Blair agrees to brief encounter with the Chinese

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The scene has finally been set for the last Sino-British showdown in Hong Kong. With less than three weeks to go before the end of British rule, Tony Blair, the prime minister, yesterday confirmed that he would be attending the handover ceremony, while in Peking, China announced that the Chinese delegation will be led by the Communist Party leader, President Jiang Zemin.

Mr Blair made the announcement during Question Time in the House of Commons. He was asked whether the Government would owe a moral duty to the people of Hong Kong after 1 July.

"I do agree," the Prime Minister said. "I think that is important." He added: "I will be attending that handover ceremony myself."

It now looks likely that the two delegations will meet for only 45 minutes at the midnight handover ceremony, while Chinese leaders boycott Britain's sunset farewell ceremony and British leaders boycott China's ceremony to install the new administration.

China has yet to confirm it is staying away from the farewell ceremony but Britain has stated flatly that Mr Blair cannot attend a ceremony which includes the swearing-in of Provisional Legislature members.

The new legislature will replace Hong Kong's elected Legislative Council and has been characterised by both Britain and the United States as an illegitimate body. A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We're very much against this baby and we won't be there at its birth".

China has decided to send a delegation which far outweighs Britain's in seniority and numbers. President Jiang, the head of state, outranks the Prince of Wales, who will only represent the British head of state.

More controversially, the Chinese delegation will include prime minister Li Peng, who is reviled in Hong Kong because of his role in the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. In protocol terms, Mr Blair is his equivalent.

Qian Qichen, the Foreign Minister and vice-premier, will be shadowed by the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. China has also named the leaders of a host of Communist front organisations as participants in the events. They include the heads of bodies such as the China Democratic League and the China Association for Promoting Democracy. Presumably the intention is to use the Hong Kong handover as a symbol of greater Chinese unity.

The large Chinese delegation also includes a number of officials who played a role in the negotiations for Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule but it specifically excludes China's principle player, the deposed Communist Party head Zhao Ziyang. Mr Zhao has yet to be brought in from political oblivion after having shown sympathy for the 1989 democracy protests. However, Margaret Thatcher, who led Britain's negotiations, will be in Hong Kong for the handover.

The concentrated presence of the Chinese leadership in Hong Kong for the first time underlines the tremendous importance Peking attaches to resuming sovereignty over the last colony on Chinese soil. (The enclave of Macau is not regarded as a colony following an agreement to describe it as Chinese territory under Portuguese administration.)

The boycott of the swearing-in ceremony for the new administration was started by the US, which announced that Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, would not take part. US congressmen invited to attend the handover ceremonies have now said they will join her in the boycott.

Other countries are considering whether they should be present. Australian politicians are putting pressure on their foreign minister to join the boycott and Britain is understood to have been sounding out its European Union partners.

A European diplomat based in Hong Kong said yesterday: "I don't think all the EU countries will be happy about annoying China, they are much more interested in trade".

Meanwhile, a new Hong Kong People's Coalition for the Alternative Handover will today announce a series of events to focus on improved living standards and bringing power to the grassroots.

Mr Jiang's visit to Hong Kong looks set to be unexpectedly brief for the leader of the triumphant new sovereign power, writes Teresa Poole in Peking.

China said he would attend the swearing-in of the chief executive and new legislature, but would return to Peking within hours to host a grand reception for 3,500 guests in the Great Hall of the People. This will lead on to a "grand convention" and a pageant at the Peking Workers' Stadium. China's top leaders appearnervous of spending too much time in Hong Kong, preferring the controlled environment of Peking's celebrations. The latest rumours are that Mr Jiang and Li Peng have beenf fitted out with bullet- proof vests for the visit.

Government 'misled public'

A legislator's inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the sudden departure of Lawrence Leung, Hong Kong's Director of Immigration, pictured right, published its findings yesterday, concluding that there had been "a concerted effort by the Government to mislead the legislature and the public into what they knew to be untrue".

The chairman of the inquiry, Ip Kwok-him, said that the affair had "brought the Government into disrepute, seriously undermined its credibility and damaged the trust between the Legislative Council and the administration". However, the legislators were satisfied that the Government had good reasons for dismissing Mr Leung.

Mr Ip said that some of these reasons could not be made public, but he was "shocked" by information about Mr Leung which was revealed to his committee in camera.

He said that the committee had insufficient resources to get to the bottom of allegations of political involvement and implications of political impropriety which had been rumoured as factors leading to Mr Leung's departure.