When Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen highlighted his family ties to the police and the police chief promised to lead talks on higher pay for his officers, prompting police unions to scrap a protest march today, it said much about the state of Hong Kong's governance. Mr Tsang's impassioned plea, and the 11th-hour intervention of Police Commissioner Tang King-shing, came after ministers and Mr Tang's top aides had tried in vain to persuade police unions not to take their grievances to the streets. A union spokesman said after the shelving of the march on Thursday that as many as 5,000 officers had been planning to protest today. Police unions had previously predicted a turnout of 2,000. The writing is on the wall. The authority and image of the administration will take a beating if the police, seen as a symbol of stability, take to the streets to fight for their cause. Superficially, a crisis has been averted, at least for now. The reality is that it is a crisis deferred, and a fresh time bomb has been planted. At the centre of the controversy is the government's alleged delay in acting on the findings seven months ago of a review of the police grades structure. If the proposals contained in the report were implemented, one in three police officers would get a pay rise. With the economic downturn beginning to take its toll on people's livelihoods, the government has decided to tread carefully to avoid the risk of a popular backlash. Faced with pressure from police unions, the Civil Service Bureau has promised to submit a report to the Executive Council by October, but has made no commitment on the recommendations. Speaking after Thursday's meeting with union representatives, Mr Tang said he would seek the early implementation of the proposals. Importantly, he promised to pursue backdating of the measures, including a pay rise, to a date acceptable to the staff. He has recommended the changes be backdated to November. It is unclear whether Mr Tang secured the backing of Mr Tsang, the civil service minister and Exco before he gave his commitment to his officers. It looks unlikely. If the minister, Denise Yue Chung-yee, and her aides have been non-committal about the review recommendations, it is because of their long-term implications and the political and economic uncertainties. Some newspapers have ridiculed the idea that, well before a 5.38 per cent pay cut takes effect, certain senior civil servants will have enjoyed a pay rise if the grade structure changes are adopted. The public's cynicism about the pay cut for some civil servants and pay freeze for the rest means the government will be under pressure not to be too generous when dealing with the review's findings. With police officers' expectations raised after Mr Tang's intervention, the negotiations between unions and the government, in particular over the backdating of pay rises, have arguably become more sensitive and complicated. Representatives of staff of the other disciplined-services unions were quick to warn against a show of favouritism towards police. Taxpayers will become cynical if pay rises are backdated but pay cuts are not. By leading the fight for better pay, Mr Tang has a personal stake in the negotiations. It will be politically disastrous if he fails to deliver a deal acceptable to his staff. His authority and credibility to lead the police force will be in doubt. The image of the force, long dubbed Asia's finest, has been tarnished by the pay dispute. Police unionists may feel strongly that their cause is just, but the public are not so sure. Most newspapers are either sitting on the fence or oppose pay rises. If that remains the case, the pay row could turn fiercer and uglier when the Tsang team runs out of ideas to resolve the conflict of interests between sectoral interests and society as a whole.