IMAGINE the situation after 1997, when leaders of the two most prosperous cities in southern China meet to decide their new transport link. Hong Kong, by far the larger of the two, has a practical plan to build a cross-border road and a railway along routes which will also provide much-needed relief for some of the territory's most-congested areas. But Shenzhen has other ideas: pushing a grandiose scheme for a bridge across Deep Bay to link up with its prestigious new super-highway. There are no prizes for guessing which side is likely to prevail when the issue is referred to Beijing to resolve. Shenzhen will, by then, have had more than a decade's experience of buttering up the cadres in the capital, but Hong Kong will still be feeling the effects of being denied any influence owing to the legacy of suspicion during the final years of British rule. That may all sound somewhat fanciful, but it is precisely what is likely to happen to the Government's plans - to be announced, with much fanfare, this Wednesday - for a $30 billion railway through the northwest New Territories, crossing the border at Lok Ma Chau, and to be built after 1997. For Hong Kong this is the only route which makes sense, since Tuen Mun, Yuen Long, and the other areas it would connect, are desperately under-served by today's transport links - leading to massive rush-hour traffic congestion - a sorry legacy of planning done by expat administrators who rarely ventured north of Kowloon's Boundary Street. But Shenzhen says traffic is too congested on the Chinese side of Lok Ma Chau to contemplate another railway. So it has been busy lobbying in Beijing, and briefing the Preliminary Working Committee, on its favoured alternative - the so-called Shen-Kong Western Channel bridge. The Hong Kong Government, deprived of all but the most-limited access to mainland officials, simply cannot compete. Things might have been different, had it not been for the political reform row. China has been happy to reward the Portuguese for Macau's contented kow-towing over electoral matters by favouring the enclave over its cocky little neighbour, the special economic zone of Zhuhai. Beijing bluntly told Zhuhai to get lost when it tried to persuade the central Government to veto Macau's plans for an airport and let the zone reap the air-traffic benefits. But apparently undaunted, the ambitious special economic zone has set its sights on Hong Kong: warning the territory not to take on infrastructure projects it cannot handle. Last week, it even emerged that Zhuhai has begun building its much-touted bridge to Tuen Mun, even though Beijing has yet to even approve it and some leading pro-Chinese figures have said it is neither technically nor financially feasible. The bridge, if completed, will only worsen the traffic problems the proposed northwest New Territories line is trying to alleviate. But, unlike Macau, the Hong Kong Government has no brownie points it can cash in to get Beijing's help in scuttling the plans of its pushy neighbours. This is why the Government is pinning so much hope on the cross-border committee on infrastructure projects, which holds its inaugural meeting in Guangzhou next month. 'It may, for example, ensure that we don't face a situation in which bridges start turning up in Hong Kong without us knowing about them,' said Governor Chris Patten optimistically. The reality, as those more experienced in dealing with China know, is that the new body will simply further delay Hong Kong projects, while those in Shenzhen and Zhuhai steam merrily ahead. That is a situation which could easily continue, even beyond 1997, unless the first chief executive of the Special Administrative Region is someone who can exercise more clout in Beijing than the savvy cadres in the two special economic zones over the border. Perhaps that is why the identity of Hong Kong's post-1997 ruler crept back on to the agenda again last week, with the Chinese-language press speculating that President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng were already considering potential candidates. Among the names floated were some with excellent connections in Zhongnanhai: including CITIC Pacific chairman Larry Yung Chi-kin, Hong Kong tycoon Henry Fok Ying-tung, and ambitious publisher Lo Tak-shing. But many of the others mentioned would hardly fall into this category, including Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, former top government official John Chan Cho-chak, Chief Justice Sir Ti Liang Yang, former Stock Exchange chairman Charles Lee Yeh-kwong, and ex-senior Executive Councillor Sir Chung Sze-yuen. For most people in Hong Kong, someone from the second group would undoubtedly be preferable, since they would be more trusted to stand up for the territory's interests. But the battles with Shenzhen and Zhuhai, whose interests Beijing will put first, are a reminder that the chief executive also has to be someone who can exercise real clout in the Chinese capital: which might mean making do with Mr Yung or Mr Fok.