CHINA says they should set their minds at ease. Britain says their work should not be affected. But Hong Kong civil servants, especially the senior staff, remain as anxious as ever about their future. A painless transition is all that Hong Kong's 190,000-strong civil service wants, so that July 1, 1997 is just another day in the calendar. But to the dismay of many, the dream has been shattered by the latest statement of the Preliminary Working Committee (PWC) political sub-group that all public servants will have to indicate before 1997 their willingness to stay in the service after the changeover. Didn't China say in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law that public servants previously serving Hong Kong could all expect to remain in employment with the change of sovereignty? Why all of a sudden do even the gardeners at Victoria Park or the tea ladies at the Government Secretariat have to make a declaration that they want to serve the post-1997 Special Administrative Region (SAR) government? Some consider this is political vetting, while others believe it comes from the operational need to ensure that sufficient staff will remain to run Hong Kong. The plain truth, however, is that no matter how assuring the two sovereigns are in stressing that everything will remain unchanged for 50 years, 1997 does make a difference. Stricken with a serious credibility problem, the PWC, eager to demonstrate its authority, has simply wasted no time in reminding the would-be servants of the SAR that a new regime is entitled to gauge their allegiance. The 13-point statement issued by the PWC political sub-group and the supplementary comments are meant to be a confidence booster but, sadly, the effect of it seems to point in the opposite direction. Released by Xinhua (the New China News Agency) in Beijing, the statement covers a wide range of issues concerning the well-being of Hong Kong's public servants. Will there be massive dismissals? Will there be reprisals? Will they be held accountable to the Central Government? Will they be allowed to stay on in the same posts? Can expatriates stay in the service? Are all civil servants required to speak Mandarin and write in Chinese? What posts are out of bounds for expatriates and foreign passport holders? Will the terms of employment and system of promotion be retained? What salary and pension safeguards will there be? What if they secure a full British passportunder the British Nationality Scheme? All the questions are answered with specific references to the relevant provisions in the Basic Law. When so many of the issues are raised, there is just a reaffirmation of what is already stipulated in the mini-constitution. Probably to the astonishment of Beijing officials and enthusiastic PWC members, some civil servants reacted with unease to the working panel's latest assurances. Torn between two masters, Hong Kong bureaucrats are already walking on a tightrope and the last thing they want is for the PWC to complicate the situation and tip the balance. On the surface, it is business as usual. Hong Kong people are the bosses of the bureaucrats - they will serve the future SAR government in just the same way as they serve the present administration and the sovereignty change should not be something to worry about. The undercurrent, however, is so strong that those at the core of the Government can hardly ignore it. Intense lobbying by China for senior officers' ''registration of allegiance'' is already taking place. In public, Hong Kong bureaucrats march on with helmsman Chris Patten, but after office hours they are invited to wine and dine with Xinhua officials or associates and advisers to China who are anxious to know where they stand. In the past direct contact, even on an informal and private basis, between senior officials and Beijing had to be reported in detail, but now acknowledging the harsh reality that their aides will have to be automatically transferred to the new regime, the British Hong Kong administration has adopted a more tolerant attitude to such private meetings. When China and Britain were on speaking terms, close liaison of this kind was not so much of a worry. But when the two sovereigns have declared war against each other, such meetings could turn into intense sessions of cross-examinations. Those who have the honour of being invited to such occasions are on the horns of a dilemma. Should they join the chorus of the mainland brigade in condemning the Governor and thereby ensure their senior positions are fully entrenched in the SAR government or should they at least stay neutral, or perhaps at times be bold enough to point out China's genuine mistakes, as they are still the crown servants working under Mr Patten's governorship and are accountable to the Hong Kong people. This is a difficult choice. More so now that the Chinese Foreign Ministry has made it clear that Beijing will not hold talks with London on the line-up of principal officials for the first SAR government. China is now compiling its own list of leadership for the post-1997 administration and that has kicked off a hot contest for all the top positions. The danger in the latest PWC statements is that they may further divide an already disunited civil service. This may have the effect of splitting the service into pro-China and non pro-China camps. Already, suggestions of Governor Patten's favouritism towards certain officials have been raised by disgruntled officers. It has even been suggested that there are civil servants who now claim that they have not been promoted under the present administration simply because they are pro-China. How true is this? It is hard to tell. But it does provide a convenient excuse for those whose calibre and ability are simply not good enough and who should not be elevated to greater things. If the selection for future leaders of the civil service is based on loyalty or allegiance without considering ability, will some underserving but patriotic bureaucrats be assigned to key positions? If that is the case, will that do any good to Hong Kong? Is this what China wants? No one questions the need for loyalty and allegiance but it should not be blown out of proportion. In the end it is Hong Kong and China that suffer. There is no doubt there are many in the civil service who genuinely want to serve Hong Kong and act in the best interests of the community. Beijing should not fear of an exodus of staff. The best and only guarantee is that China behaves rationally and sensibly so that officers can rest assured that the post-1997 government is one that they wholeheartedly want to serve.