IN less uncertain times, the prospective retirement of a Chief Secretary would have been the cue for civil servants to jockey for position. Fighting for a place in the limelight, policy secretaries would be in a hurry to make their public mark on government policy and be recognised as contenders for the number one job in the civil service. Until recently, even in times of great turmoil, most of the competitors would have been expatriates. However, the planned departure later this year of Sir David Ford is unlikely to produce a rush of candidates for the post. With China in a belligerent mood, only a senior civil servant with no ambition for high office after 1997 will want to put him or herself in the firing line. Even if Beijing were not determined to takeits revenge on any officer openly promoting the policies of the Governor, Mr Chris Patten, the fear of being too closely associated with British colonial policy in its final years would put off anyone not yet close to retirement age. Nor does any expatriate need to apply. The Governor has rightly decided Sir David will be the last non-Chinese to fill the post. Although the plan is for Sir David to step down by year's end, much will depend on the state of relations with China and, of course, Mr Patten's health. Should relations remain tense because Beijing is not able to accept whatever decision the Legislative Council reaches in a few months on the Governor's political reform package, Mr Patten may want an experienced hand such as SirDavid by his side. Another factor is whether Mr Patten will fully regain his health. If not, it may be reason to keep Sir David on a little longer so that he can share some of the burdens of office that a less experienced administrator might not be able toshoulder. While any delay inevitably will put back the timetable for having a local Chief Secretary, it should make no difference to the contenders who are in line to succeed him. Although three names have been most often mentioned, two of them, Mr John Chan Cho-chak and Mr Michael Sze Cho-cheung are looking less and less likely contenders. Mr Chan is disqualified, ironically enough, on the grounds that he is the best man for the job. As the most likely candidate for Chief Secretary at the time of the handover to Chinese control, his main task for the next three to four years is to keep his head well below the parapet, especially if relations with China continue on their present collision course. Instead, the thinking seems to be that he should be given another posting such as the Civil Service Branch. There, barring a major outbreak of hostilities with China on the subject of civil service pensions, he will be out of the firing line, while gathering the experience most relevant to his future position. Mr Sze, meanwhile, suffers seriously from his youth and lack of seniority. Though a high-flier both under Lord Wilson and most conspicuously under Mr Patten he remains an acting secretary and has yet to be confirmed in his post. Having won himself a reputation as a pugnacious defender of the Governor's political reform proposals, and undermined his chances of a glorious career under Hongkong's future sovereign power, he might have made an excellent choice to serve in the interregnum between Sir David and Mr Chan. Mrs Anson Chan Fang On-sang, however, may be the ideal compromise candidate. She is tough and cool-headed and has the respect of the civil service. At 53, her age and seniority ensure she will be ready to retire in 1996 or early 1997, when it is time to appoint the Chief Secretary who will ride the through-train if it is still on track. Even if she were young enough to carry on beyond the handover, she is already tainted in the eyes of the Chinese. As Secretary for Economic Services, she is identified with pushing through so much of the policy on the new airport and Container Terminal 9 that China is opposed to, that she could not possibly harbour any ambitions beyond 1997. Chinese officials last week told civil servants to put their hearts at ease and not to fear punishment for supporting Mr Patten's proposals. Citing the Basic Law, they said it was clearly stated that most government officials would be able to continue inoffice after 1997. Most middle-ranking civil servants are likely to accept that assurance, in the knowledge that China has understood it cannot expect to run Hongkong successfully without a loyal administrative machine. However, at Directorate and Secretariat level the message that will be remembered are the words of adviser to China and former Secretary for Home Affairs, Mr Donald Liao Poon-huai, who told civil servants not to put their jobs on the line by taking sides in politics.