Breakthrough on Hong Kong handover

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In a symbolic breakthrough in talks between Britain and China on the transfer of Hong Kong to Peking, Malcolm Rifkind, the British Foreign Secretary, and his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, yesterday reached agreement on the handover ceremonies to mark the moment of transition on 30 June next year.

The long-awaited agreement, to be formally signed by officials in Hong Kong today, came during talks between the two ministers in New York on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly. The deal is final confirmation of an important change in atmosphere in the negotiations, marred notably by Chinese intransigence.

"We're now very satisfied," Mr Rifkind remarked after a two-hour meeting with Mr Qian. He also emphasised an improvement in relations between China and Britain, announcing that the Chinese Vice-Premier, Li LanQuing, will visit London in November.

Additionally, China gave its consent for the opening of a British consulate- general in Hong Kong that will continue to represent British interests in what is to be called the Special Administrative Region (SAR) after the transition.

The handover ceremony has cast a shadow over the Hong Kong talks for weeks. China had seemed set on keeping Britain's involvement in any celebrations to a minimum, hoping to pre-empt any final show of British pomp and fanfare, and therefore reserving 1 July - when the British are gone - as the day for the main events.

It was agreed yesterday, however, to stage the final handover ceremony on the night of 30 June itself with both Chinese and British dignatories present. Moreover, Britain has given in to Chinese requests that it be held indoors. The chosen site will be the foyer of a new convention and exhibition centre, holding over 4,000 people, that is under construction.

Britain, meanwhile, will be allowed to stage a farewell ceremony of its own, with only British military and civilian guests present, at sundown on 30 June on the Hong Kong waterfront.