Chinese unite as 150 years of humiliation end at last

Amid the forced rejoicing, there is real joy, writes Teresa Poole in Peking
Peking was revelling in a holiday atmosphere yesterday. Workmen in Tiananmen Square toiled to put up the stage for tonight's gala show, as parents positioned their flag-waving children in front of the countdown clock for one last historic photograph. Ordinary people were determined to come and take a look before the whole area is cordoned off this afternoon before the official all-night party for 100,000 invitation-only participants.

The celebrations may have been planned to create a carefully scripted event but people are determined to enjoy the carnival spirit. For once in China, the Han Chinese population is in tune with the government and Communist Party propaganda that China's 150-year humiliation is at last being assuaged. But the handover can still be appreciated for a variety of other reasons.

Among billboards around town, the most down-to-earth one reads: "Happily welcome the return of Hong Kong with good traffic order." Outside China, it is a little publicised fact that this moment has occasioned the introduction of Peking's first bus-only traffic lanes.

Ask older residents about what they think of the celebrations, and they indeed emerge as a practical lot. "I'm really happy the government moved away the street stalls and ordered the migrant workers to leave. And our work unit also built a road to our residential buildings," said a retiree from the No 1 Textile Factory. "Oh, yes," echoed a fellow pensioner, "I'm glad the migrant workers are sent away; they made the city ugly and my mood irritable. The city is cleaner now, and that is what Hong Kong's return has brought us." The spruce-up has also seen beggars and pirate CD sellers disappear from the streets, and the usual teams of hawkers told to go home.

Teams of police and plain-clothes police patrolling for any signs of any departures from the official plan.

Joy at the return of Hong Kong does not always extend to fraternal fondness. Among younger mainlanders, who are most likely to have had contact with Hong Kongers, there has always been ambivalence in the way they view the returning compatriots. When Hong Kong businessmen first started swarming into China in the Eighties, their comparative wealth and brashness ruffled mainlanders' sense of their own worth. "Part curiosity, part jealousy and part aspiration," is how a Hong Kong business-woman described the attitude of mainlanders. "Very often they tell me they do not like people from Hong Kong, especially women. Everyone from Hong Kong is money-minded and has no heart, they say." A Peking man put it more bluntly: "They have no culture."

Part of the problem is that prejudices tend to be reinforced by the portrayal of Hong Kong people in Chinese television programmes and films. Yet there are signs that mainlanders are becoming more sympathetic. Su Jianguo, a Central Arts Academy student, said: "In the past, we did not like Hong Kong people; they were too pretentious. But now, since we will be one family soon, I think we can tolerate some of their characteristics, and learn their good points." Guo Kun, a businessman, said: "I always felt Hong Kong people were half-Chinese, half-foreigner. But now it is OK. Our wealth will catch up with theirs some day."

Among the better-educated, there seems to be a growing hope that Hong Kong will be able to influence the mainland, as much as the other way around. Zhang Chu, an engineer, said: "Hong Kong is such an advanced area, in finance, trade, the stockmarket, and education. It will be so close to the mainland after 1 July, I am sure it must influence China in a good sense." Mr Su, the student, said: "I think the return of Hong Kong will make the speed of development in China faster, because the Hong Kong people's rapid working style and international way of thinking will influence us."

Despite China's decision that it will be even harder for mainlanders to visit the former colony than now, most Chinese still hanker for an opportunity to go there after 1 July. Liu Yuqing, a nurse, said: "I hope to have the chance to be trained in a Hong Kong hospital or to work there for a while, just to feel the atmosphere of Hong Kong." Mr Guo said: "If I have the chance and the government permits, why not?"

The official Chinese view is that Hong Kong represents only the start of the re-integration of the motherland, and the official media is full of calls for the ultimate prize - re-unification with Taiwan.

On this score, the view of educated Pekingese appears to be rather more realistic than the propaganda. Mr Zhang said: "I think it takes time to unify with Taiwan. Maybe after 50 years, or 100 years, when both sides are reasonable and put the interest of the motherland first. But I'm sure Taiwan will come back some day." Mr Guo, the businessman, agreed: "At the moment, it is not possible to take Taiwan back. The mainland still lacks the economic foundation to do so. Only when the mainland becomes really strong will Taiwan be willing to join us in the family."

For the time being the Chinese government is not thinking that far ahead.

For tonight, massive police and plainclothes security is on hand, all the participants know what is expected of them, and the authorities will do anything necessary to make sure nothing goes wrong.