In a ceremony brimming with triumphant nationalism, China reclaimed Hong Kong, prize possession of the vanishing British Empire, hoisting the red flag of the People’s Republic over one of Asia’s most prosperous territories and ending 156 years of colonial rule.
Welcoming Hong Kong to the “embrace of the motherland,” Chinese President Jiang Zemin promised that its 6.3 million residents, many of whom came here as refugees from the mainland, “shall enjoy various rights and freedoms according to law.” Executive, legislative and judicial authority, Jiang said, will remain with the newly created Hong Kong special administrative region.
Less than an hour after the midnight hand-over ceremony, Tung Chee-Hwa, a Hong Kong shipping magnate, was sworn in as the first chief executive. A provisional Legislature, approved by Beijing, convened for its first meeting and immediately repealed some civil-liberties laws made under British rule.
Meanwhile, China assumed responsibility for foreign affairs and defense. Early this morning Hong Kong time, 4,000 troops of the People’s Liberation Army moved across the border from China into Hong Kong by air, land and sea, taking over garrisons abandoned by departed British forces.
The rapid, post-midnight establishment of a new order in Hong Kong ended a day of nostalgia, pageantry, protests and heavy rain. Across the territory, between rain showers, people celebrated or contemplated Hong Kong’s future with dragon dances, teach-ins, raucous parties and a dramatic fireworks display over Hong Kong harbor.
Jiang told the audience of 4,000 international VIPs, diplomats and local leaders: “This is both a festival for the Chinese nation and a victory for the universal cause of peace and justice. Thus July 1, 1997, will go down in the annals of history as a day that merits eternal memory.”
Britain’s final withdrawal from its last major colony began Monday afternoon with Gov. Chris Patten’s emotional farewell to his household staff and aides-de-camp at Government House. He bit his lip and bowed his head as the Hong Kong flag was lowered for the last time and presented to him, carefully folded, on a blue cushion. Before he left, his gleaming Rolls-Royce circled the driveway three times in a symbolic Chinese gesture promising his return.
The most potent symbol of the day was the relentless rain, disguising tears and purging the vapors of colonialism. In Chinese superstition, rain and wind are good omens for historic occasions. But the departing British, whose farewell ceremony was outdoors, appeared to suffer from the inclement weather.
When Britain’s Prince Charles spoke at a drenched British farewell celebration, the rain streamed from the peak of his cap and dripped steadily onto the golden epaulettes of his naval uniform. The tall, bear-fur hats worn by bandsmen of Britain’s famous infantry regiment the Scots Guards looked limp and formless in the deluge.
Even inside the cavernous Grand Hall of the Hong Kong Convention Center, where the precisely timed and choreographed hand-over ceremony took place several hours later, the 4,000 invited guests - including many overseas Chinese from the United States and Canada - could not escape the rain. The just-completed and still leaky roof of the landmark building dribbled copiously on dignitaries.
But the rain didn’t seem to dampen the swelling nationalistic sentiments of the Chinese invitees to a formal and solemn hand-over ceremony attended by top representatives from the Hong Kong, Chinese and British governments. In the minutes on either side of midnight, as the British and colonial flags descended to the strains of “God Save the Queen,” the Chinese spirits lifted as their flag rose alongside the new Hong Kong standard on the halyard.
As the new flags unfurled, with the help of special wind machines blowing from stage left, Prince Charles’ brow furrowed, Patten looked bereft and Chinese Premier Li Peng smiled a bit.
As sovereignty changed, a cable from Patten arrived in London: “I have relinquished the administration of this government. God save the Queen.”
“China will tonight take responsibility for a place and a people which matter greatly to us all,” Prince Charles said in a short speech before the flag ceremony. “We shall not forget you, and we shall watch with the closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history.”
The ceremony was conducted in English and Mandarin, the languages of the past and present rulers - not in Cantonese, the dialect spoken in Hong Kong. To some, the omission emphasized the point that Hong Kong was the first British colony not to become independent.
Patten’s controversial attempt during his five-year tenure to instill at least a little democracy was meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy before China took control. But one of the first moves of the new Hong Kong government was to dismantle the legislature elected under rules that Beijing did not approve, and to change some of the laws that body passed.
Immediately after the handover ceremony, Tung took his oath of office. “After 156 years of separation, Hong Kong and China are whole again,” Tung said in his inaugural speech. “This is a solemn, stately and proud moment. We are here today to announce to the world, in our language, that Hong Kong has entered a new era.”
Finally, members of the Provisional Legislature, the China-approved body that displaces the elected council - took their oath and promptly went to work. Within an hour, they had passed a set of “reunification bills” that had been prepared beforehand.
The 13 bills included provisions to restrict protests, curb foreign funding of political parties and outlaw advocating independence for Taiwan or Tibet. The new laws will be applied retroactively to the first minutes of July 1, said Tung, making it theoretically possible to prosecute demonstrators who broke laws that had not yet been passed.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.