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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hong Kong Handover Follows New Script

HONG KONG -- Presiding over the steady decline of a once-magnificent empire, the British have perfected the art of graceful withdrawal.

Beginning with the granting of independence to India, the "jewel in the crown,'' in 1947, the British have departed -- usually with great style and decorum -- from more than 30 colonies, including Malaysia, Ghana, Jamaica, Zanzibar, Malawi, Kenya, Malta, Guyana and Zimbabwe.

In each case, the good-bye ritual followed a more-or-less predictable script: The military band breaks into a stirring rendition of "Beating Retreat." A uniformed member of the royal family presides over a handover ceremony. Political authority is transferred to a new national government often headed by someone the British had jailed for sedition during colonial rule.

But Hong Kong is different in several key -- and potentially troublesome -- aspects. The band has already played "Beating Retreat.'' Prince Charles is in Hong Kong representing the royal family. But otherwise the colony-to-independence script does not apply.

"Elsewhere," outgoing British Governor Chris Patten wrote in his final testament on British rule in Hong Kong, "the dependent became independent, if not always so free as they had been when they were unfree. In Hong Kong, a free city becomes part of a country with its own notion of what freedom means, albeit garlanded with guarantees that its liberties will endure."

The Hong Kong case has no real precedent. For the first time in its years of empire shedding, Britain is turning a colonial possession over to another sovereign state rather than a new national independence government. Moreover, it is returning a population of 6.3 million people, most of whom have no offer of asylum or protection if the conditions of the exchange break down, to a country most of them fled as refugees from communism and political terror.

The Beijing government describes the handover as "repatriation" of national territory to the Chinese motherland. To Chinese leaders, it is the rectification of a century and a half of "humiliation," a shameful testimony to China's inability then to protect its territory.

But the Hong Kong they are receiving bears almost no resemblance to the barren, rocky island they ceded to the British after the First Opium War of 1839 to 1842. Using a term that Hong Kong's remarkably successful traders might appreciate, the "value added" includes a functioning civil society, freedom of speech and the press, a respected judiciary and one of the world's richest capitalist economies. The vehicle to maintain these added values -- a document known as the Basic Law -- is based on the untested concept, more a slogan really, of "one country, two systems" fashioned by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to facilitate Hong Kong's return.

Under this device, the Communist government in Beijing has promised to leave Hong Kong alone, except for matters of national security, for 50 years. Hong Kong is to remain "capitalist" and take on the status of a special administrative region. China is to remain "socialist" and stay out of Hong Kong's hair.

As the writer Ian Buruma pointed out in a recent essay on the return of Hong Kong, "Socialism is the last thing China says it wants to see in Hong Kong. Indeed, the mini-constitution, or Basic Law, rules it out: 'The socialist system shall not be practiced in Hong Kong.'"

The Basic Law also guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press and other civil rights. But the language in which they are guaranteed is much the same as that found in the Constitution of the People's Republic of China. Critics ask, logically, that if these rights are not observed in China, then why should anyone believe they will be kept in Hong Kong?

In fact, the whole handover mechanism requires an enormous leap of faith on the part of Hong Kong's people. So far, at least, it is a leap that most Hong Kong residents and most foreign governments appear ready to make, albeit with some reservations.

"Hong Kong returning to China is the right thing," said Ho Man-kwang, 44, manager of a dried seafood and health food shop in the working-class Mong Kok district of Kowloon. "Hong Kong's success is due to its freedom. If the Chinese government handles things well here, it will be good for the future of China. But if China tries to rule Hong Kong like it does the mainland, there will be big problems."

Asked at a news conference about his confidence in the "one country, two systems" arrangement, U.S. Bill President Clinton responded in much the same fashion.

"We do not want to assume the bad faith of the Chinese," Clinton said. "I think that would be an error. Obviously we don't know exactly what will happen. But we have all committed to work with the British to try to continue to insist on and preserve the integrity of the '84 agreement [setting the terms of Hong Kong's return]."

How China handles its enriched prodigal possession is one of the biggest tests since its creation as the people's republic in 1949. It is also a measure of how far China has come toward full membership in the community of nations. Longer term, it has implications for a possible reunification with Taiwan.

China's friends, including former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, have been urging Beijing to keep its cool as Hong Kong residents test the limits of the new arrangement.

"A successful Hong Kong will be a major plus for China worldwide when it presses Taiwan for peaceful national reunification," Lee said in a speech in Hong Kong last week. "On the contrary, if the formula turns out wrong and sours, China will have to contemplate the use of force, which carries damaging consequences."

But others doubt Beijing's ability to keep its hands off the golden goose or to manage the territory's delicate public relations. They cite Beijing's insensitive plan to deploy 4,000 People's Liberation Army troops by "land, sea and air" in Hong Kong only hours after they take possession of the territory. Also, countries that operate under some form of split sovereignty are not usually happy places.

The 4,000 guests -- Hong Kong's political and business elite -- invited to the official handover banquet Monday complain that security rules for the banquet might make them virtual prisoners inside the Convention Center site of the handover ceremony until the wee hours Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, China complicated matters by insisting that British rule in Hong Kong not overlap even one second after midnight Monday.

Perhaps one of the most negotiated moments in Britain's colonial history -- what was to happen when the clock struck 12 -- was the subject of weeks of bickering. The British wanted to finish lowering their flag to the last bar of "God Save the Queen" as the last seconds of empire in Hong Kong expire. The Chinese worried that the hum of British baritones and crash of cymbals might linger into the beginning of their first second of sovereignty.

The compromise: the sacred midnight moment was bounded by five seconds of silence on each side.

Key events in history of Hong Kong:

?1841: Hong Kong island settled by British.

?1860: China cedes Kowloon peninsula to Britain for all time.

?July 1, 1898: Britain begins 99-year lease on New Territories and 235 adjacent islands.

?1840-1940: Hong Kong expands and thrives as emigration and trading center for mainland China.

?Dec. 8, 1941-Aug. 14, 1945: Japanese troops occupy Hong Kong.

?1949-1950: About 750,000 Chinese flee to Hong Kong as Communists take over mainland.

?1972: China, newly admitted to the United Nations, indicates it wants Hong Kong back.

?Dec. 19, 1984: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang sign accord to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty July 1, 1997.

?Sept. 18, 1995: Pro-democracy candidates win sweeping victory in Hong Kong's last legislative election under British rule. China vows to disband legislature.

-- The Associated Press