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Long career in service of a nation

VIETNAM was Piet Steel's first posting in many years of diplomatic service that he considered a challenge.

Mr Steel is Belgium's new consul-general to Hong Kong. He spent three years in Vietnam and was Belgium's first ambassador there for 12 years when he arrived in Hanoi in 1990.

''My job was to beef up the political and trade relations between Belgium and Vietnam - and liaise for the European Community,'' he said.

''It was the first time I had to be creative as a diplomat.'' After three years in Vietnam Hong Kong is a big change for Mr Steel.

''Everything is in place, everything is at such a sophisticated level,'' he said.

This, and taking over from a successful predecessor, made it difficult to see how he could further the relationship.

Despite the sharp contrasts between Vietnam and Hong Kong, he found there were parallels. Both places showed how people could start from very little and could grow.

''The first time I had a walk in the back streets here, I saw the basics have not changed. This is the best lesson and I'm fortunate that I can compare the two,'' he said.

Mr Steel said it would be ideal if on his return to Europe he could use all that he had learned to help Europe.

The chance of travel drew Mr Steel, 43, to the diplomatic service in the 1960s.

''I am a kid of the 60s. We all had our youth crisis then,'' Mr Steel said.

''We felt that we could change the world.

''Now, some of us are in powerful positions, we baby boomers, and are in positions where we can do it - look at Bill Clinton; he has real power.'' But Mr Steel said that as Belgium's representative in Hong Kong, he was not so much a man with power than one who was in a responsible position.

Mr Steel's first posting was to Paris, in 1976. From there, he was sent as Belgium's representative to co-found the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade.

He speaks passionately about the importance of the talks reaching agreement.

''There are billions and billions of dollars involved. Trade can be very explosive if there are no rules to the game,'' he said.

One of his goals is to find out Asia's formula that made it so successful.

''I believe it starts with the family unit. In Europe, it's disappeared as an economic unit. In Vietnam it's a safety net, it's important. The same is true in Hong Kong but on a much more sophisticated level,'' he said.