JARDINE Matheson's decision to de-list from the Hong Kong stock exchange will no doubt be interpreted in many quarters as a loss of confidence in the run-up to 1997 and the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong. Certainly that impression will be reinforced by the memory of China's attack on Jardines over its support, however half-hearted, for Chris Patten's political reform proposals at the end of 1992. But the rise in the Hang Seng Index yesterday suggests the market takes a more pragmatic view. Ever since it moved its domicile to Bermuda in 1984, the Jardine Matheson name has ceased to be synonymous with Hong Kong and everything the territory stands for. The group no longer commands an automatic seat on the Executive Council and its commitment to the territory's well-being is no longer taken for granted. If, therefore, Jardines now feels it has a right to special treatment from the regulatory authorities it can think again. Hong Kong does not owe the Keswick family a living. If the Keswicks feel they will be better able to protect themselves against a hostile takeover bid under different regulatory conditions so be it. But they should not expect Hong Kong to change the rules just to provide that protection. Bermuda's rules are tailored to suit the company's needs. Let the family enjoy the reassurance their new domicile affords them. Jardine Matheson will always have a place in the Hong Kong history books. But the days when it could run the territory as a private fiefdom are over. If the rules were to be bent for Jardines there would immediately be a dozen other companies all clamouring for similar treatment. If Jardine Matheson could claim a special dispensation as the territory's most important colonial pillar, how long would it be before a Chinese group such as CITIC demanded similar treatment as the representative of Hong Kong's new masters? Keeping the Noble House on side is no longer important enough to warrant sacrificing the territory's hard-won and still fragile reputation for regulatory probity and firmness.