No purge of civil servants, vows Zhou

SENIOR Chinese officials yesterday assured Hongkong civil servants they would not be punished after 1997 for supporting constitutional reforms proposed by the Governor, Mr Chris Patten.

Both the director of the local branch of the New China News Agency (NCNA), Mr Zhou Nan, and one of his deputies, Mr Qin Wenjun, were attempting to dispel fears that senior officials' careers might be purged for publicly backing Mr Patten.

Hongkong officials could put their minds at ease, said Mr Zhou at the end of meetings in Guangzhou with Hongkong advisers.

''It is clearly stated in the Basic Law that . . . the majority of them will continue to work for the Special Administrative Region government,'' said the local NCNA chief.

Civil servants' anxieties resulting from the current Sino-British row over the Patten proposals were raised by Hongkong advisers Mr Vincent Lo Hong-sui and Mr Donald Liao Poon-huai during meetings with Mr Zhou and the director of the State Council's Hongkong and Macau Affairs Office, Mr Lu Ping.

They cited Beijing's condemnation of the Secretary for Economic Services, Mrs Anson Chan Fang On-sang, for saying that the Hongkong Government was empowered to grant the contract for the construction of Container Terminal 9.

Mr Zhou said the remarks were provoked by the Hongkong Government, because it had failed to abide by the rules.

Hongkong Affairs Adviser Mr Wong Po-yan said he told the Chinese officials it was important to restore confidence among the territory's civil servants.

''I think they understand that Hongkong officials are fulfilling their duties [in supporting Mr Patten's political package],'' he said.

The Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Michael Sze Cho-cheung, and his deputy, Mr Leung Chin-man, have already publicly pledged support for the Governor's proposals, as have the Secretary for Home Affairs, Mr Michael Suen Ming-yeung, and other officials.

Hongkong's legislators welcomed the assurance that civil servants would be spared punishment after China takes over.

Meeting Point legislator Mr Tik Chi-yuen said: ''The civil service structure is vital to the stability of Hongkong and it is a good sign to show that the Chinese Government is not going to cause an upheaval in the run-up to 1997.'' Mr Tik believed this was a rational move by Beijing, and said it would be much better if the Chinese Government adopted the same attitude over the democratisation of Hongkong.

''It also shows that the Chinese authorities are isolating the Governor as their only target,'' he said.

United Democrats legislator Mr Albert Chan Wai-yip shared the view that the intention of the remarks was to isolate Mr Patten.

''But I have reservations about the statement because of previous examples which show the Chinese Government's lack of respect for the promises it makes,'' he said.

Although some advisers called on Beijing to form a committee to prepare for the transfer of sovereignty, Mr Wong Po-yan said he would prefer to see the current row solved through Sino-British negotiations based upon past agreements.

''We should only take the next step when it is clear that there is no hope for convergence,'' said Mr Wong, who is a member of the One Country, Two Systems Economic Research Institute.

The chance of achieving convergence was not ''absolutely hopeless'', he said.

''There may be a sudden turnaround on diplomatic affairs.'' Mr Wong believed that Beijing hoped the coming meeting between the foreign ministers of China and Britain could bear fruit.

Although he is chairman of the Airport Consultative Committee, Mr Wong said he did not raise the subject of the airport projects during his meeting with Chinese officials because there were no new developments.

Other members of the research institute - Dr Ann Tse-kai, Mr Leung Chun-ying, Mr Edgar Cheng Wai-kin, Mrs Alice Cheng and Mr Shao Youbao - and its executive, Mr Shiu Sin-por, held a separate session with the Chinese officials.

Mr Zhou and his aides paid a short visit to Mr Henry Fok Ying-tung's home town, Punyu, before returning to Hongkong yesterday.

Mr Lu and his subordinates returned to Beijing yesterday morning.