Six months into the Preparatory Committee's work and there is scant sign of any attempt to deal with one of the most controversial issues on its agenda. While the Beijing-appointed panel has prioritised other thorny topics, such as the provisional legislature and right of abode issue, there still has been no substantive discussion of the Preliminary Working Committee's (PWC) controversial proposal to emasculate the Bill of Rights and reinstate the original versions of six laws liberalised over the past three years. The issue briefly re-surfaced last week, when a Bar Association delegation discussed the issue with mainland legal experts in Beijing. But there was no indication of when the proposal will be discussed by the Preparatory Committee's legal panel. One reason why other controversial issues have been dealt with so quickly seems to have been to get unpopular decisions out of the way as far in advance of the handover as possible, and so avoid them unsettling public opinion in the immediate run-up to July 1. So the continuing delay in dealing with the Bill of Rights arouses hope that Beijing is privately preparing to soften its stance. Some Preparatory Committee members are convinced of this. 'Logically it should have been discussed much earlier because it is so controversial,' said Professor Lau Siu-kai of Chinese University. 'So I don't think the PWC legal sub-group's recommendation will be fully accepted by the Preparatory Committee.' Beijing was certainly taken by surprise by the outrage which erupted from all sections of the local community following the PWC's proposal on the Bill of Rights and the six laws. But that does not mean it is ready to abandon the recommendation entirely. After the propaganda coup it staged in revealing Chief Justice Sir Ti Liang Yang's reservations about the ordinance, China will probably feel confident to continue with its plans to abolish the most important parts of the Bill of Rights, which allow it to influence and override other laws. This change will be effected under the guise of removing the ordinance's special status, so as to prevent it from conflicting with the Basic Law. But it seems increasingly unlikely that Beijing will proceed with the accompanying proposal to reinstate unilaterally the original versions of the six laws, which allow for sweeping restrictions on broadcasting, telecommunications, society registration, public order and emergency regulations. Such a step is illegal under common law, and virtually impossible to defend. Better still, Professor Lau suggests Beijing could portray a belated climbdown over the six laws, which may not come until early 1997, as being in response to pressure from the Chief Executive-designate, who will have been appointed by then - thus enhancing the new appointee's credibility with the local community. Any compromise would probably take the form of agreeing that the six laws should not be unilaterally altered by the NPC Standing Committee, as is the intention now. Instead it would be left to the provisional legislature to decide their fate or, better still, to the new Legislative Council which will be formed by elections in mid-1998. That is what Preparatory Committee member Tam Yiu-chung last week suggested. When he put forward the same proposal in the PWC legal sub-group last year, it was unanimously rejected by the other panel members. But Mr Tam may yet have the last laugh if Beijing now decides to adopt his proposal, while his hardline colleagues would be left with egg on their faces. Among the most embarrassed by any U-turn would be aspiring Chief Executive Lo Tak-shing, who is said to have masterminded the PWC legal sub-group's unpopular proposal and was among its strongest public advocates, repeatedly accusing the English-language press of misrepresenting the issue. A decision by Beijing to take a more moderate stance over the Bill of Rights would be the clearest signal yet that Mr Lo has no hope of securing the Chief Executiveship which he so covets.