PERHAPS the surprise of last week was China's relatively low-key response to Governor Chris Patten's second policy address. Officials from Xinhua (the New China News Agency) were quick to utter almost ritualistic condemnations of the speech, but compared with the vicious attacks on last year's address, these were somewhat half-hearted. Certainly no one called Mr Patten a ''prostitute'' last week; indeed, there were few personal attacks of any kind. Deputy director Zhang Junsheng initially seemed more preoccupied with griping about why Xinhua had received its copy of the speech only hours before it was delivered. Beijing's local mouthpieces also offered little more than predictable criticism. Those attacks were continuing yesterday, with six hostile commentaries and a further four critical editorials lambasting Mr Patten. The Commercial Daily came closest to personal abuse. ''Isn't this a scoundrel's logic?'' the paper said, in reference to the Governor's plea that Beijing not link politics to other issues, while claiming Mr Patten was still standing by his ''three violations'' package. Other leftist papers accused the Governor of making promises that were ''flowery but bear little fruit'', while describing his plans to improve people's livelihood as ''frying leftover rice'' and dressing up ''new wine in old bottles''. But that was all fairly routine, little different from what has been repeatedly trotted out in such columns over the past six months, and even slightly milder than some of the previous attacks on Mr Patten. In any case, it came from the locally based hardliners who, more moderate pro-Beijing figures suspect, are none too enthusiastic to see the political reform talks succeed, and see little point in trying to reach an agreement. What was striking, was the absence of the sort of specific threats that so quickly followed last year's speech, over everything from voiding contracts to restarting the civil service from scratch in 1997, and which sent the Hang Seng Index plunging, rather than soaring as it did last week. More importantly, those who really count on the Chinese side have so far kept quiet. Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Lu Ping smiled as he declined to say one word about the policy address. The Foreign Ministry trotted out only a bland line, about the need to return to the ''three conformities'', and nothing has been heard yet from Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, the man the British believe is now the leading figure in making policy on Hong Kong affairs. Chinese cadres in Beijing are believed to be still studying the speech, and trying to decide on a co-ordinated response. That means an all-out attack may come once this process is complete. Indeed, some believe the sole reason for the delay is the present paralysis of decision-making in the upper levels of the Chinese leadership, as Deng Xiaoping's health deteriorates and others, lower down, jockey for position. Yet that is hardly the case in other policy areas. Certainly, the leadership felt sufficiently confident to give the approval for last week's nuclear test, as well as the suspension of Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji's austerity programme. And there was plenty in Mr Patten's policy address which would normally have aroused a more angry response. The Governor may have tried to be more tactful this time, with one section of his speech pointedly stressing the value of Hong Kong's partnership with China, something that was ignored in last year's address. Yet he clearly could not resist adding inflammatory material to other parts of the address. It was not only Mr Patten's famous ''weeks rather than months'' remark. His comments on designating civil servants qualified to straddle the transition, and advice that Beijing accede to two international human rights conventions, could also easily be seen by a suspicious leadership in China as interference in their internal affairs. So the fact Beijing has so far overlooked such an easy opportunity to strongly denounce Mr Patten, suggests to some the Chinese leadership is genuinely concerned about the Governor's moves towards breaking off the negotiations, and does not want to do anything that might provide him with further ammunition to head in that direction, or allow the Chinese side to attract all the blame for a breakdown. Indeed, it may well indicate that, whatever the hardliners at Xinhua say, the officials in charge in Beijing want the talks to continue, and perhaps, ultimately, even reach an agreement. This is despite the fact they have so far shown scant sign of that in their behaviour at the negotiating table. If that is the case, then it means there is a real possibility of last-minute concessions from Beijing; although they may be too little and too late to deflect Mr Patten from his chosen course of going it alone. But, for the moment, Hong Kong must wait to see whether the definitive Chinese response to Mr Patten's speech will be one of compromise or confrontation.