A rather dry joke is doing the rounds of the diplomatic cocktail circuit these days. It concerns the massive Chinese Foreign Ministry building, now under construction in Mid-Levels as a gift to Beijing from tycoon Li Ka-shing. 'When the Chinese learnt the British were building their own consulate at Admiralty, they had to have their own larger building,' the joke-teller says to a crowd of stiff-lipped senior diplomats. 'When they were aware the British were going to have upwards of 150 staff, the Chinese had to have 300. The only problem is they now have to find something for them to do.' It usually elicits slight chuckles and occasionally some consulate officials will stare down darkly into their drinks. Standing like a sentinel on the hillside overlooking Admiralty and the harbour, the Foreign Ministry building remains wrapped in a green shroud of bamboo scaffolding and netting. Just as its appearance to the public below remains a mystery while the covers remain, so does its function in the Special Administrative Region. This is provoking concern in Hong Kong's normally docile consular corps. As they sit at their desks writing cables and pondering future life under Chinese rule, the view of the edifice is disturbing some diplomats. 'The reality is there will be 250 or 300 Chinese civil servants in Hong Kong, sitting up there and looking down, twiddling their thumbs and wondering what to do,' said a senior diplomat. 'That makes everybody nervous.' The major worry is that the Hong Kong office of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs will import the Chinese system for dealing with diplomats. While many nations have done deals with Beijing over the future of their consulates in Hong Kong, a number are holding out for written guarantees that things will not change after July 1. They include France and Germany. Even representatives from some of those missions which have signed agreements worry about possible constraints on their functions. At issue is the principle of 'continuity' which should mean the consulates would be able to continue operating the way they do now with free contact with government officials and freedom of choice with staff recruitment. The most widespread concern is the bureaucrats will impose themselves between the consulates and the Hong Kong Government, requiring formal contacts and appointments with local civil servants to pass through their office. If such changes are introduced, diplomats will no longer be able to simply pick up the phone and ring officials to make appointments for meetings. Chinese officials have not made any comment on whether diplomats' contacts in Hong Kong would have to go through the Foreign Ministry. Envoys in Beijing have found the system deliberately slows down when tensions erupt in bilateral relations such as when Chinese officials were angry about a resolution adopted by the German parliament condemning human rights in Tibet. Italy is still negotiating an agreement over its consulate. Consul-General Alberto Bradanini said he expected the current way of doing diplomatic business would persist and he added he did not anticipate having to make requests for appointments with civil servants through central authorities. 'This would be very strange because first of all Hong Kong is an open society,' he said. 'You can go and visit anybody.' Fears have been raised that a 'diplomatic services bureau' may be set up to supply vetted staff for office work in consulates and domestic work in diplomats' residences. This system which operates in China is widely loathed. Secretaries, translators, housekeepers, drivers and even gardeners are all recruited through the ministry. 'So it means that even your cook - all of them are potentially spies,' said a diplomat who has served in China. 'They can check your belongings, record what you are saying and put their nose into your business. 'You have to always be careful about what you are saying.' Details including any intimate relationship or special friendship would also be reported to the Chinese authorities, especially if the person came to the diplomat's house when staff were there. 'Everybody knows that they [the staff in Beijing] are urged on a weekly basis to report what is going on,' said the envoy. The information could be used for intelligence purposes or even to blackmail diplomats who are discovered to have been indiscreet. Another aspect of the system which causes frustration in China is the Foreign Ministry's monopoly on employing staff for embassies, consulates and residences which are prevented from hiring more talented and skilled work-ers. 'In China you have a growing market of young, better educated people who have a good awareness of international practice, it would be nice to access some of these people,' said a Western diplomat who has worked in Beijing. 'Our understanding is that the salaries paid to our employees went through the diplomatic services bureau and they took a cut, which is rather frustrating,' said an envoy who was posted to Shanghai. Although China has denied planning to establish a diplomatic services bureau in Hong Kong, the concerns still persist. Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Lu Ping was asked about it during a breakfast meeting with the consular corps' heads of mission. He laughed and replied, 'no', according to a diplomat who attended the function. According to the envoy, Chinese officials have only said 'they are here to help'. 'We don't need any help,' he said, with a laugh. 'It's like saying, 'we are from the government and we are here to help you'. If they said they would arrange a meeting it could take six weeks.' Establishment of the Hong Kong Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to be headed by former ambassador to London Jiang Enzhu , raises questions about the future of the protocol division operating in the Hong Kong Government Secretariat. The protocol division currently handles routine tasks such as waiving parking fines and taxes for alcohol, tobacco and leases, accreditation of diplomats and organising any official visits for VIPs. While the Foreign Ministry is expected to take charge of visits from heads of state and foreign ministers, it is not known whether it will take over other functions of the protocol office. 'At the moment the day-to-day business is done by the Hong Kong Government and we see no rea-son why the SAR government shouldn't do it,' said an official source, who asked not to be named. Displaying its confidence that the current arrangements will continue, the local administration has advertised for a Chinese-speaking director of protocol to replace former Royal Air Force officer Vivian Warrington, who retires at midnight on June 30. Adding to the confusion, Chinese officials themselves seem to have little insight into the future role of the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the territory. 'The consular corps will have to deal with the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,' said one. He insisted that would be in line with the concept of continuity because management of the consular corps under British rule had not been in the hands of the local government but under the administration of the Office of the Political Adviser, Britain's Foreign Ministry representative in the territory. In Beijing, envoys have to arrange meetings with senior officials through a Foreign Affairs office attached to each ministry, known as the wai ban. They also have to go through a Foreign Ministry representative office in provincial centres such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, and this is the system which would apply in Hong Kong should it be adopted. Some envoys from nations which have not yet reached agreement on their future in Hong Kong criticise those who have already struck deals with Beijing on future consular arrangements. 'I don't understand why so many countries were so eager to sign agreements with China,' said a senior diplomat in Hong Kong. The consulates of European Union nations were supposed to co-ordinate their approaches. But some, such as Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, have broken ranks and already secured agreements while others seek written guarantees of 'continuity'. French Consul-General Thierry Dana said the need for agreement on continuity was not a case of having a specific concern or feeling threatened. 'It's just to make things clear,' he said. 'I think it will be the case that it is the wish for all consulates here. I think there is a common understanding and will of the consular community here to follow the same line.' Representatives of those nations which have done a deal with Beijing argue that the Basic Law and concept of 'one country, two systems' provides enough assurances that diplomatic practices will not change. However, the Basic Law section on external affairs does not address the issue of 'continuity' and the mini-constitution stipulates the central Government will handle foreign affairs. It says the SAR can engage in 'relevant' external affairs which it suggests include economics, trade, financial and monetary issues, shipping, communications, tourism, culture and sports.