Can the mandarins serve two masters?
BEIJING'S attack against the Secretary for Economic Services, Mrs Anson Chan, over her statement on the controversial Container Terminal Nine (CT9) project has hit many of Hongkong's top civil servants like a bombshell.
With a growing threat of living under a regime with two masters, the road to 1997 will be bumpy ride for many civil servants who have aspirations for a career after the change of sovereignty.
Therefore, the comments by Hongkong Affairs advisers, Mr Donald Liao Poon-huai and Mr Vincent Lo Hong-sui, about the anxieties local officers have about their future after the transition is timely, if only to clear up local uncertainties.
The attacks, which must be viewed within the context of Beijing's objections to the Patten democracy blueprint, shocked top-level administrators who now wonder whether they will become a target for Beijing if they support the Governor.
Traditionally, Hongkong's bureaucrats are politically neutral but under the Patten regime they have been unavoidably drawn into the controversy about increased democracy in the territory.
However, they do have a responsibility to speak about their area of speciality and this responsibility carries a ''cost'' in Chinese terms as promotion of a particular policy could be interpreted as unpopular and unfriendly by China.
All civil servants have a job to do, and, as long as the British flag flies in Hongkong, they are required to implement the policies and follow the instructions of the Governor.
What is unfortunate is that unlike a change in ownership between private companies, the period leading up to the handover of Hongkong and its administration to Beijing in 1997, is a lengthy one.
So far, the local officers who have been singled out for attacks have included the Secretary for the Treasury, Mr Yeung Kai-yin, for his handling of the airport financing arrangements, Mrs Chan over CT9 and Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Mr Michael Sze Cho-cheung, for his support of the Patten proposals.
Both Mrs Chan and Mr Sze, and the Secretary for Education and Manpower, Mr John Chan Cho-chak are considered to be leading contenders to the position of the first local Chief Secretary after Sir David Ford retires.
But the threatening tone of China's criticisms of government officials they see as the cause of conflict with Beijing, raises the question of whether their futures would be affected simply because of their high profile positions in the community.
Privately, China is believed to have reassured Hongkong that that top Hongkong officials have a job to do and are obliged to publicly comment on their policies. The mainland leaders also may appreciate that these Hongkong officials, if they refuse to promote the present policies, might lose their positions in government.
However, the public remarks made by China against officials are seen as an unsettling effort to punish officers. But it would be equally unthinkable for Zhongnanhai to want to isolate all local serving officers as such an action would invite disruption and discontinuity in 1997.
Constitutionally, these officers have assurances of continuity in the Civil Service under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. Both documents say that public servants previously serving in Hongkong in all government departments may remain and continue their service with pay, allowances, benefits and conditions of service no less favourable than before.
Therefore, the quick response in reassuring officers from the local chief of the New China News Agency (NCNA) that Beijing would not bide its time to take revenge against the officers must be welcomed.
Contacts on personal level between senior local officials and the local branch of the New China News Agency (NCNA) started a few years ago.
The administration has to be informed about meetings on the official level, but if they staged purely on a personal private basis - such as an invitation to a drink or dinner - for cultivating understanding, it would be more difficult to draw a line on whether they should be reported to the top.
The increasing contacts are nothing sinister. It should not be interpreted as an attempt by Beijing to buy out Hongkong officers. Indeed, it would be good for Hongkong if the officers could build up a trusting relationship with Beijing officials as it would aid a smooth transition.
Equally, it would be unfair to say that the Government has banned such exchanges, as circulars sent to officials signalling understanding of these contacts illustrate. The onus of reporting such ''appointments'' with the NCNA officials is said to be restwith the officers concerned.
It is no exaggeration to say that the trust, if any, between China and Mr Patten has been destroyed following the announcement of the Governor's October 7 political blueprint. It would be sad for Hongkong if the trust between Mr Patten and his officials came under a similar threat.
What Beijing dislikes is any gesture showing personal allegiance to the British administration. To China's leaders, loyalty and allegiance cannot be switched overnight.
So there is a delicate line to draw. The senior officers, if they are still looking forward for a career after 1997, must fulfil their current responsibilities, but in doing so, not overstep the mark by irritating Beijing.