Hong Kong handover turns into farce

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The Independent Online
The ceremonies planned to mark the return of Hong Kong to China are descending into farce. With four weeks to go, the guest list is uncertain, Britain is threatening to snub the Chinese ceremony and China is threatening to return the compliment.

There has never been a British colonial withdrawal surrounded by such uncertainty so close to the lowering of the Union flag. Even countries which waged bitter independence struggles managed to reach a greater level of agreement about who would participate in the handover of power by this stage in the proceedings.

The event is threatening to pose a severe test for Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and for the Government. It is coming to symbolise the bad state of relations between London and Peking. Because of doubts over the ceremonies, Tony Blair has yet to decide whether to attend.

Indeed, there is still wide uncertainty over who will be in Hong Kong for the handover on the 30 June. Britain has announced its principal participant will be the Prince of Wales and has repeatedly asked China who will be his counterpart. China has declined to answer, aside from an assurance that it will be a person of appropriate seniority. This has been taken to imply that President Jiang Zemin will be present but there is still no confirmation. It is even possible China may be represented by Prime Minister Li Peng, who is hated in Hong Kong as the person mainly responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacre, the anniversary of which will be commemorated today.

But the biggest problems concern the two parallel ceremonies arranged by Britain and China. There are doubts about who, if anyone, will represent China at the British farewell military pageant, the only occasion at which the Governor Chris Patten will speak. Britain had assumed that there was no question over Chinese participation in this event, but this is now in doubt. It is not even clear whether Tung Chee-hwa, who will head the post-colonial government, will be there. A spokeswoman for Mr Tung said: "The Chief Executive's programme for that period has not been finalised."

The only time both the British and Chinese governments will take part in a joint ceremony is for the brief handover ceremony at 11.30pm. Prince Charles and his unnamed Chinese counterpart will make short speeches, the national anthems of Britain and China will be played and the flags of the two nations, alongside those of colonial Hong Kong and the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, will be raised and lowered.

These proceedings will end shortly after midnight. The Prince of Wales and the Governor will then board the Royal Yacht Britannia and sail towards an undisclosed destination, believed to be the Philippines.

This will be followed by the inauguration ceremony for Hong Kong's new administration. It had been planned that the Foreign Secretary would stay for this event and for other events later in the day, before departing on a chartered British Airways flight

However, British officials are concerned that Mr Cook might be placed in the embarrassing position of seeming to endorse the appointment of the provisional legislature, which will on China's insistence replace the existing, elected Hong Kong legislature.

Britain regards the provisional legislature as an illegitimate body, while China objects to the present, democratically-elected body.

Now that China has made it clear that it wishes the foreign dignitaries to witness the swearing-in, Britain may decide that it should only be represented by an official. This raises the possibility that Mr Cook may fly back to Britain that night, rather than taking part in any of the other handover ceremonies.

Democracy campaigners in Hong Kong have already started putting pressure on foreign capitals, including Washington, to boycott the swearing-in of the provisional legislature members. Emily Lau, a leader of the Frontier pro-democracy group, said that China had "pulled a fast one" by trying to lend legitimacy to the new body by getting foreign governments represented at its birth.

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