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Patriotism blooms in 600,000 flowerpots

As China prepares to celebrate the event of the decade, the country expects its citizens to do their patriotic duty.

In Nanjing, six-year-old Liu Beibei recently demonstrated her joy at the return of Hong Kong on 1 July by reciting 1,997 digits of pi, the mathematical constant. Du Guiyuan, a 74-year-old veteran Communist Party member at the Shougang iron and steel factory in Peking, expressed his happiness by donating 1,997.71 yuan (pounds 150) in party dues. And Zheng Suilin, a 31-year-old policeman in Guangzhou, "had a hard time explaining to his bride that their long-planned honeymoon would have to be postponed", said the official China Daily last week, because all leave was cancelled to ensure "the elimination of all unsafe elements which might have a negative effect on the turnover".

Not since the bloody crackdown of June 1989 has the world's media spotlight been so focused on China, and this time the country's leaders are determined to present a very different picture. "Patriotic feelings overwhelm the people", screamed one headline, typical of a propaganda machine that has gone into overdrive. Across Peking, 100,000 patriotic banners, 600,000 flowerpots and 800,000 lights are being put in place for the official celebrations, when 100,000 invited guests will hold an all-night party in Tiananmen Square.

Behind the nationalistic bombast, however, is a determination to ensure nothing sullies China's great day. In Peking the beggars have disappeared, the pirate CD sellers have gone to ground and the tourist trinket shops have even been banned from selling reproduction opium pipes.

All army and police leave is cancelled, and security is visibly tighter by the day. Regional leaders have been told they will lose their jobs if there is any breakdown in public order. Friday's bold public protest outside the walled Zhongnanhai party headquarters by more than 200 Peking residents angry about losing their homes is just the sort of event the government does not want to see repeated. Most serious is the possibility that separatist Uighur Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang may be planning another bombing spree.

Fears of the celebrations being disrupted or getting out of hand are felt most keenly by President Jiang Zemin, for whom the event provides a stage on which he can burnish his helmsmanship credentials.But Chinese presidents prefer public occasions that are pre-scripted down to the final detail. Hence Mr Jiang's apparent reluctance to spend much time in Hong Kong itself, where pro-democracy demonstrations are firmly on the unofficial timetable.

It now seems that Mr Jiang and the 92-member mainland delegation will travel down to Shenzhen next weekend, just across the border from Hong Kong, where two lavish hotel complexes have been built for the occasion. Mr Jiang and the most senior leaders will stay in the Spanish-style villas at the high-security Kylin Villa complex. Late on 30 June he will be whisked down to the formalceremonies in Hong Kong, applaud the raising of the Chinese flag, preside over the swearing in of Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, and the provisional legislature, and then head back for the safety of the mainland.

Back in Peking for 1 July, the Chinese president will officiate over the biggest festival of organised patriotism since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. It is impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance which China is giving the return of Hong Kong, both in terms of "washing away the stain of 150 years of humiliation" and in the country's emergence as a superpower for the 21st century.

The return of Hong Kong is, of course, only the first step in the reintegration of the motherland. As soon as the Tiananmen Square party is over, a new countdown clock will be mounted in the square - ticking off the seconds until the return of Macau on 20 December 1999.