Hong Kong handover: Patten wipes a tear as Last Post sounds

'I have relinquished administration of this government'

Chris Patten, the 28th and last governor of Hong Kong was swallowing hard as he emerged from Government House for the last time yesterday afternoon. He might just have got through the modest ceremony marking his departure without shedding a tear had it not been for the lowering of the flag and the mournful sounds of "The Last Post".

It was a wrenching day for the Governor, crowned not by his final departure on HMY Britannia but at a farewell parade in pouring rain which turned into a torrent the moment the band struck up "God Save the Queen".

Leaving is something the Brits do terribly well, so well that they have even trained their colonial subjects to produce a perfect replica of a British ceremonial occasion. Britain supplied both most of the hardware, and the music; but Hong Kong supplied the rain, which fell in torrents throughout.

And Hong Kong also supplied what it supplies best - people. "They were only ordinary", said Mr Patten in his farewell address, "in the sense that most of them came here with nothing. They are extraordinary in what they have achieved against the odds". Some 10,000 people turned out for the ceremony, the Chinese just about outnumbering the British residents. Most of them were dressed in their Sunday best to pay their respects to the departing power.

The baggage of history was left discreetly out of sight, for the most part, though Mr Patten referred obliquely to the opium wars which gave birth to the colony. "This chapter began with events that, from today's vantage point, at the end of the following century, none of us here would wish or seek to condone,' he said. Rather less obliquely he reminded his audience that most of Hong Kong's people came to live under the British flag as refugees from Communism, or as he put it "because of events in our own century which would today have few defenders".

Mr Patten had promised that Britain would be withdrawing without self- congratulation but with dignity and solemnity. Yet he could not resist raising at least two cheers for British colonialism. He said Britain had provided "the scaffolding" - the rule of law, clean government, the values of a free society and "the beginnings of representative government and democratic accountability".

"No dependent territory has been left more prosperous, none with such a texture and fabric of civil society," he added.

Earlier, Mr Patten he had drafted his last telegram to London, marking the end of his mission in a message to be transmitted at midnight. "I have relinquished the administration of this government. God Save the Queen," it said. Then he had said his goodbyes to the staff, biting his lip frequently as he left Government House for the last time.

The Governor's tear ducts were again severely tested as the audience at the farewell ceremony stamped on the metal stands surrounding the parade ground after his speech, only ceasing in their chorus when he signalled that the show should go on; and the orchestra struck up with Elgar's Nimrod, its mellow nostalgia perfectly pitched for the occasion.

But there was substance here, and not just pre-packaged emotion. Mr Patten must be one of the few colonial governors to depart with higher opinion poll ratings than his local successor. Most politicians could only dream of the kind of reception that he got as he left. People who wanted to see him, just because they liked what he stood for. As one Hong Konger said, in the crowds lining the road near Government House: "I've come here to show support, to say thank you. Of course it's bad for Hong Kong when there are disputes. But in the long term - it's good for democracy."

The final act of British rule was appropriately played out in the pristine splendour of Hong Kong's newly constructed Convention Centre extension, a striking edifice which has shot up on a piece of reclaimed land jutting into Victoria Harbour. It was the most minimal ceremony that could be mutually agreed. The Prince of Wales, representing the Queen, promised the people of Hong Kong that "we shall not forget you". China's President Jiang Zemin promised a new era of prosperity. The small honour guard from both sides stamped through their paces in the confined space. A specially designed-wind machine put life into the Union and Hong Kong flags, which fluttered in the artificial breeze before they were lowered for the last time; the five-star Chinese flag finally took its place on newly restored Chinese soil, alongside and the new flag of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.

The final ceremony was too hurried and rigid to produce much emotion. As the clapping melted away the British party hurried from the hall, their presence now as redundant as the last emblems of British rule.

Crane operators had already lowered the crest of the Royal Family from the portals of Central district government office and carefully replaced it with the red and gold crest of the People's Republic. The insignia and crown of Queen Elizabeth had been unscrewed from Government House; the portrait of the Queen herself had come down.

Later, as Mr Patten moved along from the convention centre to board Britannia in the early hours of the morning, there were hugs and kisses galore. This was less obviously a tribute to Mr Patten as a politician, since the waiting group consisted partly of friends and colleagues. But it led to curious scenes where the heir to the throne, who was accompanying him, had to stand by, smiling somewhat awkwardly, while Mr Patten continued on a triumphal path that never quite seemed to end.

Perhaps it will be revealed in some other life that Mr Patten was a cynic from start to finish, and that he never seriously cared about anything or anybody. But his undoubted success in Hong Kong was that he convinced many people that this was not the case.

By the time that Mr Patten, his wife Lavender, and his daughters were on board Britannia, they all looked emotionally drained, in need of several large whiskies.

Leading article, page 19

Andrew Marr, page 21

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