Moments that made the year: The Britons had sneered and bullied and ruled the roost. No one in Hong Kong, however amnesiac, could ignore that sordid heritage

End of Empire

Sure, there were the moments of history to worry about. End of an era, new dawn for the millennium, that sort of thing. But many Hong Kongers were more concerned with the weather. Beginning on 30 June, it rained. And rained and rained. City pavements and streets turned into what seemed like white- water rapids. Large parts of the transport system ground to a halt because of landslides. Raindrops mixed with the tears on the cheeks of Chris Patten, the departing governor.

The floods - dramatic and severe, even by Hong Kong's tropical-downpour standards - were as much of a local talking point as the history that they seemed to eclipse. And yet, the handover of Hong Kong to China was not a wash-out. Almost the opposite: it was remarkable for being so unremarkable.

This enormous and enormously pre-planned event had theoretically been in the pipeline for the past 99 years, ever since the British signed the lease in the imperial "we make all the rules" heyday. Realistically, the handover had been under discussion for the past 13 years. And, for the past two years, large teams were involved in little else but planning for the Big Day.

Despite that, there were moments when the handover came perilously close to chaos. There had been so much fancy diplomatic footwork on both sides that some details of etiquette remained confused, even at the eleventh hour. Hence the hesitations and confusions by the Prince of Wales and Chinese President Jiang Zemin - shall we sit down? shall we stand up? where must we go? - at the handover itself, as the British and Chinese flags fluttered photogenically in the fake breeze (o tacky day!) of a wind machine.

Thousands of journalists converged on Hong Kong for this last moment of post-colonial razzmatazz. The hotels thought they would be booked up months in advance, hence the confident tripling of the prices. The move backfired somewhat when it turned out that foolish virgins were richly rewarded; luxurious rooms were available at knockdown prices to anybody who avoided making a reservation until the very last moment. Hoteliers were seriously disgruntled, as were some of their out-of-pocket guests.

Unlike some of the other extraordinary moments of history in the past few years - the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, or the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa - the momentous importance of the Hong Kong handover was not always up-front. The ever pragmatic Hong Kongers were resolutely laid-back. There were some celebrations on the night of 30 June. But drunken expats were more exuberant than the Hong Kongers themselves, most of whom simply sat at home and watched the television.

None the less: it was important. It was the end of a colonial era - and in that respect was partly welcomed by all Hong Kongers, whatever their political beliefs. Many in Britain came to identify the British legacy with the governorship of Chris Patten: heroically or hopelessly trying to preserve the people of Hong Kong from the undemocratic manoeuvrings of Peking. But there had been many years of British rule before that. The Britons had sneered and bullied and ruled the roost, because that was what they were born to do. No Hong Konger, however generous or amnesiac, could ignore that sordid heritage. My single most memorable and shocking encounter during the handover period took place in a little apartment in Kowloon: a meeting with a 101-year-old who grew up during a century of British rule, before finally outliving it. His knowledge of English was confined to a handful of obscenities - the words that he had heard most frequently from his colonial masters.

Now that the British were departing, there was respect, even affection. Above all, everybody knew that this was the beginning of a more Chinese Hong Kong, which is where the real mysteries begin. Many analysts argued that the relative calm during the handover was misleading. As soon as the television crews went, it was said, the crackdown against the democrats would begin, unnoticed by the rest of the world.

In reality, the democrats have remained almost undisturbed since 1 July. There are still many who believe that Tung Chee-hwa (multi-millionaire businessman, new chief executive of Hong Kong, and friend of Peking) is, in the words of one official who knows him well, somewhat "allergic to democracy". But whatever his private beliefs, there has not been the much- heralded crackdown.

Hong Kongers have been thinking more about money than about politics (nothing new, there), as the regional markets have rollercoasted and nosedived in recent weeks and months. Meanwhile, however, the impact of reunification with China will only begin to be understood as the months and years go by. Perhaps Hong Kong will gradually be eaten up by the economically successful but politically repressive mainland Chinese regime. Or perhaps Hong Kong's tiny canker of democracy - a few million people who don't like being told what to do, and don't mind saying so - will gradually rot the huge Communist apple. The endlessly parroted official line is that Hong Kong and China will continue to have "one country, two systems". But that will only last for a limited time.

By 2047, even according to the official agreement, there will be one system; in practice, the convergence may come much sooner. Will the jails of Hong Kong fill up with free-thinkers - or will the hardline regime in Peking be the one to crumble? Six months after the Britannia glided into the Hong Kong night, the questions about the future are still unanswered. The biggest changes are yet to come.


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