HONG KONG : FINAL COUNTDOWN : Britain takes down its symbols and packs up its secrets

When the Union flag is hauled down from Government House, just before the stroke of midnight on 30 June 1997, Britain will have had an unprecedented 13 years to plan its exit from the last remaining major colonial possession.

Most of this time has been taken up with issues which do not touch on the withdrawal, leaving an inevitable last-minute scramble to pack the boxes and sweep the premises clean of incriminating material.

Hardly surprisingly, one of the first really big pieces of hardware to leave was the Asian cousin of the GCHQ electronic surveillance network located on the southern tip of Hong Kong island. In similar fashion, large cases of sensitive Special Branch and intelligence files are already ensconced in London.

The senior local officers who compiled these files are armed with full British passports and can leave at the first sign of trouble. However, the removal of items marked "Top Secret" is the tip of the iceberg.

The transfer of sovereignty requires far more extensive cosmetic and substantial change, most of which will be completed after 1997. At the cosmetic level there is much work to be done to remove British symbols and the royal insignia from everything ranging from stamps and letter boxes to courtrooms and police uniforms.

More substantively, there is the Herculean task of translating the law into Chinese, of changing the school curriculum to accommodate the incoming sovereign power's view of history and of furnishing the population with new travel documents.

In practically all spheres of life changes will have to be made, and as matters stand it seems that only the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals and the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club intend to cling tenaciously to their existing, and politically incorrect, titles. As there has never been such a long period of planning for the end of colonial rule it may be assumed that matters which were not resolved in other colonies prior to independence would have been settled in Hong Kong.

However, Hong Kong is not destined for independence but incorporation into China, and China has yet to shed its distrust of the 6.4 million people it is about to acquire and it refuses to temper its anger against Britain for introducing elements of democracy to its colony just as it is about to leave.

For these reasons China is busy establishing an alternative political structure explicitly designed to marginalise the outgoing administration and to bar supporters of the democracy movement from having a say in government.

The already isolated Governor, Chris Patten, will find his isolation deepen later in the year when Hong Kong's new head of government, to be called the Chief Executive, is "elected" by a 400-strong committee hand- picked in Peking.

Candidates for the post are hard to identify because only one serious contender has declared himself to be in the running. The apparent front runner, the shipping tycoon Tung Che-hwa, is said to be having cold feet about the job.

It is also likely that China will establish a parallel legislature in the near future which will start enacting legislation ready for the takeover. One of its first acts will be to shut down the existing, semi-democratically elected Legislative Council.

In Whitehall discussions are under way about whether the royal yacht Britannia can be kept afloat to take the Governor out of the colony with his small entourage and, most probably, the Prince of Wales.

Britain wants a full blown leaving ceremony with all the paraphernalia of a departing sovereign power while China has something far more modest in mind.