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Anxiety and anticipation as Hong Kong handover finally happens

June 30, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ Lowering the Union Jack for the last time over Hong Kong’s stately Government House, Britain took down the trappings of empire today in readiness to hand the colony back to China after ruling it for 156 years.

A day of parades, speeches and performances gave way to a night sky bursting with British fireworks over Victoria Harbor as clocks ticked toward the midnight transfer. Rain-drenched spectators joined bagpipers in a spirited, emotional rendition of ``Auld Lang Syne″ that resonated across the coastline.

The mood was of joy, sadness _ and apprehension. Beyond the pageantry, for most Hong Kong people 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.″

Jiang Zemin, the first Communist Chinese president ever to visit Hong Kong, arrived hours before the handover ceremonies. Lines of children waving red-starred Chinese flags greeted him at the airport.

Before leaving Beijing, Jiang renewed pledges to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms _ including its freewheeling capitalism.

As Jiang flew in, an exhausted-looking Gov. Chris Patten moved out of the creamy white Government House, his home for the past five years. The silver-haired Englishman held out his arms to receive the lowered Union Jack.

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. ``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.

Prince Charles, rain splattering the gold braid on his shoulders, said the end of Hong Kong’s days as a colony did not mean an end of a long friendship. ``Britain is not saying goodbye to Hong Kong,″ he said.

It was a day of last hurrahs for the crown. At police stations and government offices all over the territory, colonial coats of arms _ featuring British lion and Chinese dragon _ were taken down and crated up.

China swiftly asserted its sovereignty. Early Tuesday, 4,000 Chinese troops were to arrive in Hong Kong by ships, helicopters and armored vehicles. An advance contingent of about 500 troops was to roll in three hours before the handover.

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

In the border city of Shenzhen, a top Chinese military official reviewed People’s Liberation Army troops. Children presented bouquets to the soldiers, and a military band played the army anthem.

Gen. Liu Huaqing, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, told the solemn-faced soldiers: ``We hope you will respect Hong Kong’s political system and its lifestyle ... and act according to the law.″

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.″

One early test of those freedoms was the handling of protests. Police allowed small groups of demonstrators to assemble several hundred yards from the convention center where the handover ceremony was being held.

A public park alongside the legislative building was filled with dozens of booths set up by pro-democracy and pro-union groups displaying banners calling for democracy and handing out leaflets.

A confrontation brewed at the legislative building, where democratic lawmakers want to speak from the building’s balcony protesting their replacement by a legislature China set up. Democratic Party leader Martin Lee said he’d bring a ladder and climb up to the balcony if necessary.

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 until midnight.

Although Hong Kong’s colonization had bitter roots, there was little sign of animosity toward Britain as an era drew to a close.

Hong Kong used to resent the British, said the Standard, an English-language daily paper published by Hong Kong Chinese. Now, though, it said, ``Hong Kong has become so wealthy that there is something for everyone ... There need be no recrimination nor regret.″

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