. Even if a brief visit may not totally clear the air, it provides a starting point for putting the issue on the agenda in future meetings. Any efforts to boost the morale of the Hong Kong Civil Service and ensure the continuity of the present system should not only be confined to pacifying the dozens of policy secretaries or department heads. Equally important is preserving the integrity of the information machinery, which is of vital importance to all governments, be it China, Hong Kong or Britain.