Historic handover marred by snubs, fumble and farce

Plans for today's historic handover of Hong Kong to China sank further into confusion and embarassment just 24 hours before the event, as China made clear that it would only turn up at the last possible moment to Britain's party.

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer - Midweight / Senior

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks