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Hong Kong fortress raises British flag

Hong Kong taxi-drivers call it the "British fort", a description not appreciated by Foreign Office officials who occupy the new pounds 31.5m consulate- general building to be officially opened by the Princess Royal tomorrow.

The preferred description is that proffered by Jeremy Hanley, the minister responsible for Hong Kong, who says the new building is "a fitting symbol of Britain's continuing commitment to Hong Kong".

The idea for it came from Margaret Thatcher in 1988, four years after the deal on the transfer of power was signed. Keen on the notion of Britain leaving a lasting impression, she decreed that all the British institutions should be housed in a single prestige building.

Yet there is no getting away from the fact that after Britain pulls out of Hong Kong on 30 June, its last outpost will sustain a distinctly fort- like appearance. The architect, Terry Farrell, may have intended to provide an impression of space and light but, perched on a hill, and clad in granite and slate, the building looks as though it is ready to repel marauders.

It houses the biggest passport-issuing office outside Britain and a staff of 150 engaged on consulate work, in addition to 192 employed by the British Council.

The council operation has not got off to a smooth start, thanks to a decision to dispense with 20,000 library books to make space for information terminals. The books are on their way to Vietnamese public libraries.

The decision to decimate Hong Kong's leading English- language library infuriated Arthur Hacker, a former civil servant and historian, who launched a campaign to bring the books back. "I saw some mindless bureaucrat who said the books had all been put on CD-Rom," he said. "They claim there isn't room, but there's enough room there to swing 20,000 cats."

The council says it is simply moving with the times. "Providing access to the culture of Britain does not solely rely on books," said the spokeswoman, Renee Fok. Use of the Internet and other electronic means offered a more comprehensive method of reflecting the diversity of British culture, she said.

The British Council is supposed to do what it can to pay its own way and does a brisk business in teaching - not only English but also Chinese.

The top layer of the former British-forces complex has been taken over by a rising new building which will house the new Chinese foreign ministry. It will cost almost a lot more than the British building but much of the cost will be met by the ubiquitous Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing. The new masters have far more people to house and it is a fair bet that their work will be rather more influential than that of their counterparts in the British complex below them.

Washington - President Bill Clinton said yesterday that Hong Kong's economic value to China would be undermined if Peking were to limit political freedom, John Carlin writes. "I'm not so sure that [HK] can exist with all of its potential to help China modernise its own economy, and open opportunities for its own people, if the civil liberties are crushed," Mr Clinton said. He said he believed that improvement in the human rights situation in China was as inevitable eventually as was the fall of the Berlin Wall.