Britain has got used to losing its colonial possessions. But never has it seemed in such danger of being snubbed so close to the finishing line, long after independence was signed and sealed. Now the Government finds itself faced with embarassments caused both by the Chinese leadership, and by Tory party grandees. The confusion teetered somewhere between diplomatic fumbling and farce. But the underlying reason is serious: high-level tensions over the terms of the handover. The result is that while Britain hosts a lavish farewell banquet tonight, China's top leaders will be sitting on the opposite side of Victoria harbour having decided not to dine with the departing colonial power.
After a day of confusion about who would or would not attend the meal, it was confirmed yesterday that President Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, the Chinese Prime Minister, would not be there. The move could be interpreted as retaliation for Tony Blair's decision to boycott China's own ceremony, due to take place in the early hours of tomorrow.
The question of who will turn up for the various farewell events yesterday left the British side anxious not to lose face. Only three weeks ago Stephen Lam, the Hong Kong official in charge of handover preparations, said he was expecting China's top leaders to attend the banquet, Yesterday, however, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, was keen to play down any suggestion of embarrassment: "As to whether they come or not [to the banquet], frankly we are going to have a very good and dignified handover ceremony."
China's top leaders are due to arrive in late afternoon or early evening, which means that Hong Kong's future leader, Tung Chee-hwa, may also pay only a fleeting visit - if he turns up at all - to Britain's sunset farewell performance at the East Tamar military base. Mr Cook said it was "perfectly understandable" that Mr Tung would instead be going to meet the arriving Chinese leaders.
Mr Jiang's dinner plans are a more sensitive issue, although the British side rejected any notion of a snub. Mr Blair will meet the Chinese president and prime minister for one hour, travelling to the Hung Hom hotel where the top leaders are holed up for most of their time in the territory. Mr Jiang and Mr Li are determined not to risk running into any pro-democracy demonstrations during their brief visit, and seem to feel safest inside the now heavily-guarded Harbour Plaza View hotel, owned by Li Ka-shing, one of Hong Kong's richest businessmen and a close friend of China.
After the summit meeting, Mr Blair and his entourage will swiftly return to Hong Kong Island for the banquet, leaving behind Mr Jiang and his team. The Prince of Wales will be guest of honour at the dinner, but the most senior Chinese official who will attend is the Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen. Only as the formal handover ceremony approaches at 11.30pm will the Chinese leaders board a boat to whisk them across the harbour for the flag lowering. Mr Jiang will have a 10-minute meeting with Prince Charles before the ceremony.
China's own guest list for its 1.30am ceremony is also proving diplomatically awkward for Britain. Neither Mr Cook nor Mr Blair will attend, as a protest at China's decision to snuff out Hong Kong's existing, democratically elected legislature and swear in a new, hand-picked body at the ceremony. Mr Cook said: "We do not intend to be at the swearing in ceremony because there is no way an elected politician can led legitimacy to the replacement of the elected council by an appointed council."
But, in spite of Britain's stand, both Lord Howe and Sir Edward Heath will witness the ocassion. Lord Howe, former foreign secretary, said yesterday: "I thought about it very carefully and have decided I should attend essentially because it is the occasion on which all those people who are concerned with the future of Hong Kong are being appointed. I think it is very important to show how much confidence we have in them."
Mr Cook said it was not for him to forbid the two men to go: "Were I to do so it would send a very confusing message to China and Hong Kong about the British interpretation of freedom."
The diplomatic rifts over China's scrapping of the elected legislature showed no signs of abating yesterday. Mr Cook said Mr Tung had assured him that new elections would be held "by next May or earlier if he could arrange it". But the Foreign Secretary stressed that any new electoral system must be free and fair and it "should not be carefully crafted in order to give a particular result".
The US Foreign Secretary, Madeleine Albright, arriving in Hong Kong, said: "We will watch closely to see if free and fair elections for a new legislature are conducted as promised at an early date".
Handover reports, pages 11-14