TOM CLIFFORD Staff writer HONG KONG — The Hong Kong handover three years ago provided some of the most contradictory TV images of our age. An imperial drama, a colony being returned, was played out in the dying days of the 20th century. All that was missing was the setting sun.

The lashing rain put paid to any golden disc sinking behind the Pearl River Delta which panning TV cameras had been positioned to capture with reporters hoping to lace their commentary with the then ubiquitous phrase of “the sun finally sets on the British Empire.”

Hong Kong returned to Beijing’s ultimate control, after 150 years of British rule, amid a downpour and a flowering of umbrellas as the British departed in an outdoor ceremony before the final part of the handover took place indoors in the air-conditioned chill of Hong Kong’s Convention Center.

The heavens stayed open for the best part of two weeks thereafter. For the superstitious, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was not getting the mandate from heaven, whatever about securing the mandate of Beijing.

A night of revelry and then the consequences would have to be paid, or so the conventional wisdom had it. An erosion of freedoms, a crackdown on civil liberties, a gagged press and worst of all, silent mah-jong parlors.

Whenever Hong Kong residents traveled overseas they were constantly asked: Has Hong Kong changed since the handover? Questioners expected a litany of woes in response and found it difficult to hide their disappointment when you replied that civil liberties (which the British were reluctant to grant) were in need of protection but had not been wiped out, the press had not lost its voice and the mah-jong parlors still rattled.

Of course, there has been change. A new airport has replaced Kai Tak with planes no longer having to bank 47 degrees at Lion Rock before landing. A marked fall in property prices since the rainy summer of ’97 and a number of high-profile shops have closed their doors, especially along the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist corridor.

The Prince of Wales Barracks, which stand like a computer terminal at the Central waterfront, now flies the flag of the People’s Republic of China instead of the Union Jack. The “Peak” — the plush residential area that attracts the elite — has been more, if not tastefully, developed and English is not as well spoken as before.

But the real point with Hong Kong has not been change but the lack of it.

Its chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, acts like a British governor without the redeeming, democratic urges of his predecessor, Chris Patten.

Tung, a former shipping magnate, is trying to stifle democratic growth and shows a marked keenness for the opinions of property tycoons, above other sections of society.

Beijing, with Tung’s support, reversed Patten’s attempts to make the politcal system more accountable, more democratic. Tung’s task is to depoliticize Hong Kong, dampen further calls for democracy, make Hong Kong compliant.

The 60-seat Legislative Council has just 20 politicians directly elected and a timetable for a fully democratic council seems to be blurred. And the territory’s autonomy was compromised when Beijing reinterpreted Hong Kong’s law to change a controversial right of abode ruling on immigrants from the mainland.

The Beijing leadership considers Hong Kong to be contaminated by the democracy virus and untrustworthy. Besides, their argument goes, we have have “our own Hong Kong” with far greater potential than that “Barren Rock” in the Pearl River Delta.

Shanghai, China’s favorite window on the world, is considered by the Beijing leadership to be a home-grown replacement for Hong Kong’s financial clout. The Communists look at Hong Kong and see a British success story, they want to look at Shanghai and say “made in China.”

Shanghai, the home base of many of the party’s leaders, is controllable, Hong Kong is unpredictable. Which is why Hong Kong, three years after the handover, is more unsure about its future role than at any time since the umbrellas went up three years ago.

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