Chinese seek credit for Chek Lap Kok

There's no invitation for Britain's key players to the opening of Hong Kong's new airport, writes Stephen Vines

HONG KONG'S grand new airport, Chek Lap Kok, opens next week with much official fanfare. There will be a glittering list of invited guests - and you might expect that those who played a key role in ensuring the airport was built would figure prominently. You would, however, be wrong.

Lord Wilson, the man who initiated the project, and Chris Patten, the last Governor, who spent a great deal of his time making sure that the project became a reality, are both conspicuous by their absence from the list of distinguished invitees.

Instead, the airport opening, marking the completion of one of the world's largest infrastructure projects, will be transformed into a triumphalist occasion for the Chinese government - which spent the greater part of the last decade putting every possible obstacle in the way of its construction.

President Jiang Zemin will preside over the opening ceremony and unveil a plaque bearing his name to make sure that airport users remember that he was in charge.

A spokesman for the organisers of the opening ceremony said that Lord Wilson, the former governor who initiated the project in 1989, and Chris Patten, would not be invited because "they do not fall into the category of overseas guests".

Earlier, the government had announced that all those who had been involved in the airport project would be invited to see its completion. Asked why this did not include the two Hong Kong leaders who had done most to make the airport possible, the spokesman replied, "I can only tell you that they do not fall into the category".

Although the role of the British colonial authorities in the construction of the airport will be carefully erased from the ceremony on 2 July, John Prescott, the deputy Prime Minister, has been invited to attend, and two of the three companies sponsoring the event are British-owned. China seems to have no objection to Swire Pacific, the parent company of Cathay Pacific, and Cable & Wireless, the parent company of Hongkong Telecom, footing the lion's share of the sponsor's bill.

The pounds 12bn airport project has been intensely political ever since Sir David (now Lord) Wilson announced its commencement in 1989 as part of an effort to calm Hong Kong nerves following the Tiananmen Square massacre. Sir David planned the construction of the airport to demonstrate confidence in the future of Hong Kong.

China quickly reacted by accusing Britain of using the airport project to pour Hong Kong's massive financial reserves into the hands of British companies. As things turned out, the vast majority of the work went to Japanese companies, with British companies getting the second biggest slice, followed by mainland Chinese companies.

When the argument about British companies getting contracts faded, China switched its attack. This time, it accused the colonial government of irresponsibility in mortgaging Hong Kong's future by raising loans to pay for part of the project. In response to Chinese demands, the government was forced to pay in cash for the greater part of the airport cost and ditch ambitious plans for private sector involvement.

In 1991, the then prime minister, John Major, was bullied into a humiliating visit to Peking in an attempt to seek agreement with China over airport financing. He thus became the first Western leader to visit Peking in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre. The Chinese were jubilant and even signed an agreement but then resolutely blocked all attempts to start work on the project. It took another two years before the authorities timidly embarked on site formation, which involved reclaiming a massive piece of land from the sea. China reacted with fury and insisted that the work be halted.

Final agreement on the financing plans was only reached in July 1995, thus ensuring that the British would be unable to leave Hong Kong before completing the airport. Last year, when Britain opened the only completed part of the project, a vast suspension bridge linking the island-based airport with the mainland, the Chinese sent a minor official to attend the opening ceremony. Tung Chee-hwa, already selected as Hong Kong's first post-colonial head of government, boycotted the event.

Next week, Mr Tung will be able to stand side-by-side with President Jiang and gloat over the airport's opening without so much as a reference to the two colonial governors who made it all possible. Mr Jiang will than board a chartered Air China jumbo and savour the privilege of taking the first international flight out of the airport.

The only British input at the ceremony will come from the Scottish singer, Sheena Easton, who now lives in the United States. Ms Easton will croon along with Jacky Cheung, a Hong Kong pop star. Originally, the planners set their sights on rather more famous celebrities, including Luciano Pavarotti and Diana Ross. But their demands for fees in seven figures were deemed inappropriate at a time when Hong Kong is sliding into economic recession. Fortunately, British stars can be had for less.

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