XINHUA chief Zhou Nan was bemused by the Liberal Party's apparent change of stance on the tabling of the partial electoral bill. ''Why did he change his mind now? That's not the proper way of doing things, is it?'' said Mr Zhou, citing what he saw as a U-turn on the issue by Liberal Party chairman Allen Lee Peng-fei. The Xinhua chief is far from alone in his confusion. Indeed this is one of the few issues on which he and Chris Patten can agree, for the Governor has been scathing in his criticism of the Liberal Party in the past, all but calling them political chameleons. ''I was a little surprised by one or two people who appeared to change their minds rather substantially,'' the Governor said when he gazetted the Patten package last March, charging Mr Lee with contradicting himself within the space of two days. But Mr Patten has been more generous in recent months, even offering the odd word of praise for the Liberal Party leader's previous support for more directly-elected seats. But that in turn is probably because Mr Lee has more often been heard supporting the Governor's stance of late. By the same measure, Mr Zhou was much more friendly last spring, at a time when the Liberal Party was peddling a line closer to that of Beijing. Party supporters say this shows criticism only comes from those with a vested interest in the matter. They claim perceptions of U-turns may be because the Liberals are better at reflecting the views of the public, rather than dogmatically seeking democracy at any price or constantly echoing the views of Beijing, as their political opponents can sometimesbe accused of doing. It is a plausible defence, with perhaps more than a grain of truth in it. Yet it falls far short of explaining the Liberal Party's behaviour, and perhaps unprecedented number of twists and turns, over the partial electoral bill. First they were in favour of Mr Patten's December 2 decision to go-it-alone with a first stage bill covering the voting age, method, abolition of appointed seats, and allowing members of mainland congresses to run for election. ''How could the Chinese possibly oppose this?'' Mr Lee said on the day of the announcement. Then, when it became clear Beijing was adamant in its opposition to such a move, the party seemed to shift stance just three days later. Vice-chairman Ronald Arculli told reporters attending a December 5 public forum that he was receptive to leftist legislator Tam Yiu-chung's proposal to defer discussion of the bill until February. Yet only one day later, there came what appeared to be yet another U-turn, with the party deciding it was unlikely to support such a move. Officially, the explanation for such a rapid change of stance was Mr Tam had been unable to offer any pledge from Beijing that a deferral would be enough to bring them back to the negotiating table. But, privately, Mr Arculli's remarks were branded as purely personal views, with some in the party criticising him for speaking out of turn. Indeed, the vice-chairman continued to insist he was sympathetic to the idea of a deferral. By last week, the Liberals stance seemed to have changed yet again, with Mr Lee saying the party would have to consult its members before deciding whether to support the bill. ''Things have changed drastically,'' he said. ''The issue is too big for the party legislators to decide alone.'' Given the further twist that the Liberal Party now supports one measure in the bill - the single-seat single-vote system for the Legislative Council - that its leading members adamantly opposed last year, then it is hardly surprising Mr Zhou and others have ended up more than a little confused. In fact, many of the inconsistencies are explained by apparent differences between the party's leading members. For the Liberal Party has a problem: its legislators are all business-orientated, yet it is struggling to project a grass-roots image in an effort to win support at the ballot box. Already this is causing strains. Following their defeat in the December 5 Sha Tin district board by-election - after a campaign which saw factional rivalry among local party members - treasurer James Tien Pei-chun warned the party would lose its businessbacking if it spent too much time dabbling in grass-roots politics. He said it was inevitable that concentrating on direct elections would mean offering ''goodies'' such as redistribution of wealth, and even predicted it might be easier to seek re-election to his Federation of Hong Kong Industries' seat as an independent. Mr Lee promptly dismissed his treasurer's criticisms, noting every party had its internal differences: ''He's entitled to his opinions, but we won't lose business backing by standing for direct election.'' But the real problem for Mr Lee is that such publicly-expressed differences of opinion, coupled with seemingly endless U-turns, risks not only confusing Mr Zhou but also the rest of Hong Kong - and so discredit the Liberal Party in the eyes of the public.