Tiananmen tanks roll over a tattered flag

Six hours after the Union flag is lowered over Hong Kong, the People's Liberation Army will make a triumphal entry by land, sea and air. The troops will be accompanied by 21 armoured troop carriers of the type used during the Tiananmen Square massacre eight years ago.

Yesterday Governor Chris Patten said Britain was trying to persuade China to change its mind about bringing in the vehicles, because they were not needed, as police would be looking after internal security. Noting that the PLA would be streaming over the border in time to catch US prime- time television broadcasts, Mr Patten said this did not seem "to be the right sort of signal to send to the international community and, above all, I think it is a most unfortunate signal to send to the people of Hong Kong". The Foreign Office said it may send a "negative signal"; but by the time the PLA arrives, Britain will have relinquished its rights over Hong Kong, and will have no influence.

Peking will be aware of the public-relations impact of marching the troops across the border at dawn but does not care. From its point of view, this is the clearest way to send the message that China now calls the shots on any question it sees as an issue of sovereignty, and will pay little attention to Hong Kong sensitivities.

PLA top brass have been pushing for early arrival in Hong Kong and President Jiang Zemin is likely to have backed them, eager to win approval in the run-up to autumn's full party congress. One of the most senior mainland officials to attend the handover is Zhang Wannian, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult for mainland Chinese to understand the low-key role of the military in most civil societies. Most of the time the PLA is effectively above the law. PLA vehicles are, for example, notorious for disregarding traffic rules with impunity.

The Chinese garrison will total 4,700 soldiers, 700 of whom will be in Hong Kong before the handover. It will be larger than the British garrison in recent years. Before the last rundown began in September last year, Britain had 3,250 troops in Hong Kong; 1,600 are left now.

Most of the troops will arrive in coaches at 6am on Tuesday. At the same time 10 ships will converge from two directions and six helicopters will fly in.

At the last moment China insisted on sending an advance guard of some 2,000 troops the day before the handover. After acrimonious negotiations it was agreed that only a quarter of that number would come, arriving three hours before the end of British rule.

China's idea of how to create a good image for the PLA can be seen by publication of "The Heavy Task of the Century", a paperback extolling the talents and skills of the soldiers selected to serve in Hong Kong.

Yesterday's Peking Youth Daily featured the text, reassuring its readers that some of the soldiers can write poetry, others can paint, and that some are medically trained.

Soldiers "can recite the 12 rules concerning taking Hong Kong buses". This is unlikely to reassure Hong Kongers, who would have appreciated a more discreet arrival of their new defenders. The troops will be so low paid that they will have little opportunity to venture out of barracks. Even the generals in Hong Kong will receive less than pounds 100 a month.

There are rumours of more diplomatic difficulties with the problem-prone handover ceremonies. British officials fear that Mr Jiang and the Prime Minister, Li Peng, will not attend the dinner preceding the midnight ceremony.

This will leave the Prince of Wales and Tony Blair hosting a handover dinner without the participation of China's principal guests. China is fuming over the British and US decision not to send senior politicians to the ceremony to install the new administration. The boycott is in protest against the inclusion of the swearing-in of the non-elected provisional legislature at this event; instead, only officials will attend.

Inside

Fifteen minutes of fame for the

downtrodden;

Twisting the tongue round the language of Peking

Hong Kong handover, pages 16 and 17

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