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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cheers, Tears Mark Hong Kong Handover

HONG KONG -- Torn between doubt and excitement, Hong Kong shed its 156-year-old colonial mantle Tuesday 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 Governor Chris Patten to London sent at midnight local time 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.

And 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.

The Chinese flag and Hong Kong's new flag finished their ascent up the flagpole eight seconds after midnight.

"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 in front of a global array of VIPs gathered in a hall overlooking Hong Kong harbor.

"We shall not forget you," he said, "and we shall watch with 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 throne of England, watched with a dejected expression and a far-off look in his eye as the British flag descended for the final time.

Outgoing Governor Chris Patten was less circumspect: He looked downright sullen and spent just seconds in a post-ceremony handshake gathering -- and did not appear to shake hands with Jiang. But minutes later, Patten was smiling and joking with other guests.

On the Chinese side, only Prime Minister 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.

"Hip, hip, hurray," the crowd roared.

As the yacht sailed away with its lights blazing, the Chinese flag was already flying over what had been the nearby British military headquarters just an hour earlier.

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 transfer of power.

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?

Several pro-democracy, anti-China demonstrations were held in Hong Kong, and most remained small and peaceful.

But just before the handover ceremony, members of the April 5 Action Group, a coalition of Chinese activists, briefly blocked the road outside. Police holding hands surrounded them and moved them into an approved protest area.

The demonstrators shouted loudly, rolled in a papier-mache tank and condemned Chinese officials for crushing pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. They had particularly harsh words for Prime Minister Li Peng, whom they called a murderer.

Jiang, the first Communist Chinese president ever to visit Hong Kong, arrived only a few hours before the day's handover festivities began. Lines of children waving red-starred Chinese flags greeted him at the airport.

Before leaving Beijing, he renewed pledges to preserve Hong Kong's freedoms, including its freewheeling capitalism.

As Jiang flew in, an exhausted-looking Patten moved out of the cream-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.

It was a day of last hurrahs for the British crown. At police stations and government offices all over the territory, colonial coats of arms -- featuring the British lion and Chinese dragon -- were taken down and crated up. China swiftly asserted its sovereignty with the advance contingent of 509 troops moving across the border. Early Tuesday, 4,000 Chinese troops were to arrive in Hong Kong by ships, helicopters and armored vehicles.