A possible free-trade area between Hong Kong and the mainland appeared to be thrown into doubt yesterday after a Chinese Government trade official said he was unaware of the proposal. A two-day meeting of a joint commission between Hong Kong and the mainland on commerce and trade did not discuss the idea of a free-trade zone and Vice-Minister for Foreign Trade An Min said yesterday he knew nothing of the idea. Mr An and Secretary for Commerce and Industry Chau Tak-hay, who headed the two delegations, the third since the commission was set up in 1999, addressed a news conference at the end of the meeting. Long Yongtu, another Vice-Foreign Trade Minister and chief negotiator for China to the World Trade Organisation, last week said the central Government was 'seriously considering' a proposal from the Hong Kong Government for such a free trade zone between Hong Kong, the mainland and possibly Macau. Asked to comment, Mr An said he did not know what Mr Long had said and did not understood the idea. 'I have not heard of this. We did not discuss this during the meeting and have not researched it. We have much to do after joining the WTO,' he said. The mainland becomes a WTO member on Tuesday. Mr Chau said the zone was not on the agenda of the meeting, which had been set over several months through negotiations between the two sides: 'So we are not disappointed [that it was not discussed].' Asked whether Beijing could extend privileges to Hong Kong to help it through the economic slump, Mr An said that China would become a WTO member on Tuesday and could act only according to WTO rules. 'We can co-operate with each other in many ways,' he said. 'Our entry into WTO will strengthen Hong Kong's role as a port and trans-shipment centre and provide more opportunities, with consumers in the mainland richer and able to buy more goods from Hong Kong.' He said Hong Kong was going through difficult times and would overcome them, and that such ups and downs were part of the economic cycle. Mr Chau said that he did not share the concern of others that Hong Kong would lose its competitive edge after China's WTO entry. 'I am not worried at all. We have important advantages that are not easily replicable, especially software, such as our legal system and the skills and knowledge of our business people in finance, trade and insurance,' he said. 'In the next 20 years, according to the World Bank, China's economy will grow into the second-largest in the world and will be big enough to accommodate more than one Hong Kong and more than one Shanghai.' Mr Chau described the two-day meeting as having been held in a friendly and constructive spirit, tackling practical issues in an efficient way. Matters discussed included the role and functions of new departments in Mr An's ministry that had just been established - the WTO, fair trade and electronic-commerce divisions. Also under discussion were legislative amendments that will follow China's admission into the world trade body. The fourth meeting in the series will be held in Hong Kong in the last quarter next year.