Peking rules where sun never shines

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The Independent Online
Will the sun ever shine on the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the Republic of China? Legend has it that the heavens opened on the first note of God Save the Queen at the British farewell ceremony on Monday evening, and it has not stopped raining since.

There has been flooding and more than 100 landslides, and the schools have remained closed all week. Rita Fan, head of the incoming puppet legislature and Hong Kong's answer to Tony Banks, claims the skies are trying to wash away the remnants of British imperialism, but the longer it has gone on and the worse it has got, the more people are beginning to wonder whether the elements have it in for the new regime.

Actually, it was already coming down pretty hard as I walked to the farewell ceremony from the Wanchai Convention Centre.Seen from the air or from the other side of Victoria Harbour - how long will that name remain? - Hong Kong island is an amazing sight, but at ground level it is a nightmare of concrete walkways and impassable six-lane highways. The police had added 15ft plastic barricades which made the security measures in the City of London look wimpish: it was like trying to run an obstacle course in a sauna wearing a suit. Soaked inside and out, I finally found the entrance, only to be told I was too late.

Nothing for it but to slosh back to Wanchai and watch proceedings on the big screen in the press centre. Many journalists on tight deadlines stayed there all evening, because actually going to any of the events entailed being in place an hour beforehand, preceded by long security checks and baggage searches. The air of unreality was heightened by the presence of Jeremy Irons, shooting the final scenes of a movie in which he plays a journalist covering the handover.

Being at the handover ceremony itself did not feel like first-hand reality either: the hall was so large that those at the back had to look at the screens flanking the stage to make out what was happening. One did get a sense of the fearful symmetry of the occasion - Brits to the right, Chinese to the left, the band of the Brigade of Guards play a tune, immediately matched by the band of the People's Liberation Army. "In a few moments..." said Prince Charles, and we all looked at our watches.

When the moment arrived, I was numb. The Chinese cheered and applauded their flag, but the British official party kept their hands resolutely in their laps. The symmetry was broken; China was in charge, and not another word of English was heard. "We have been witnesses to history," Hong Kong's Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, told us later in the week, but it felt flat at the time. More real was standing on a flyover, watching the Britannia sail away in the warm, bucketing rain.

Tuesday was a black day, according to the weather centre, which later upgraded its storm alert to red. It was slightly chilling to see cubs and brownies greeting President Jiang Zemin at the celebration of the establishment of the SAR, as everyone calls it, but apart from that the hall could have been anywhere in Communist China.

Now nearly a week has past, and not much seems different. "This place still a shopping paradise!" says a flyer thrust into my hand at the Star Ferry. But do check the weather forecast before you come.