Hong Kong handover: Goodbye Hong Kong

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Never has there been such an extraordinary end to British rule, full of so many mixed emotions.

As the first deafening fireworks exploded over Victoria Harbour yesterday evening to celebrate the hand-over of Hong Kong, the first pro-democracy banners of protest were already being unfurled.

At the midnight ceremony where independence for the former colony was simultaneously granted and removed, Chinese and British flags fluttered photogenically in an artificial indoor breeze.

The Prince of Wales told the assembled VIPs in Hong Kong's convention centre: "We shall not forget you, as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history." But Hong Kong knew that its battles would be its own.

Minutes after its return to China was complete, the leader of Hong Kong's most popular party spoke from the balcony of the legislative council building - a council from which the democrats have been excluded in the new Hong Kong. Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party, described this as "a very happy day". But he told the cheering crowds: "Hong Kong ruling Hong Kong does not just depend on whether China gives that to us. We must all struggle together."

At the stroke of midnight, a British guard of honour handed over the Prince of Wales barracks, Britain's former military headquarters, to a small group of officers of the People's Liberation Army.

Then, at dawn this morning, thousands of Chinese troops were due to pour into the territory, by ship, helicopter and armoured car. Some Hong Kongers, especially in the villages of the New Territories, were waiting to greet the arriving soldiers as conquering heroes, with flowers, flags and speeches. But others were less enthusiastic.

Mr Lee asked, pointedly: "Now we're part of China, so we don't need troops to protect us from China. Is it the intention to intimidate Hong Kong citizens into silence?"

At Britain's early-evening farewell ceremony, accompanied by a Hong Kong downpour (traditionally supposed to bring good luck), Mr Patten declared: "Today is a cause for celebration, not for sadness." Hong Kong had originally become British in circumstances that "none of us here would seek to condone". But Mr Patten, praising Hong Kong's vibrancy, spoke of his confidence in its "promise and unshakeable destiny". There was prolonged cheering and applause for Mr Patten as he sat down, leaving him apparently close to tears.

Early this morning, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's new chief executive, and then the rest of his new government were officially sworn in, at a ceremony attended by President Jiang Zemin. "We are here today to announce to the world in our language that Hong Kong has entered a new era," said Mr Tung.

New era was right; but "own language" was a little more difficult. At the swearing in, each member of the government spoke Mandarin Chinese, as spoken in Peking - but not, hitherto, in Hong Kong.

Then came the swearing-in of the new legislature - until now, known as the provisional legislature. Their speedy promotion ended a legal vacuum, and allowed the new legislative council, consisting of appointees acceptable to Peking, to overturn laws which had been passed by the outgoing elected assembly.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, both boycotted the swearing-in of the new legislature - but later decided to send diplomatic representatives, to the anger of the democrats. Also represented at the controversial gathering were Lord Howe, former foreign secretary, and, the BBC reported, Michael Heseltine, the former Deputy Prime Minister.

But despite any unhappiness there may be between Britain and China, the Prime Minister was at pains to try to repair matters. The Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, and Tony Blair, met for talks which Mr Blair described as opening "a new chapter" in relations between the two countries.

Yesterday's events marked a giant leap into the unknown. It is possible to analyse, to guess, to argue. But the reality is that nobody - not Britain, nor Hong Kong, nor China - knows what will happen next.

Already, there have been many signs that Peking wants to erode freedoms which it regards at best as irrelevant, at worst as dangerous. In the words of the elected but unseated democrat, Christine Loh: "It's like a headache. Not a migraine that flattens you, but a dull, thudding headache that bothers you all the time." Mr Tung has promised elections for next May. But the terms are still unclear. President Jiang spoke enigmatically of the need to "gradually develop a democratic system that suits Hong Kong's reality".

One interpretation was that the system which had allowed democrats to be elected to the legislature did not suit Hong Kong's reality.

Yesterday, it seemed clear where power lay, despite the many splendours of the British ceremonials. As Elgar's Nimrod played, the symbols of British rule were already coming down. And as the Royal yacht sailed away into retirement with Mr Patten and Prince Charles, China's armed forces were already on their way in.

Mr Blair and Mr Jiang met in the hotel where the Chinese president was staying, even while the territory remained theoretically British. It seemed to be a case of the weaker power paying homage to the powerful.

More importantly, however, the fact that Mr Jiang stayed in his hotel except for attending the official ceremonies was a reminder that the Chinese themselves are worried about exposing themselves to the anger or scorn of the Hong Kong people.

Mr Blair, Prime Minister of the outgoing colonial power, could safely allow himself to be mobbed by enthusiastic crowds when he went walkabout in a popular shopping mall in the centre of Hong Kong yesterday. But the Chinese leaders were determined not to venture out of their hotel on to the streets of Hong Kong during their brief stay before returning to Peking.

They are mortally afraid of the knock-on effect of incorporating feisty and irreverent Hong Kongers into the People's Republic of China, where respect for the regime is compulsory. Only in the years to come will anybody know how Hong Kong will be changed by China, or if Communist China has more to fear from Hong Kong's own home-grown democracy.

Ms Loh, leader of the Citizen's Party, was hopeful. "My greatest fear is that we go back into the colonial mode of just being bystanders. But there's a core of Hong Kong spirit. I know what it is, because I'm living it. Those freedoms are tasted at the edges. And people here are getting more and more vociferous."

It is not the kind of remark that the new sovereign power wants to hear.