It would be easy to overlook the potentially far-reaching ramifications of a speech by the former senior executive councillor, Sir Sze-yuen Chung, last Tuesday. It advocated the adoption of a ministerial system for the post-handover government which would involve filling top posts with political appointees rather than career civil servants. Now a member of the Preparatory Committee, Sir Sze-yuen has been wrong on transitional issues in the past. His controversial call for the formation of a shadow government was swiftly disowned by mainland officials last year. So the upper echelons of the civil service will be hoping that he has got it wrong again this time. That is because anything akin to a ministerial system would mean that they would face, at best, a major reshuffle after the handover. At worst, many might have to give up their jobs to make way for the more ambitious members of the Preparatory Committee. Sir Sze-yuen even hinted at such a scenario in Tuesday's speech. He warned that it would 'damage the honesty and credibility of officials' and would be 'harmful to the new administration' for officials to stay on and serve the Special Administrative Region (SAR) Government after having attacked its policies. On that basis, Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang and several of her colleagues have good cause to fear for their future, following their repeated denunciations of the provisional legislature. Unfortunately for them, there is good reason to believe that on this occasion Sir Sze-yuen's views are a lot closer to reflecting China's thinking. Even if Beijing does not favour the introduction of a fully-fledged ministerial system, there is strong evidence to suggest that the mainland is, at least, considering appointing outsiders to key positions in the SAR Government which would normally be reserved for career civil servants. It has now emerged that Hong Kong officials have known for almost a decade that Beijing was thinking of pursuing a policy of political appointments. In May 1988, former mainland Joint Liaison Group team leader Ke Zaishuo explicitly told a Hong Kong delegation led by then Chief Secretary, Sir David Ford, that China could not guarantee that all senior officials would be able to keep their jobs after the handover. Mr Ke indicated that some of the key positions might be filled by Beijing appointees brought in from the private sector, although he added that China would try to retain as much of the colonial civil service lineup as possible. The Hong Kong delegation was left in no doubt that Beijing saw sovereignty as being just as important as continuity in determining the post-handover appointments. Such secret discussions were never intended for public consumption. Nor has Mr Ke, now co-convenor of the Preparatory Committee's provisional legislature panel, ever repeated this message in public. Hong Kong officials have not mentioned it, either, preferring to repeat only the many positive public reassurances given by mainland officials. But some in the upper echelons of the administration have long been aware that political appointees may be brought into their ranks after the handover. 'I don't think the civil service as a whole has ruled out that possibility, there's certainly been some discussion of it at senior levels,' Sir David admitted during a farewell interview on stepping down from the Chief Secretaryship in December, 1993. Some government officials believe that Beijing has now changed its mind and decided against making any such political appointments. But there is no evidence to suggest that the principles which Mr Ke articulated, of balancing the importance of continuity against the need to demonstrate the change of sovereignty, have been abandoned. Quite the reverse. Sir Sze-yuen's speech offers further evidence that the idea of political appointments is still under active consideration. So his unexpected intervention suggests that it may not be long before some of his colleagues on the Preparatory Committee are coming forward to join the ranks of the SAR civil service.