Hong Kong handover: China's new top brass sweep in like emperors

There were no words of thanks or even soft words to the British for their stewardship

No Chinese emperor ever bothered to set foot in Hong Kong in the era before the "barren island" was taken by the British. But yesterday, China's leaders triumphantly swept in to reclaim the territory with all the confidence of a sovereign power that had never been away.

As the newly-raised Chinese flag fluttered in an artificial breeze above him, President Jiang Zemin declared: "The return of Hong Kong to the motherland, after going through a century of vicissitudes, indicates that from now on the Hong Kong people have become true masters of this Chinese land."

There were no thanks or even soft words to the British. "Hong Kong's prosperity today in the final analysis has been built by Hong Kong compatriots. It is also inseparable from the development and support of the mainland," said Mr Jiang.

As Hong Kong was handed to its new sovereign power, there could be no better contrast between the two systems than the sight of the two country's senior representatives on the dais. From the moment the Chinese President and his delegation entered the hall their demeanour was stiff. Even when China's national flag was raised and the March of the Volunteers boomed through the hall they betrayed no sign of emotion. The Chinese side had never wanted a public handover ceremony, and were not going to let on that they were enjoying every victorious minute of it. Only the Prime Minister, Li Peng, seemed to allow himself one brief smile.

Mr Jiang, who in February had sobbed theatrically at the memorial service for Deng Xiaoping, yesterday looked no more sentimentally engagedthan he does at a National People's Congress plenary session. Nor had he amended his turn of phrase to suit a more cosmopolitan audience. Hong Kong's return "is both a festival for the Chinese nation and a victory for the universal cause of peace and justice", he said. The day "will go down in the annals of history as a day which merits eternal memory".

Hong Kong's people, familiar with seeing Mr Jiang in action on foreign soil, will now silently be judging from direct experience what they make of their new leader. Mr Jiang again pledged that the new Special Administrative Region would keep its social and economic system. But Hong Kong will keep its laws only "basically unchanged", residents will enjoy "various rights and freedoms - according to law", and it will only be allowed to develop a democratic system "that suits Hong Kong's reality", he said.

It took just a few hours to put the stamp of mainland sovereignty indelibly on Hong Kong. By the early hours of this morning a new chief executive, hand-picked by Peking, had been sworn in, and Hong Kong's elected legislature replaced with one appointed by the mainland. Thus did the so-called "through train", the aim that the legislature could straddle the historic handover, come to a grinding halt in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The new Provisional Legislature promptly convened its first meeting at 2.45am, voting through the Reunification Bill, which introduces new public order, assembly and association restrictions and which replaces all elected tiers of government.

The manner of Mr Jiang's earlier arrival in Hong Kong illustrated the clash of political cultures which lies ahead. Against a backdrop of pouring rain, the President's Air China aircraft landed just after 5pm at Hong Kong's airport.

It would have been only a short drive from the luxury new villa in Shenzhen, the mainland special economic zone bordering Hong Kong, where Mr Jiang had spent the previous night. But that might have risked the possibility of encountering demonstrations along the way.

After being greeted at the airport, Mr Jiang was whisked off to the Harbour Plaza hotel, owned by one of the mainland's very wealthy Hong Kong friends, Li Ka-shing.

It was there China's top leaders chose to dine rather than at the 4,000- strong lavish banquet laid on by the British. Almost his entire seven hours on Hong Kong soil before midnight was spent closeted in this hotel. The Hong Kong handover ceremony was aimed as much to people inside China as to the world. Mr Jiang, who this autumn will be re-elected (unopposed) as head of the Chinese Communist Party and army chief, could not have asked for a better party political broadcast to be beamed at political rivals back at home. The President knows his performance last night as China's leader should make him unassailable for the time being in the post-Deng era.

In the final ceremony, Mr Jiang stood flanked by some of those on whom his political future depends. As well as Mr Li the top team included the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, Zhang Wannian. Included in the 90- strong official Chinese delegation was the widow of Deng Xiaoping, Zhuo Lin, and one of the former paramount leader's daughters, Deng Lin. Deng, who died in February aged 92, was the architect of the "one country, two systems" policy.

This morning, Mr Jiang will have got his first real sight of Hong Kong when he joined morning celebrations before departing for Peking. Mr Li is not so adventurous, aware that he is a target for pro-democracy activists. He will leave at breakfast time for Peking. Never, it seemed, had a sovereign power been quite so scared of hanging around in its own territory.

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