HONG KONG : FINAL COUNTDOWN : Nationalist call is trump card in patriot game

The manner in which China's leadership plans to mark 1997 on the mainland reveals the intense official symbolism of Hong Kong's return. Take the publication next year of an Atlas of Shame which will detail China's 150 years of abuse at the hands of foreign and colonial powers. Or the huge production under way on the mainland set of The Opium Wars, a blockbuster film portraying Britain's greatest historical injustice against China, to be released in 12 months' time. In such ways will the tone be set inside China for 30 June 1997, a day which the Chinese government has said will bring to an end "a long period of bitter suffering and national humiliation".

For some time now, nationalism has already been the rallying call of a government facing difficult social and economic decisions at home. And the build-up to next June will see the hyperbole of patriotic propaganda reach new levels of excess. China "finally ... got the international reputation that was its due" when it was agreed that Hong Kong would revert to the mainland, said one recent official commentary. China's resumption of sovereignty "will not only wash away this historical stain, providing consolation to our forerunners and those martyrs who devoted their lives to the nation, but will also mark the beginning of a new era for the 'Pearl of the Orient'," it added.

On the domestic political stage, President Jiang Zemin will hope that being at the helm for Hong Kong's return will bolster his position as the "core" of the leadership. For the Chinese Communist Party, which on Monday celebrates its 75th anniversary, there is the wishful thought that public discontent over such issues as unemployment and corruption may be diverted by patriotic fervour. And for the People's Liberation Army (PLA), 1997 promises a glorious episode as the mainland garrison marches into Hong Kong, the only large contingent of mainlanders to take up residence under the "One Country, Two Systems" policy.

All the key players in China will be looking for political dividends from 1997, especially as the handover takes place just three or four months before the next full Communist Party Congress, held once every five years. Behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings have already started, as next year's Congress will decide a new prime minister.

However, 1997 also represents a huge risk for Peking. China has repeatedly told the world that the "Pearl of the Orient" will prosper under the motherland, but the world is not yet convinced that China will keep its promise to allow Hong Kong's way of life and freedoms to endure. Peking will have to manage the scrapping of the existing Legislative Council (Legco) and the imposition of an appointed interim alternative. And even if Peking is aware of the damage to be wrought by meddling in Hong Kong's business practices, it remains to be seen if it can rein in powerful provincial officials who have their own designs on a slice of the Hong Kong pie.

Over the next 12 months, China will try to settle people's nerves. But many of its supposed reassurances have a tendency to miss the target. Lu Ping, the director of the mainland's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, recently attempted, for instance, to allay fears about press freedom. Mr Lu said the media could criticise the Chinese government, but would "absolutely not" be allowed to advocate Taiwan independence. A week later, on a visit to Japan, he refined this to mean: "It is all right if reporters objectively report. But if they advocate, it is an action. It has nothing to do with freedom of the press." No one felt very reassured, especially by Mr Lu's elucidation in an interview with CNN television: "Like your country, if some press thinks that Hawaii should be separated from the United States ... and somebody advocates another government ... will it be allowed? I don't think so," he said.

Many ordinary Chinese profess a desire to visit Hong Kong after 1997, and most assume that this will be possible. "It should be easier then to visit Hong Kong," said Liu Zhang, 30, a business administrator, voicing a common misconception. In fact, after 30 June 1997, there are supposed to be strict border controls between Hong Kong and the mainland, and no entry without a Hong Kong-issued travel permit.

Talking about Hong Kong to mainlanders, especially in the north, a streak of vindictiveness is discernible. Hong Kongers have, over the past few decades, enjoyed a much higher standard of living and avoided the political turmoil of the People's Republic. "Now Hong Kong will be under the control of Peking, and the time has come for mainland people to share the benefits of Hong Kong," said a government cadre. Patriotism also has its emotional limits. One engineering graduate voiced a common sentiment: "I do not like Hong Kong people, because they look down on mainlanders."