Hong Kong handover : Britain yields on Chinese troops

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Britain backed down yesterday after a series of arguments with Peking about soldiers of the People's Liberation Army coming into Hong Kong before the handover. More than 500 troops will arrive at 9pm on Monday night, three hours before the Union Flag is hauled down.

Britain had already reluctantly agreed to allow just under 200 unarmed PLA soldiers into the territory in the last few weeks before Hong Kong returns to China. But yesterday's agreement went much further. The 509 additional Chinese mainland troops - almost trip- ling the numbers - will be allow- ed to carry rifles and sidearms.

There is enormous sensitivity on both sides about the Chinese entitlement (or lack of it) to carry weapons. Reuters new agency reported that early yesterday PLA troops earlier visited a Bank of China building in Hong Kong and after emerging with a stack of metal boxes about the right size to contain weapons, manhandled an American news photographer who happened to be at the scene. The photographer, working on the handover for the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine, said a PLA officer pounced on him when he raised his camera to shoot the mysterious operation.

Once the deal on the PLA presence had been done, British officials were keen to put a brave face on it, saying the presence of the soldiers before midnight was "central to Chinese perceptions of the restoration of sovereignty". Britain hoped the troops would behave "in a way we would regard as acceptable". The official reason given for the armed troops' early arrival was to allow the PLA "to perform its duties from Zero Hour on 1 July".

The 509 soldiers will arrive in 39 vehicles and will be posted at four points in the territory, including the Prince of Wales barracks, close to where the handover ceremony will take place. China is apparently nervous that government leaders - including the president, Jiang Zemin, and the Prime Minister, Li Peng - might be vulnerable to protesters during their brief stay of a few hours in Hong Kong before they are whisked back to the mainland. The visit has been designed with a view to ensuring that Chinese leaders they do not come into contact with potential protesters.

As D-Day approaches, there is less and less effort to send out signals which might reassure the Hong Kong democrats or the rest of the world that tolerance will be the new watchword. Yesterday, the future justice secretary, Elsie Cheung, emphasised: "If [the Democratic Party] do anything which violates the law, they will be subject to prosecution." The new chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, made clear on Sunday that all laws passed by the incoming, Peking-approved legislature would be backdated to midnight, which would enable Peking's critics in the existing legislative council to be prosecuted for their actions immediately after the handover.

The worst-case scenario would theoretically allow Chinese weapons to be turned on protesters, if the authorities deem them to have acted illegally. It is generally assumed that Peking would not wish to enter the new era with quite such a bang, however much it would like to see its critics silenced.

Hong Kong's elected legislative council, which will be replaced by a council more sym- pathetic to Peking, yesterday began its final session, discussing a raft of routine legislation. Up for discussion was everything from a Western Harbour Crossing Bye-Law to a Dogs and Cats (Amendment) Bill. The rituals continued to be played out as if in the House of Commons, including a formal bow of the head, when members entered the chamber. There was little acknowledgement that an era is about to end.