A positive message
LU Ping's snubbing of the Governor of Hong Kong on his visit here next week sends a depressing message to the people of the territory. It seems to say that China has no interest in bridging the political divide. For the sake of an insult, China is prepared to risk damaging its own credibility as a calm and pragmatic sovereign power.
The snub is compounded by his decision to meet civil service associations, although at least this shows he is prepared to hear the views of those will be expected to make Hong Kong work after 1997.
The main purpose of the visit - attending the ceremony marking the Bank of China's debut as a note-issuing bank here - shows the Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office is also a man who cares about the territory's economic well-being. He is putting his anger at Britain's alleged perfidy aside and taking part in one of the most important gestures of confidence in the Sino-Hong Kong relationship either side has been prepared to make since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on the Airport in July, 1991.
Whatever the tensions of the political relationship, the Bank of China's new role is more than just a symbol of the return to Chinese sovereignty. The bank has acquired the prestige of being one of the three institutions privileged to issue notes - and has the prospect of becoming the main note-issuer in years to come. But it also has accepted responsibilities and obligations. It has taken on a commitment to helping maintain Hong Kong's economic equilibrium.
In an ironic twist not intended when Hong Kong agreed to the note-issuing function in 1991 (when the political through train was rocking dangerously but still on track) the bank's new role shows that the economic through-train is still firmly on the rails.
With the growing economic integration between Hong Kong and Southern China, and the large volumes of Hong Kong currency in circulation there, the Bank of China's higher profile in the territory is no more than a belated recognition of China's existing economic role here.
Mr Lu's decision to officiate at the note-issuing ceremony is an ideal opportunity for him to reaffirm China's commitment to making that integration work still more efficiently, for the benefit of both sides.
His visit, coupled with his less than diplomatic behaviour towards Mr Patten, is symbolic of China's much-vaunted determination to separate politics from economics. It is symbolic, too, of its commitment, three years before the change of sovereignty, to ensuring a smooth economic transition.
Symbols alone, however, are not enough. Despite the pious phrases from both sides about the need to knuckle down to business as if the political impasse did not exist, their inaction has often spoken louder than their words.
Hong Kong is still waiting, with a patience born of necessity, for agreement on the airport and rail-link financing package. Yet almost three years have passed since the signature of the Airport MOU which was supposed to put an end to the squabbling.
Hong Kong is still hoping for a resolution of the row over Container Terminal 9, although the delay is already threatening to affect the territory's economic prospects.
Hong Kong is still watching helplessly while the stalling over international air service agreements erodes confidence in its future as an aviation hub and undermines the public's confidence in the viability of Chek Lap Kok.
Aside from the CT9 row, co-operation within the Sino-British Land Commission has been excellent. But in the Joint Liaison Group, where economic and political matters are intertwined, progress has been painfully slow.
It is the infrastructure row, however, that has been a particular hobby-horse of Mr Lu's ever since Sir David Wilson announced his Port and Airport Development Strategy as a confidence-boosting measure in October, 1989. In Mr Lu's memory of the period, it was the announcement of PADS, without prior consultation with China, which marked a serious deterioration of the Sino-British relationship. Yet that misunderstanding was supposed to have been cleared up by the Airport MOU.
Mr Lu long ago recognised the value of Hong Kong's economic and infrastructural developments to China and to the expansion of its role as a gateway and service hub to the entire region.
It is time Mr Lu gave some new positive impetus to the economic development of the territory and the region it serves by overcoming the psychological hurdle the airport seems to represent for him and giving the go-ahead for these much needed projects.
Next week's note issuing ceremony would be the perfect occasion for such a bold new initiative. And that would be the most positive message he could give the people of Hong Kong.