The Chinese Government and the British administration of Hong Kong have the shared intention of not allowing their political disputes to harm civil service morale. This is the most important message from the meeting between director Lu Ping of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang. China's decision to set up a provisional legislature has created serious potential difficulties for senior Hong Kong government officials in adapting to the handover next year. According to the plans of the Preparatory Committee, the provisional legislature will be formed after the first chief executive of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) is appointed later this year. The team designate of principal SAR officials, nominated by the chief executive, are expected to co-operate with the provisional legislature. Governor Chris Patten has repeatedly vowed his Government will have nothing to do with the provisional body. He has also made it clear that divided loyalties among civil servants will not be tolerated. But reports said Chinese officials warned senior civil servants had to make public declarations of support for the provisional legislature if they wanted to keep their jobs after the transfer of government. Such reports were later denied by Mr Lu during his visit to the territory a fortnight ago. The Chinese Government had never required Hong Kong officials to openly declare their stance towards the provisional legislature, he said. Civil servants should remain impartial. However, this did not mean they were not required to give actual support to its work. The provisional legislature will come into existence as much as six months before the handover. Although Chinese officials have asserted that the council will not function as a parallel legislature, the Preparatory Committee has yet to work out how it will operate before the setting up of the SAR, and what assistance it may need from the civil service. Senior civil servants nominated to remain in their posts in the SAR will be faced with a conflict of loyalty if the chief executive designate requires them to co-operate with the provisional council, while the Governor prohibits them from doing so. This has led to the suggestion that these senior officials will have to be 'seconded' to the chief executive's take-over team and leave their posts in the present administration. A remorseless battle between Beijing and Mr Patten over the provisional legislature would be highly disruptive to civil service morale. Obviously this is not what either side wants. The contention over the transition of Hong Kong's legislature is impossible to resolve. But there are good reasons for the Chinese and British governments to minimise problems created by the discord in other areas that require co-operation. The British know well enough they cannot stop China setting up the provisional council. Animosity is not the best policy to ensure China will keep its word. And the provisional body will not become an alternative legislature before July 1 next year. China understands that Mr Patten cannot formally recognise the provisional body, and he will remain head of the Hong Kong Government up to the end of the transition period. The Preparatory Committee and the chief executive designate need help from the civil service, but the officials cannot provide help in a way that is unacceptable to the Governor. In last week's House of Lords debate on Hong Kong, former governor Lord MacLehose said the problem of the co-existence of the sitting and provisional councils could be surmounted with 'ingenuity, informality and a modicum of common sense'. He is not the only person holding this view.