And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came down. Years, months, days, hours, even anxious last minutes of mind-numbing diplomatic negotiations about protocol had produced an agreement that the sound of God Save the Queen should fade out seconds before the strike of midnight, lest the echoes of the British anthem should spill into the first moments of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong.
The “homecoming” of Hong Kong has been the most peculiar ending of any colony in modern history. The last colonial governor drifted off into the bay with tears streaming down his cheeks. He was more popular among the people he had governed than the Chinese tycoon who took his place. The freely elected legislature has been shoved aside in favor of “patriots,” appointed by a Communist regime. Most extraordinary of all, a last-minute poll showed that 74.9 percent of the Hong Kong people thought they were better off under British rule, and only 31 percent wanted Hong Kong to be ruled by China. And this doesn’t mean the British were popular.
Under the organized froth of official celebration I detected little sense of joy in Hong Kong. The noisiest revelers on the night of June 30, decked out in dinner jackets and Chinese fancy dress, were foreign and Chinese businessmen, who expect to make a killing. A young Englishman in a Union Jack waistcoat was braying at midnight: “A bit of a hangover tomorrow, and then more money, money, money!”
In the Mandarin Hotel on the morning after, socialites were knocking back champagne to the keening sounds of a Chinese orchestra, while the British grandees who had helped to seal Hong Kong’s fate were heading for their limos to the airport. There was Lord Howe, and there ex-Governor Wilson. After years of publicly undermining Chris Patten’s political reforms, these men demonstrated just what they thought of democracy in Hong Kong by attending the swearing-in of the appointed legislature, even though the top representatives of Britain and the US had decided not to. A leading Hong Kong democrat, sitting gloomily in the downstairs bar, said she was glad it was raining: it would ruin the Chinese celebrations. And she had been one of the most ferocious critics of the British colonial government.
Symbols, clearly, were of the highest importance. To Beijing, the handover of Hong Kong to China was itself a symbolic act—with real consequences, to be sure. The question is, symbolic of what? Several messages were driven home without pause, in official speeches, a new movie, mass stadium demonstrations, newspaper headlines, buttons and badges, T-shirts and posters, and slogans in wooden Chinese: the “homecoming” of Hong Kong was a patriotic victory that wiped out “150 years of shame.” It was …