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Hong Kong is passed from Britain to China
ONG KONG - Moments after midnight here today, China's five-star red flag replaced Britain's Union Jack over Hong Kong, marking the effective end of one empire, the ascendance of a growing world power, and the beginning of an unprecedented union between a communist giant and one of the world's richest capitalist enclaves.
By early this morning, China had moved quickly to erase the last signs of Britain's humiliating 156-year rule. Thousands of Chinese troops began crossing the border in the driving rain near dawn, some stiffly holding pastel flower bouquets. They headed for a city where hours earlier, to the delight of Chinese officials and many Hong Kong patriots, royal emblems and the portraits of Queen Elizabeth had been removed from buildings and uniforms as Prince Charles sailed from Victoria Harbor.
Prince Charles, for his part, said farewell to the last big pearl in the imperial crown, marking the end of an empire that once spanned a third of the globe, and commanded 760 million subjects 50 years ago. To the melancholy sound of bagpipes and bugles, the prince praised Hong Kong residents for their achievements and predicted a bright future for the tiny territory of 6.3 million people that is the world's eighth-largest trading power.
For the many democratic-minded followers here of the outgoing British governor, Chris Patten, who pressed liberalizations that the Chinese have rolled back, it was a night to protest peacefully and to harbor misgivings about how China will administer this freewheeling territory.
Addressing concerns over Hong Kong's future, President Jiang Zemin, the first Chinese leader to set foot in Hong Kong, vowed to ``unswervingly'' uphold the 1984 Joint Declaration signed by Britain and China for Hong Kong's return, which promises to retain its capitalist system for 50 years. He also pledged to respect the Basic Law, a mini-constitution that will govern the territory.
In a solemn ceremony before foreign ministers from more than 40 countries, including US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Jiang pledged to ``keep the previous socioeconomic system and way of life of Hong Kong unchanged and its laws basically unchanged.'' In essence, he staked his credibility and China's on a commitment to leave Hong Kong alone.
Jiang avoided criticizing Britain, although he did call the day ``a victory for the universal cause of peace and justice. ... The return of Hong Kong to the motherland after a century of vicissitudes indicates that from now on, the Hong Kong compatriots have become true masters of this Chinese land and that Hong Kong has now entered a new era of development.''
Prince Charles, who represented Queen Elizabeth II at the handover, also chose to focus on Hong Kong's future rather than dwell on its colonial past. He credited Hong Kong's people more than its colonial masters for its success. Before a British flag was lowered as a military band played ``God Save the Queen,'' the prince said, ``This ceremony marks a moment of both change and continuity in Hong Kong's history. ... The triumphant success of Hong Kong demands - and deserves - to be maintained.''
He also promised Britain would stick by Hong Kong and support the Joint Declaration, vowing, ``We shall not forget you, and we shall watch with the closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history.''
Four police officers in white dress uniforms marched to the stage to raise and lower the two countries' flags, and in a nod to the heavy symbolism overlaying the event, the two who lowered the Union Jack and the colonial flag wore the royal insignia, while the two who raised China's flag and Hong Kong's new banner wore the new Hong Kong insignia.
The flags fluttered in an artificial indoor wind created for the event, another sign of the evening's careful scripting. There were no official champagne toasts, no handover of keys or documents, just a solemn exchange of short speeches, the marching of military honor guards and polite applause from VIPs from around the world. The only part of the evening that seemed to depart from the script was the occasional drip of rain leaking through the brand-new ceiling.
Jiang offered barely a smile during the 40-minute ceremony, while the Prince of Wales gazed off into the distance as his flag was lowered, a wistful look in his eyes.
Immediately after the ceremony, Prince Charles and Patten, the 28th and final colonial governor, departed for the royal yacht Britannia, pausing to shake hands and wave goodbye to thousands of teary-eyed well-wishers who offered thunderous applause at the pier. Patten's young daughters, often in the media spotlight during their stay here, cried as they waved goodbye to their adopted home.
While the British departed, the Chinese delegation attended the inauguration of the new Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, an event boycotted by Albright and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, because it included the swearing-in of a Beijing-appointed Legislature that supplanted an elected one. Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's new chief executive, has promised to hold elections for a new legislature next May, but opponents have questioned whether the election will be fair.
Prime Minister Li Peng of China, accused by many here in the Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989, swore in Tung, a former shipping magnate, early today. Tung will be the first Chinese person to govern Hong Kong since it was colonized. He was chosen last December by a Beijing-appointed committee of locals and mainlanders.
``I hope you will, in the spirit of loving China and loving Hong Kong, implement the Basic Law in earnest,'' Li said in remarks directed to Tung. ``The return of Hong Kong to the motherland ... represents an immense success of the Chinese people in their pursuit of a complete national reunification,'' he added, in a clear allusion to China's desire to reunite with Taiwan.
Tung told the audience that ``for the first time in history, we, the people of Hong Kong, will be masters of our own destiny. ... As part of China, we will move forward as one inseparable nation with two distinct systems.''
Indeed, Hong Kong's Chinese residents who do not hold foreign passports automatically became Chinese citizens today. However, the border separating Hong Kong and China will remain controlled, to stem the tide of mainland immigration into a territory one-third the size of Rhode Island.
At 2:30 a.m. local time (2:30 p.m. yesterday EDT), the newly sworn Provisional Legislature began passing laws to retroactively take effect from midnight. Most maintained Hong Kong's previous ordinances, but some, governing protests and political parties, rolled back important civil liberties.
China has been criticized in the West for reversing Patten's moves toward democratization, and mainland leaders realize they will be judged by how they treat the prosperous and free territory they have taken back from Britain. China seems eager to present itself as a peaceful and honest member of the international community, as well as a rising power to be reckoned with, and last night and today, the predominant mood here was one of conciliation.
Several thousand demonstrators at at least four sites were allowed to protest against China, and there was neither violence nor arrests. The People's Liberation Army advance troops rolled in without weapons visible, after being warned by a Chinese general to uphold the law. The army's behavior in Hong Kong gives it a chance to burnish its image after the Tiananmen crackdown.
While many have focused on whether China might strangle the ``golden goose'' of Hong Kong, it is perhaps just as likely that Hong Kong will have a strong modernizing influence on China.
The ``barren rock'' of Hong Kong that China ceded to Britain in 1842 is dramatically different from the vibrant, world-class economy China regained. The return of Hong Kong will boost China's gross national product by 15 percent, as Hong Kong's 6.3 million people produce one-sixth of the GNP produced by China's 1.2 billion inhabitants, said David Zweig, a China specialist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Hong Kong is also responsible for two-thirds of direct foreign investment in China, he said.
``The integration of Hong Kong and China is an important aspect of China's rise as a world power,'' Zweig said. ``This is an opportunity for China to prove they are peace-loving, not expansionist, that they can observe world treaties, that they are honest actors in the international scene.''
The day's theme - the rise of China from a weak empire whose territory was wrested away into a powerful, slowly improving nation - was accompanied by a minor chord: the diminishing of Britain's place on the world stage. The overall effect was of a fleeting, and poignant, encounter between the vestiges of a 19th-century power and the forerunners of a 21st-century power.
Yesterday afternoon, Patten and his family bade farewell to their staff and aides-de-camp in an emotional, rain-drenched ceremony at Government House, a cream-colored mansion flanked by two sculpted lions which will be turned into a venue for functions and possibly a museum. Patten bowed his head to return the salute of a white-coated honor guard as ``God Save the Queen'' played for the first of three times during the ceremonies.
A light drizzle that coated Patten's blue suit and silver hair progressed into a driving rain by the end of the ceremony. The governor's standard, a British Union Jack with the Hong Kong crest in the middle, was lowered for the last time, and a lone bugler played ``Last Post,'' the traditional military farewell. Patten bit his lip and fought back tears.
Patten, who won points five years ago when he arrived in Hong Kong in a business suit rather than the feathered pith helmet and white uniform worn by previous governors, remained extremely popular throughout his time here, surpassing Chief Executive Tung in a recent poll. Beijing, by contrast, has denounced him as a ``villain'' because of the democratic changes he launched, quickening the schedule laid out by the Joint Declaration, without Beijing's consent.
Still, more than 54 percent of people surveyed here by the University of Hong Kong a few days ago found Patten credible, compared with 47 percent for the Beijing-vetted Tung.
Tung has decided not to move into the governor's mansion, almost surely for the symbolism of having a fresh beginning - although he cited bad feng shui, the ancient practice of balancing elements in the environment. The driving rain that persisted through all of the handover ceremonies, however, was termed good feng shui by a local geomancer, who said rain balanced too much fire in today's chart.
Patten abandoned the tradition of his predecessors of circling the driveway three times to indicate he would return. Instead, the black Rolls-Royce that the Hong Kong government bought in 1961 and which will be given to Tung - minus the royal crest - circled once and then made its way to a farewell ceremony performance for 10,000 guests on an outdoor stage overlooking Victoria Harbor.
A salute was fired from the frigate HMS Chatham, while the crowd watched a 20-minute show called ``The Spirit of Hong Kong,'' which featured children dressed up to portray Hong Kong's assets. Its famed stock market and manufacturing industry were represented by children dressed as credit cards, computer circuit boards, and foreign currency.
After the honor guards from the Royal Army, Navy, and Air Force marched past, Prince Charles told the audience: ``Hong Kong now faces its transition to Chinese sovereignty in excellent condition - prosperous, stable, and dynamic. Unprecedented though this moment in history may be, we have the utmost confidence in the abilities and resilience of the Hong Kong people.''
Michael Grunwald and David L. Marcus of the Globe staff provided information for this report.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/01/97.
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