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Hong Kong handover: Tung pledges to maintain the way of life

The first ethnic Chinese leader of Hong Kong for 156 years, Tung Chee- hwa, took his oath of office early this morning and pledged to maintain the new Special Administrative Region's (SAR) distinct way of life, its free and open systems, the rule of law, and "building a more democratic society".

In his first speech as Hong Kong's new leader, Mr Tung thanked the mainland leaders for giving its new territorial possession such high autonomy.

"We value this empowerment, and we will exercise our powers prudently and responsibly," he promised, knowing full well that measures deemed imprudent by Peking will be hard to negotiate.

"The nation and the people have entrusted me the responsibility as chief executive ... As I stand here at this historic moment, a moment of great honour and pride, I'm mindful of the enormous responsibilities which lie ahead," he said.

Mr Tung was speaking at the 1.30am (Hong Kong time) inauguration of the new SAR government, when the controversial appointed Provisional Legislative Council was sworn in, replacing the existing elected body.

Mr Tung began his new job in the manner in which he will have to continue - trying to reassure the people of Hong Kong while satisfying the territory's new ultimate rulers.

As he gave his first speech, President Jiang Zemin and the official Chinese delegation to the handover sat on the stage, visibly more relaxed and at ease than during the earlier Sino-British handover ceremony. The whole occasion bore some similarity to the the long procedural meetings that dominate official life on the mainland.

The nationalism quotient was high, providing just what the new masters like to hear. "This is a momentous and historic day ... Hong Kong and China are whole again," said Mr Tung. "We are here today to announce to the world in our language that Hong Kong has entered a new era."

The only problem with this last bit was that, in deference to Mr Jiang, the new chief executive was speaking Mandarin Chinese rather than Hong Kong Cantonese. Apart from the non-Chinese judges, all the oaths were also taken in Mandarin.

There was much talk of "we" the Chinese and "our people", turns of phrase that have fuelled worries that mainland nationalism will erode the very cosmopolitan nature of Hong Kong.

"Over the past century and a half years, many compatriots driven by lofty ideals and steadfast conviction have devoted themselves to the advancement of our people and safeguarding the territorial integrity of our nation," he said.

At one point he said confidence in Hong Kong's future was partly based on "the wisdom, industry and versatility of the Hong Kong people - a legacy from our heritage and culture". Hong Kong's many born-and-bred Indian families may start taking offence if this sort of ethnic patriotism becomes common parlance.