Jeremy Hanley, the Foreign Minister responsible for Hong Kong, has confirmed that China wants Britain to agree to a discreet private ceremony to mark the end of colonial rule and Peking's resumption of sovereignty over the territory next year.
China originally insisted that it would not accept the Governor, Chris Patten, having any part in the handover ceremony because he is viewed as a "criminal through the ages". In private talks, Britain remained adamant that China could not dictate who would participate on behalf of the outgoing sovereign power.
The talks have been going on for some months, but the level of the stalemate was only openly acknowledged in an interview with Mr Hanley which appeared in the South China Morning Post yesterday. "We believe this is a unique moment in history that will be of great interest to the world, but China wants it not so open - a little more businesslike, shall we say," he was quoted as saying.
It is reliably understood that China simply wants officials to meet in a private room in Hong Kong's City Hall, a functional building on the harbour side which is frequently used for official occasions such as the swearing-in of the Governor.
China seems to be planning a closed-door event at the stroke of midnight on 30 June 1997, followed by a lavish public celebration the next day once the British have left. Indeed, 1 July will become a permanent public holiday in Hong Kong to celebrate the resumption of Chinese rule.
Britain has made no secret of the fact that it is looking for a "dignified" ceremony at which it could hand over its last major colonial possession with some honour. Mr Patten does not want the ceremony to revel in the colonial legacy, but acknowledge more than a century and a half of British rule.
There has been constant speculation in the Hong Kong media about who would preside over the ceremony. Frequent references are made to Prince Charles, who has visited Hong Kong more often than any other senior royal.
It has also been suggested that China's patriarch, Deng Xiaoping, would fulfil his often-stated wish to visit Hong Kong after it returned to Chinese sovereignty, although reports about the poor state of his health make this unlikely.
China's determination to have nothing to do with Mr Patten, who is held responsible for introducing democratic reforms hated by China, has reached such a pitch that elaborate precautions are taken to ensure that no Chinese official even attends any of the numerous events at which the Governor is present.
Lu Ping, China's most senior official responsible for Hong Kong affairs, will be making one of his rare visits to the territory later this week.
He has studiously ignored Mr Patten's offer of a meeting and has so far declined to meet any other government officials.Reuse content