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Britain returns Hong Kong to China

June 30, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ Torn between excitement and anxiety, Hong Kong shed its 156-year-old colonial mantle today and rejoined China, its original master and now the pilot of its course to the future.

``I have relinquished the administration of this government. God Save the Queen,″ said a cable from Gov. Chris Patten to London, sent at midnight as sovereignty changed.

With a simple ceremony, the playing of both countries’ national anthems and a switch of flags, Hong Kong was passed from the dwindling British Empire to the world’s most populous nation. The Chinese flag and Hong Kong’s new flag finished their ascent up the flagpole eight seconds after midnight.

In a moment, the territory’s 6.3 million people ceased to be British subjects and became citizens of a new entity called the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.

``China will tonight take responsibility for a place and a people which matter greatly to us all,″ Prince Charles said in a speech shortly before the Union Jack came down before a global array of VIPs gathered in a hall overlooking Hong Kong harbor.

``We shall not forget you, and we shall watch with the closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history.″

Chinese President Jiang Zemin called the handover ``a victory for the universal cause of peace and justice.″ He said, ``July 1, 1997, will go down in the annals of history as a day that merits eternal memory _ the return of Hong Kong to the motherland.″

As ``God Save the Queen″ played, Charles, heir to the British throne, watched with a dejected expression and a far-off look in his eye as the Union Jack descended.

Patten was less circumspect: He looked downright sullen and spent just seconds in a post-ceremony handshake gathering before turning on his heel and walking off.

On the Chinese side, only Premier Li Peng smiled slightly during the ceremony.

Shortly afterward, Charles, Patten and his family, and others in the British delegation boarded the royal yacht Britannia in Hong Kong harbor and sailed away. Chinese and British well-wishers reached out across a police barrier to hug Patten.

The crowd roared, ``Hip, hip, hurray.″

The brief handover observances at Hong Kong’s new convention center followed a day of parades, speeches, performances and banquets, followed by a night sky bursting with British fireworks over Victoria Harbor. Rain-drenched spectators joined bagpipers in a spirited, emotional rendition of ``Auld Lang Syne.″

Right on schedule, more than 500 Chinese troops rolled into Hong Kong in convoys precisely at 9 p.m. in preparation for the midnight handover.

In Hong Kong, the mood was of joy, sadness _ and apprehension. Beyond the pageantry, for most residents the historic event boiled down to one question: Will Communist China keep its promise to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms and its capitalist economy?

``Thirteen years ago we thought it was very far away. Now it’s suddenly here,″ said Elsie Li, a clerk, referring to the 1984 agreement that Britain would hand back the colony today. ``I still can’t believe it’s true.″

Several pro-democracy, anti-China demonstrations were held in Hong Kong, and most remained small and peaceful. Just before the handover ceremony at the convention center, however, members of the April 5 Action Group, a coalition of Chinese activists, briefly blocked the road. Police holding hands surrounded them and moved them into an approved protest area.

The group shouted as it rolled in a papier-mache tank, condemning Chinese officials for crushing pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and killing hundreds.

Jiang, the first Communist Chinese president to visit Hong Kong, arrived only a few hours before the day’s festivities began. Before leaving Beijing, Jiang renewed pledges to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms _ including its freewheeling capitalism.

As Jiang flew into the airport, an exhausted-looking Patten moved out of Government House, taking with him the British flag that used to fly over the official residence.

He bit his lip and swallowed hard as the band played ``God Save the Queen.″

Later, at Britain’s open-air sunset farewell ceremony, Patten paid emotional tribute to the colony he governed for five years. ``I have no doubt that with people here holding onto these values which they cherish, Hong Kong’s star will continue to climb,″ he said.

China swiftly asserted its sovereignty with the advance contingent of 509 troops moving across the border from the city of Shenzhen. Early Tuesday, 4,000 People’s Liberation Army troops were to arrive in Hong Kong by ships, helicopters and armored vehicles.

Britain and the United States questioned whether such a show of force, especially armored vehicles, was necessary.

With dozens of top foreign officials in Hong Kong for the handover, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity, including talks between U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

Albright expressed hopes for a post-handover Hong Kong ``that is free, a Hong Kong in which personal freedoms exist and will not be squeezed out.″

China regards the return of its territory as a glorious event, and Beijing was putting on massive celebrations. Chinese streamed by the tens of thousands to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to view the clock counting the seconds past midnight.

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