Hong Kong pays its respects with one eye on the handover

A wail of fog horns filled Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour at precisely 10am yesterday as the Chinese national anthem was played some 2,000kms away in Peking's Great Hall of the People at Deng Xiaoping's funeral service.

The famous funicular railway, which runs up to Hong Kong's luxury Peak district, ground to a halt, truck and taxi drivers sounded their horns and loudspeakers in underground train stations emitted solemn music for 10 minutes.

The colony's most influential companies were making sure that their gestures of respect to the late paramount Chinese leader were noted. For ordinary people it was business as usual. "I suppose I will watch it [the funeral] on the television news tonight," said Elsa Wong, a university services worker. "We are not being given time off from work, so I can't think I will do anything else," she said.

However, the death of the man who has so greatly influenced the last years of colonial rule in Hong Kong has hardly been marked by indifference. More than 45,000 people have passed through the normally closed doors of the New China News Agency (NCNA) to pay their respects.

The NCNA, which acts as China's de facto embassy in Hong Kong, is unused to opening its doors to the public; more usually they are barred to prevent demonstrators outside from gaining access.

The death of Deng Xiaoping has given members of pro-democracy organisations and the Governor, Chris Patten, their first chance to enter the building. Practically every senior government official, business tycoon and other prominent personalities have judged it expedient to make an appearance at the memorial hall in the NCNA building.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's China- watching media, which has traditionally been both the best and worst source of information on developments in China, is full of stories of disagreements between various leadership factions vying for power in the wake of Deng's demise. Hong Kong's Chinese language newspapers have also been publishing accounts of Deng's will, supposedly based on information supplied by Chinese officials. According to these reports, Deng expressed regret over the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. One report even says that he asked for forgiveness.

A pro-Peking political party has formally requested that some of Deng's ashes be scattered in Hong Kong to fulfil his wish of being in the territory at the time when China resumes sovereignty on 1 July.