HONG KONG : FINAL COUNTDOWN : China looks forward to levelling the score

Last year of British rule begins this weekend, writes Steve Crawshaw

When the original agreement was signed, 1997 seemed far, far away. Ninety-nine years was another way of saying "for ever and a day". In 1898, the signatories perhaps assumed that the British empire, eternally strong, would one day simply renew the lease. Perhaps, the end of the 20th century merely seemed too unreal to contemplate. Now, however, the chips are being called in. A year from this weekend, the bizarre "yours today, ours tomorrow" deal finally comes to an end. The Union flag comes down in Hong Kong. China takes over Hong Kong once more, at midnight on 30 June 1997. It is an event which was theoretically pre-programmed a century ago, but which only now is becoming real.

Until 20 years ago, little thought was given to the looming date. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher hoped, when the problem was set before her, that there was some way she could renege on the deal. She was shocked to learn that there was not.

In 1984, a sort-of agreement was reached on the future of the colony. Only recently has the pace of change suddenly speeded up as the final handover approaches. On Tiananmen Square in Peking, a clock counts down the seconds till Hong Kong once more becomes a part of China. For the mainland Chinese - including many who are otherwise critical of the regime - that will be a moment of pure celebration. For the Hong Kongers, feelings will be more than mixed.

The British, meanwhile, have become almost irrelevant. Chris Patten, the last Governor, counts out his days in Government House. But his trips abroad are now more important than his statements at home in Hong Kong, or his (lack of) conversations with Peking.

Before the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, the return to China seemed to many Hong Kongers to be a not entirely shocking option. China was opening up, and Hong Kong had been guaranteed that the new deal would provide for "one country, two systems" (this time, with a 50-year time bomb attached; in 2047, the two-systems deal officially runs out). But when the tanks mowed down the pro-democracy demonstrators on 4 June 1989, huge crowds went out on the streets to protest at Peking's actions. Partly, these were protests in solidarity. Partly, they were protests showing concern for Hong Kong's own future. On the Tiananmen anniversary this month, tens of thousands again demonstrated. Come 1997, the very act of going on to the streets will itself be an act of defiance. A key indicator of Hong Kong's future will be how many are still ready to publicly protest in the weeks before the People's Liberation Army moves in.

Many Hong Kongers will not be especially sad to see the British go. The colonial presence is, after all, a pure anachronism in one of the most modern cities in the world. None the less, the fears of mainland China are real. Those fears are not just straightforwardly political. Over the years, Hong Kong has brought corruption under control. Now, all but the most diehard optimists believe that corruption will increase after July 1997. Indeed, many argue that the corruption which is widespread on the mainland is beginning to make itself felt in Hong Kong.

The media, too, have begun to muzzle themselves, in response to veiled - and naked - threats from Peking. On the one hand, the media will be entirely free, says Peking. On the other hand, the press must avoid certain topics. Faced with such unhappy contradictions, some Hong Kong journalists have concluded that there is little point continuing in their chosen profession after 1 July next year.

In some contexts, confrontation has given way to control as China begins to feel comfortable in the role of master-in-waiting. For years, plans for Hong Kong's new airport were delayed by bitter arguments. Now, the tone has changed: Chinese visitors conduct regular inspections to crack the whip. Peking has begun to regard the airport project as its own: ergo, it must be finished fast.

The majority of Hong Kong businessmen remain friendly to Peking, on the assumption that Peking will be kind to those who make money. Meanwhile, however, the electoral success of the outspoken Democrats, who have been sharply critical of Peking's policies, suggests that ordinary Hong Kongers are not necessarily as indifferent to politics as they are sometimes portrayed. China is determined to freeze the Democrats out of the political. But the policy could yet backfire. If Hong Kongers do protest publicly that might set a dangerously subversive example. If the mainlanders were ever to follow the Hong Kongers' example of going out on the street, then the authorities in Peking might rue the day that they ever pressed for the honouring of the imperial deal.

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