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Hong Kong handover: Mandarin class squares up for territorial fight

The battle for Hong Kong is under way. It is yet to emerge in the full light of day but the intense in-fighting within the Chinese bureaucracy for control of its newly acquired piece of territory occasionally spills into the public arena.

The most up-front combatant is the Hong Kong branch of the New China News Agency, or Xinhua, which is desperate to retain its previous predominance in Hong Kong affairs. Zhang Junsheng, Xinhua's spokesman, has even taken the unusual step of publicly insisting that his organisation's role will not change following the handover of power in July.

Less publicly, Xinhua sources have been putting it about that they will retain control of the territory's all-important Communist Party organisation.

However, there is every indication that Xinhua's star is no longer in the ascendant. Zhou Nan, the unprepossessing agency director in Hong Kong, who is said to have perfected his English while interrogating prisoners of war during the Korean conflict, appears to have made a number of serious tactical misjudgments.

Mr Zhou and his lieutenants were known to have been lukewarm in their support for the campaign to install Tung Chee-hwa as Hong Kong's first chief executive or head of government. In an attempt to stall his appointment they gave some support to a rival, Sir Ti Liang Yang, a former chief justice. However Mr Tung, strongly backed by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) in Peking, wiped the floor with his opponents.

If anything, the HKMAO should have suffered a slight diminution of authority with the appointment of its current director, Lu Ping. All of Mr Lu's predecessors were far more senior in the party hierarchy. However, he has a deeper understanding of Hong Kong affairs which Mr Zhou is said to lack. Mr Lu, based in Peking, is able to speak Cantonese, the predominant Hong Kong language, whereas Mr Zhou, who lives in the colony, cannot.

As the handover of power nears, Hong Kong has climbed higher up the agenda of the Chinese leadership. Sources close to the decision-makers in Peking say they are frustrated by the lack of accurate information coming from their officials in Hong Kong.

As long ago as 1992, Jiang Zemin, the leader of the Communist Party, established his own channels of communication and appointed the veteran Li Chuwen as his eyes and ears in Hong Kong. Officially, the Shanghai- based official, who previously served in Hong Kong, was supposed to be a special adviser to Zhou Nan.

Now there is an added complication caused by the pending establishment of a massive foreign ministry bureaucracy in Hong Kong after 1 July. It will be headed by Jiang Enzhu, the current ambassador to Britain. Mr Jiang has been trying to transfer the leadership of the local Communist Party's operations to his office but this is being resisted by Mr Zhou.

However, Mr Zhou will retire shortly after the handover of power and it remains to be seen whether he will be replaced by a high-ranking party official.

Hong Kong is seen as a rich prize by the Chinese bureaucracy, which explains why there is so much in-fighting for control ahead of the transfer of power. In theory, China will allow the territory to operate autono- mously under its Hong Kong leadership. In practice, China has already demonstrated that it will not be hands off.