The legacy of the Indian mutiny from 1857-1859 might seem remote and historically irrelevant to Hong Kong people. But the great revolt led not only to indiscriminate reprisals and bloodshed, including the driving of almost the entire Dehli population into the open. It also brought a fundamental change to how the Indian subcontinent was administered. After the revolt, the power to rule India was transferred from the East India Company to the British crown. The mutiny is seen as one of the major lessons worth learning in the history of the British Empire. The lesson is always there. In less than 11 months, the British Government will leave Hong Kong and hand the territory back to China and many analysts have been suggesting that the outgoing British administration will struggle to pull together its 180,000 serving civil servants. If there are any cracks in the loyalty of the civil service, the British Hong Kong government will face a nightmare in its last months of administration. It will be worse than a lame duck. It will be a duck without limbs. That explains why the Government is being careful in delineating its guidelines on civil servants joining the Selection Committee, because the body will be electing members of the provisional legislature which the Government vehemently opposes. If the Government sought to bar the majority of civil servants from the selection committee or to order them to vote against the provisional legislature, China and the civil servants would react strongly. In China's eyes, the Selection Committee is the crucial mechanism in the setting up of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the formation of the body is something under China's sovereignty. As a Xinhua (the New China News Agency) spokesman put it, the Selection Committee would be set up only according to decisions made by the Preparatory Committee. 'No one had the right to bar eligible persons from joining the Selection Committee.' Too rigid a guideline might spark China to call on civil servants to defy it, leaving government authority in tatters. But civil servants were keen to play its part in forming the new administration and they would be forced to deviate if bound by strait-jacket rules. Imagine if a number of civil servants, including those from the disciplinary forces, chose to defy the guideline. The government would be in an impossible position. Imposing punishment would only escalate the confrontation but remaining silent was equally untenable. The Government would be enforcing something unenforceable. Like British officers asking Muslim and Hindu soldiers to use cartridges which were greased with a mixture of beef and pork fat in 1857. Revolt was unavoidable. The Government thus had to come out with the right balance. On one hand, it had to avoid being seen as condoning the establishment of the provisional legislature. On the other, it could not be seen as blocking China's efforts in setting up the Special Administrative Region. On Tuesday, the Government came up with a guideline which prohibited four groups of civil servants - about 30,000 people - from serving on the selection committee: all directorate officers, administrative officers, police officers and information officers. The remaining 150,000 civil servants will be free to join and the Government does not require them to vote against the provisional legislature. Rather, they have been told not to openly back the replacement body. Judging from the mild reactions of Chinese officials and Preparatory Committee core members, the guideline appears to have struck the right balance. The usually critical Chinese officials have refrained from directly criticising the guideline and only reiterated China's wish to have the body as 'broadly based' as possible. They have not backed civil service union claims that the guideline was in breach of the Bill of Rights. Nor have they encouraged civil servants to fight the rules. As Leung Chun-ying, vice-chairman of the Preparatory Committee, said: 'It is up to them [the Government and the civil servants] to sort out the problem.' This pragmatic approach indicates clearly that the Chinese side is also keen to keep the civil service and the Government's authority intact. With the Hong Kong Government willing to show its flexibility, the Chinese side was also ready to acknowledge the difficulty the Government is facing rather than turn up the heat. In other words, the moderate exchanges between the two sides shows clearly that they have worked out a way to circumscribe their deadlock over the provisional legislature. When British Prime Minister John Major came to Hong Kong in March, he denied that both sides had agreed to disagree on the contentious issue. 'We simply disagree,' he said. Five months on, the calm reception of the potentially contentious guideline on the Selection Committee is a clear indication of the success of this kind of pragmatism. But more tests will be forthcoming in the run-up to the handover. And determining a strategy to avoid splitting the civil service is a crucial test for both sides. For an unprecedented peaceful transfer of sovereignty to succeed, the civil service will have to remain intact. Or a shadow administration will be on the horizon early next year.