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30 June 2007

Farewell Hong Kong

Robert Fell reflects on being a witness to the historic day, a decade ago, that Britain handed Hong

By Robert Fell

My abiding memory of the day 10 years ago when Hong Kong’s sovereignty passed from Britain to China after around 150 years is not one of those “big news” moments: not the fact that the People’s Liberation Army had probably crossed the border two hours before they were supposed to, nor the mournful passing away from Victoria Harbour of the Royal Yacht Britannia, carrying away Governor Patten and his daughters, in tears.

No, for those of us on the ground at the time in that extraordinary corner of the world, what one recalls most vividly, is the appallingly British weather. Rain so hard that one could hear it fizzing on the microphones as Patten made his emotion-charged valedictory speech. Rain that drummed from the skies from the start of the day until midnight as a farewell gesture to the old country.

I was fortunate enough to be on board a “junk” in Victoria Harbour, with the radio turned up high, during the early evening of 30 June 1997. We were kitted out in black tie, listening to the speeches being made in the convention centre, occasionally going out onto the foredeck to see if the heavens would stop shedding their load, and braving the monsoon conditions for the 8pm fireworks display that thundered across the water. A police line of boats kept us from
getting too close to Britannia or to the convention centre where the 4,000 specials guests (including Tony Blair and his foreign secretary Robin Cook) were to be first-hand witnesses at the passing of the baton.

With that “show” over, it was time to hit dry land, more specifically the handover party at the Hong Kong Club. While the oldest and most famous club in the island, it was not crowded with the retired bufties that one might imagine. Here was the dynamic elite of Hong Kong, a fair number of them not British or American, but Hong Kong Chinese and bursting with pride at the thought that the island was finally returning to its rightful place.

On large screens around the club, the extraordinary process of the passing of power from one master to the next – the swearing-in of new members of Hong Kong’s law-making bodies, many of them hand-picked by Beijing – took place. By now, I confess that I was showing a greater interest in the cocktail trolleys
doing the rounds than the paperwork of the handover.

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The Brits who were there, many of them Cantonese speakers, did not view the impending change with fear, but as yet another opportunity in an island that is all about such things. After all, Deng had said that the three characteristics of capitalism – horse-racing, dancing and the stock-market – would continue under Chinese rule. So, when the Hong Kong flag was lowered at 11.30 and the British flag at midnight, while there were tears around the dining tables and bars reflecting both pride at one of Britain’s few unalloyed colonial achievements and sorrow at its passing, there was also great excitement at what lay
ahead.

After the Hong Kong Club and some potent cocktails, it was out into the rain once more for one final appointment. It was rumoured that Martin Lee, head of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and an outspoken critic of Beijing’s efforts to subvert the rule of law in the island, was going to try to make a speech from the Legislative Council (LEGCO) building, a speech imploring Hong Kong’s new rulers to abide by the rules.

We headed the short distance to the LEGCO building. One way or another, Lee got to make his speech, from the first floor balcony, with a crowd of journalists and revellers beneath him. Those of us who had also been at the candle-lit remembrance of the eighth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre
in Victoria Park looked at each other and wondered whether the freedoms that Hong Kong had for so long taken for granted (the freedom to speak as Lee now was or the freedom to silently protest in a mass of 50,000 people) would disappear just as surely as Britannia had.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been so concerned: the 18th anniversary of Tiananamen Square was commemorated by 50,000 people in Victoria Park.