The last governor sails away as Britain's richest colony becomes a mere consulate

AS THE Union Jack was lowered at a midnight hand over ceremony in Hong Kong last night, Prince Charles stared glumly ahead

AS THE Union Jack was lowered at a midnight hand over ceremony in Hong Kong last night, Prince Charles stared glumly ahead. He only glanced up when the 15-foot flagpole was bare, a stark symbol of the end of 156 years of British rule over part of China.

In contrast, the Chinese President, Mr Jiang Zemin, gazed enraptured as the Chinese flag was raised seconds later.

It was a proud moment for China, the end of 156 years of humiliation, the start of a new era and the high point of the career of the Communist Party secretary who had just taken back Hong Kong on behalf of 1.2 billion people.

A wind machine in the huge auditorium of Hong Kong's Convention Centre had kept the Union Jack and the colonial Hong Kong flag flapping energetically in the pre-midnight part of the 30-minute ceremony. The hand over was witnessed by 4,000 people from Britain, China, and Hong Kong, including international guests.

The red Chinese flag, with its five stars, and the new Hong Kong emblem of a bauhinia flower reached the top of their matching poles before the well-aimed airflow spread them out; they fluttered proudly for the first time, officially, over Hong Kong territory.

Many in the audience broke into spontaneous applause, joined by most of the 75 Chinese dignitaries on the stage. But the 75 British VIPs sat motionless.

The former colony's 28th and last governor, Mr Chris Patten, threw back his head in a gesture which said everything. It was all over.

To the hundreds of millions of Chinese watching on television the 28- strong British military contingent might have stepped straight out of the films and documentaries they have been shown incessantly of late on the subject of Hong Kong's seizure by the English. The soldiers wore bearskin hats, bright red tunics and white trousers, the bayonets on their rifles glistened in the arc lights.

For their part, the 40 Chinese soldiers representing the army, navy and air force wore conventional communist-chic uniforms. For the first part of the ceremony they kept their rivals in the at-ease position. But in an act heavy with symbolism when the British contingent moved off stage at the end they had removed the sword points from their rifles while the Chinese held theirs high with fixed bayonets.

The official British party for the handover was Prince Charles in blue suit, shirt and tie, the British Prime Minister, Mr Blair, his Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, Mr Patten, and the chief of the British defence staff. Behind them in a row were Baroness Thatcher; the former prime minister, Sir Edward Heath; the new Conservative leader, Mr William Hague; and the Liberal Democratic leader Mr Paddy Ashdown.

In the back rows were the foreign office mandarins who shaped China policy, including a former governor, Lord Murray Maclehose who was told by Deng Xiaoping 20 years ago that China would take back Hong Kong but kept it to himself for two years.

The Chinese side was represented by President Jiang; the Prime Minister, Mr Li Peng; the Foreign Minister, Mr Qian Qiehen; Gen Zhang Wannian; and the new Chief Executive of Hong kong, Mr Tung Chee-hwa.

Ireland was represented at the hand over ceremony by the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Mr Seamus Brennan.

Prince Charles, addressing the Hong Kong people, "who have been such staunch and special friends over so many generations", said: "We shall not forget you and we shall watch with the closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history."

Immediately after the ceremony, Mr Qian accompanied Prince Charles and Mr Patten to the royal yacht, Britannia, a few hundred yards from the convention centre thanked all the Chinese and British personages who contributed to the settlement of the Hong Kong question and was warmly applauded when he extended greetings "to the six million or more Hong Kong compatriots who have now returned to the embrace of the motherland".

Mr Jiang promised that the Chinese government would unswervingly implement the policy of "one country, two systems". He undertook that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region would "gradually develop a democratic system that suits Hong Kong's reality".

Prince Charles, addressing the Hong Kong people "who have been such staunch and special friends over so many generations", said: "We shall not forget you and we shall watch with the closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history."

Immediately after the ceremony, Mr Qian accompanied Prince Charles and Mr Patten to the royal yacht, Britannia, a few hundred yards from the convention centre. At 1.50 p.m. the Britannia and its protection vessel, the frigate HMS Chatham, cast off their moorings. They sailed out towards the South China Sea to the loud whistles of a few hundred well-wishers and ragged bursts of Rule Britannia from dozens of expatriates dressed in Union Jacks.

Mr Blair was driven at speed to the airport and left at 1 a.m., leaving British affairs in Hong Kong in the hands of its first ever consul-general, Mr Francis Cornish. As Prince Charles said in his speech, Mr Cornish now runs the biggest British consulate in the world.