The bureaucrats in Lower Albert Road have a lot more time to spare these days. Formerly busy senior officials now make a habit of arriving early for lunch appointments and dawdling over their desserts. In years gone by, they used to quickly make their excuses and rush back to the Government Secretariat, to help prepare exciting new initiatives for Governor Chris Patten's annual policy address. But now there is virtually nothing left they can announce without Beijing's blessing: which, in most cases, is unlikely to be forthcoming. In any case, the few who still have any good ideas left would rather save them to impress the Chief Executive, and so improve their chances of a top post-handover portfolio, rather than allow the departing Mr Patten to claim the credit for them. For that reason, no one is expecting much from this October's address. Most likely, it will be the most boring on record. Nor are there still any of the big political controversies that used to keep the bureaucrats glued to their phones. Beijing's 'agreement to disagree' with London over political reform, that was finalised during President Jiang Zemin's May meeting with British Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, has removed the main source of contention. Others are also being speedily resolved. Even the three-year-long dispute over the Container Terminal 9 project is close to being settled. With China now so confident its new strategy of bypassing Mr Patten, and instead dealing directly with London, any risk of Britain causing serious embarrassment in the final months before the handover has effectively been eliminated. Beijing has even had time to turn its attention to the Democratic Party, the one other group capable of causing similar problems. China has already scored considerable success on this front, even before serious discussions begin with the democrats, following Vice-Premier Qian Qichen's recent conciliatory gesture. Legislators no longer seriously talk about embarrassing Beijing in the eyes of the world's media, by chaining themselves to the Legislative Council building on the night of the handover, a suggestion which was still being taken seriously only a few months ago. Even the more moderate idea of challenging the legality of the provisional legislature in the courts is now being rethought, with some democrats hoping to quietly abandon it. With all these disputes being progressively defused, Hong Kong looks destined to experience a period of unreal calm in the remaining 310 days before the handover. Further soothing gestures can be expected from Beijing: such as a watering-down of Preliminary Working Committee plans to emasculate the Bill of Rights. Even the announcement of the Chief Executive is unlikely to stir up much excitement since it is now clear that shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa has effectively already been chosen for the post. This pre-handover honeymoon should not be mistaken for a genuine resolution of the serious political problems that have caused so much controversy in recent years. It clearly suits Beijing's immediate over-riding interest in securing a smooth transition to temporarily put its differences with Britain and the democrats on one side. But they will re-emerge with a vengeance after the handover. Major changes lie ahead as Hong Kong adapts to its future under Chinese sovereignty. Had the history of the past few years been different, then many of these changes would already have been underway, under the policy of convergence that was abandoned following Mr Patten's arrival. This means the changes will now be far greater immediately after the handover than would otherwise have been the case. But, until then, there will be a false lull, as Hong Kong marks time and waits for its colonial lame-duck government to depart. Danny Gittings will be on sabbatical leave until June 1997.