Just who will be left in Hong kong's civil service after 1997?

AFTER new Governor Mr Chris Patten arrived last July, he summoned 18 top officials to line up for a photocall outside Government House. A similar photocall on July 1, 1997, will look remarkably different - at least 13 out of that Patten album photo are expected to have gone before the handover.

Senior civil servants have found themselves uncomfortably in the spotlight in the wake of murmurings from China as to the future position of officials seen to support the Patten reform plan. Despite local New China News Agency (NCNA) chief Mr Zhou Nan's pledge last week that no civil servant will be persecuted after 1997, fears remain deep-rooted.

Watching developments closely are the ''Brave New Worlders'': the relatively young civil service high-flyers who must stay on to help run Hongkong after 1997, if there is to be any hope of a smooth transition.

It is they, far more than their better-known colleagues still more often in the forefront of battles with Beijing, who have most to fear from China's recent attacks on individual civil servants.

For while some of the targets of recent attacks by Beijing have little to be concerned about - since they will be gone by then - it is those who will step into their shoes who have to worry about the consequences.

Neither Secretary for the Treasury Mr Yeung Kai-yin, 52, who has incurred China's wrath over the airport project, nor Secretary for Economic Services Mrs Anson Chan Fang On-sang, 53, who China last month accused of lying over CT9, are likely to stay beyond 1997.

Both have already been linked to the post of Hongkong Government Commissioner in London that falls vacant in the autumn, and will serve as a handy escape route from the territory. Chief Secretary Sir David Ford, 57, remains frontrunner for the job.

The turnaround at the top extends far beyond that.

Some are obvious casualties. All expatriates have to go due to the Basic Law's bar on them holding top posts after 1997, a restriction that includes Secretary for Health and Welfare Mrs Elizabeth Wong Chien Chi-lien, 55, who is classed an overseas officer.

Already this is starting to take effect, with the first victim, Secretary for the Civil Service Mr Barrie Wiggham, 55, being eased out next month to make way for a local.

But, even among local officers, there will be a huge turnover. Those such as Mr Yeung, and to a lesser extent Mrs Chan, belong to the old ''more British than the British'' generation, who use English rather than Cantonese in internal meetings, are close to retirement, and have never been heard to say they will stay beyond the end of colonial rule.

Another key figure in the airport controversy, Secretary for Transport Mr Michael Leung Man-kin, 54, is also certain to retire by 1997, while Government Information Services chief Mrs Irene Yau Lee Che-yun, 50, confirmed last week she would be gone by then.

Among the most experienced figures at the top, only some of the most low-profile policy secretaries have so far said they will stay.

Foremost among them is the man who stands to gain the most from spanning the transition: Secretary for Education and Manpower Mr John Chan Cho-chak, 49, whose low-key style has helped him dodge controversy, and steadily rise towards the top.

''I think these attacks on civil servants are something which will pass,'' Mr Chan said last week. ''I go by the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law so there's no need to feel worried.'' The other low profile veterans heard to say they will stay are the younger Secretary for Home Affairs Mr Michael Suen Ming-yeung, 48, whose chances of doing so have been aided by the way he managed to stay out of the headlines despite being supposedly charged with a key part of the Governor's political reforms, and Secretary for Trade and Industry Mr Brian Chau Tak-hay.

''Of course everyone has doubts about the future but I think it's best to just take it as it comes,'' said Mr Chau, 50, who hopes to stay in the civil service until 2003.

Yet this low-key group can hardly constitute the sort of dynamic team needed to lead Hongkong into 1997 and beyond, which is why such hopes now rest with the Brave New Worlders immediately below them.

So-called because they make more of a point of their Chineseness, and are still remembered for welcoming the prospect of Hongkong returning to Chinese sovereignty after the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984, this group of high-flyers in their late40s - although attitude rather than age is the real distinguishing mark - are only now beginning to move into top posts. SECRETARY for Constitutional Affairs Mr Michael Sze Cho-cheung, 47, was the first to make a mark, with his flamboyant style catching the new Governor's eye and rapidly turning him into a Patten protege.

Since then the rise of the New Worlders has accelerated. Perhaps the youngest member of the group at 43, Mr Bowen Leung Po-wing was brought into the heart of the Government House decision-making process, after Mr Patten decided he wanted a local as private secretary.

Over the last few months Mr Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, 45, was appointed head of the new Monetary Authority, and Mr Gordon Siu Kwing-chue, 47, moved into the politically-exposed post of head of the New Airport Projects Co-ordination Office.

Others are poised to move up. The highly-ambitious Director-General of Trade Mr Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, 48, already known for having masterminded the implementation of the British nationality scheme, will move back into the limelight with a key policy secretary post in this spring's reshuffle.

Meanwhile many more are waiting in the wings, including Director of Administration Mr Nicholas Ng Wing-fui.

But, already, the rise of the high-flyers is exposing them to the political crossfire previously confined to their older colleagues. While Mr Sze has been the most prominent target to date, inevitably savaged in the leftist press over his championing of the Patten package, Mr Tsang has also come under fire over a trade trip to Taiwan.

That means the New Worlders, whose most obvious characteristic has always been their publicly-stated willingness to stay beyond 1997, now concede they do not know whether they can stay in the civil service.

''I have no say in the matter, it all depends on the future Chief Executive,'' said Mr Sze last week, in an implicit acknowledgement his present high profile role might make it difficult for him to do so.

Yet, come what may, almost all still insist they will stay in the territory, even if that means joining the private sector. ''For a Chinese, Hongkong is the best place in the world,'' Mr Tsang said. ''I will certainly stay in Hongkong whether or not I stay in the civil service.'' And the events of the past week - which first saw Hongkong Affairs Adviser and former Secretary for Home Affairs Mr Donald Liao Poon-huai warning civil servants they were putting their careers at risk by backing the Patten package, closely followed by apparent reassurances from the NCNA that there would be no purge - have had not the slightest effect on their views.

''I am not worried by the named attacks or reassured by the comments [of Mr Zhou],'' Mr Yam said.

Mr Tsang said: ''I'm no more worried than I was and no less worried than I was.'' In public, the high-flyers insist there is nothing to worry about as long as they do their work properly. ''The important thing is to do as professional a job as possible, and just play it straight according to the rules,'' Mr Siu said.

In private, they are more candid. ''The Chinese have been saying this sort of thing for years,'' one New Worlder said. ''The question is whether we believe them.'' Four years ago the answer would most likely have been yes. Now, in the wake of Tiananmen, there are doubts.

The events of June 1989 shook the patriotic young civil servants far more than their older and more colonial colleagues. Mr Sze, like so many other Hongkongers, was seen in tears after the crackdown, while Mr Leung and others joined the local marches in support of the pro-democracy protesters.

And long-serving colleagues suspect the reason why Mr Sze and his fellow high-flyers are now such ardent supporters of the Patten package is because of Tiananmen Square. Although there is no hard evidence, the suspicion is strong that many decided to claim certificates of entitlement to full British nationality as a result of June 4.

Under an ingenuous aspect of the British Nationality scheme, which Mr Tsang devised, this means civil service high-flyers do not receive actual passports - that will bar them from holding high office after 1997 - but instead have a standing guarantee of one whenever they want it in future.

It means the future cream of the Hongkong civil service - the men upon whom the task of guiding the territory into the next century most depends - have a ready-made escape route in their hands.

They may not have used it as yet. Indeed, for the moment, all insist they will stay. But it is there, like a time bomb, along with their doubts.

Doubts which Mr Zhou's recent comments have clearly done nothing to ease.