Putting aside the symbolic significance of the first NPC/CPPCC conferences held since the handover, the annual plenum in Beijing was marked by controversies and anxieties, but ended with some comfort for the community. This was not because of the charm and wit of the new Premier Zhu Rongji in his first encounter with the media on Thursday. Nor was it because of the strongest-ever pledge by the central government that it would 'spare no effort and no cost' to maintain the SAR's prosperity and the peg. And it had nothing to do with Mr Zhu's relaxed attitude towards the protests and demonstrations he may face when he visits here. Rather, it was Beijing's reassuring message over its policy and approach towards Hong Kong that emerged during the fortnight-long session. This message was behind remarks made by Mr Zhu at the press conference. Upbeat about the long-term future of Hong Kong, he said the central government 'thinks very highly of the policies adopted by the Hong Kong SAR'. 'We do not think that it will encounter any insurmountable difficulties in the future.' His more moderate remarks on protests and demonstrations also showed tolerance towards dissent and understanding of the SAR's political culture. These reassuring words were in contrast to hard-hitting speeches by Xu Simin, a senior local deputy to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and Lee Wui-ting, a local delegate of the National People's Congress (NPC), about two weeks ago. Mr Xu, a veteran pro-Beijing figure, lashed out at RTHK for its critical stance on China, the SAR Government and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. He said he had urged Mr Tung to impose greater control over the broadcaster. Mr Lee, an assistant director of Xinhua, made veiled attacks against people who continued to take an anti-China stance after the handover. He did not elaborate. Ostensibly, his words were aimed at the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China and other pro-democracy organisations. NPC deputy Cheng Yiu-tong said: 'To a very large extent, what Mr Xu and Mr Lee said represented their own views. My understanding is Mr Lee was not speaking on behalf of Xinhua. 'Some people have held longstanding views on these kinds of issues. I don't think they fully grasp the spirit of Beijing's policy towards Hong Kong.' As a sign of Beijing's more relaxed approach, Mr Cheng pointed to how Jiang Zemin handled the media when he attended a Hong Kong sub-group meeting. 'In the past, journalists would have been kicked out before Mr Jiang arrived,' said Mr Cheng. 'And even if the leaders bumped into journalists in the corridors, [the leaders] would immediately run away. 'This time, he took the initiative to come closer to the media and pose with them for photos. 'So long as Hong Kong remains stable and prosperous, we can continue our lifestyle, system and freedom to protest. We strongly felt this line of thought in Beijing. 'Some people may be a bit surprised about their restraint.' The low-key manner of Liao Hui, the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director, reflects the mentality of mainland departments in charge of Hong Kong affairs, he said. 'They know the fewer contacts they have with us the better, because they will not be drawn into domestic issues,' said Mr Cheng. Another deputy, Ma Lik, said he understood that the leadership was very anxious after Mr Xu made his remarks about RTHK, and held a meeting to re-position its official line. 'Beijing fully understands the danger of being seen as interfering in Hong Kong affairs at this stage,' he said. Vice-chairman of the Democratic Party Dr Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the remarks by Mr Zhu, Mr Jiang and, earlier, CPPCC chairman Li Ruihuan, showed two lines of thought. First, the central government would not meddle in Hong Kong's affairs and, second, it would give its full support to the SAR Government. The public outcry over Mr Xu and Mr Lee's remarks, said Dr Cheung, indicated that local confidence remained fragile. 'I would say the first year of the SAR will be a so-called trial period on whether the central government is fully implementing the policy of 'one country, two systems'. Hong Kong people are watching closely and reacting strongly to anything that can be construed as a breach of their promises. The international media are also watching closely,' he said. Dr Cheung said the public was not yet at ease. 'They are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Therefore, any comment or any matter can become complicated even though it may be made unintentionally. 'The way Beijing swiftly reacted to Mr Xu's remarks on RTHK showed they are quite sensitive to the sentiments of Hong Kong people and the leadership has consensus on the issue.' The new Premier, he said, would certainly focus on social and economic reforms such as state-owned enterprises and housing. 'He's not going to open a new battle on political issues such as June 4 and democracy. But it seems he will take a more tolerant and relaxed attitude towards political dissent in the SAR,' said Dr Cheung. In view of the deep-rooted distrust towards the communist regime, Beijing has no other option but to exercise extra restraint and not get involved with Hong Kong's domestic issues. But like it or not, the reality is that such fears will remain for a long period of time and will peak when insensitive remarks, such as those by Mr Xu and Mr Lee, are made. In an immediate rebuttal to Mr Xu's remarks, Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang expressed concern that the way Mr Xu raised the issue in Beijing could be seen as inviting interference from Beijing. Her anxiety was shared by many people in Hong Kong. They were taking a wait-and-see attitude towards Beijing's pledge that it would not interfere with the SAR's domestic affairs. Only when the communist leadership wins the hearts and minds of the people of Hong Kong will comments such as Mr Xu's and Mr Lee's be seen simply as the views of individuals with no behind-the-scenes input from Beijing. With fears of 'Chinese interference' becoming irrelevant, disputes like the role of RTHK and activities of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China will simply become 'internal contradictions'. Like other social conflicts, they are not harmful but healthy signs of a pluralistic and free society.