HONG KONG — Earlier this year a team from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) came to Hong Kong to make plans for covering July 1, 1997, the day when the British Union Jack is hauled down and the red five-star flag of China is hoisted over Hong Kong.
More than 2,000 reporters, photographers, camera crews, and other technicians representing 170 news organizations have already notified Hong Kong's Government Information Service of their intention to cover the event. Some estimates of the final turnout range above 5,000 journalists.
When the BBC advance team surveyed hotel accommodations (expected to be tight) and logistics for covering the historic event, however, it was unable to discover one critical fact: exactly what was going to happen.
Relations are so sour between Britain and China over Hong Kong that the two sides can't agree on how to commemorate the occasion. So far, both sides have agreed only that any ceremony will be "dignified." The British would prefer it to be "grand," while the Chinese would prefer a "modest" handover followed by their own celebrations.
This lack of agreement, along with reports that China would prefer that the role of British-appointed Hong Kong Gov. Christopher Patten be minimized, is further damaging confidence in the territory's future as the handover date approaches.
The traditional British pattern of colonial transition would have the governor, decked out in colorful ceremonial garb, possibly along with one of the lesser members of the royal family, stand beside the new nation's prime minister. The British flag would be slowly lowered, the new country's banner raised, and a new national anthem played for the first time.
But Britain is not preparing Hong Kong for independence. The territory is being returned to China. And to China, Governor Patten is a pariah. During his four years in office, he has not been able to visit Beijing.
The official Chinese press calls him everything from a "mad dog" to a "sinner of a thousand antiquities." The governor gives as good as he gets, treating China's leaders as though he were debating opposition members of the House of Commons back in London.
"It's rather like a messy divorce in which the embittered parents, both totally confident of the justice of their case, drag the child into their vicious wrangling," says writer Kevin Sinclair of the South China Morning Post.
As things stand now, there may be two essentially separate ceremonies. For Britain, the big day will be June 30, the last day of its 156-year administration. It hopes to turn the day into a grand event with bands, parades, and possibly the Prince of Wales officiating.
China is in no mood for such end-of-empire theatrics. Nor do Chinese officials plan to sit by and listen as the British recount their past glories. The Chinese would like a quick toast and a brisk business-like handshake followed by the governor's prompt exit from the airport by helicopter to a waiting British naval vessel.
"What's there to celebrate?" asks Tsang Yok Sing, a leader of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. He says Hong Kong became British only after China's humiliating defeat in the Opium War in 1841.
For China, the real celebration is July 1, the first full day of sovereignty. That day and the following day have been declared public holidays. July 1 will remain on Hong Kong's new list of regular holidays. This is the day that China's top leaders, including President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, plan to fly in to preside over the inauguration of a new chief executive and government.
Many of the old revolutionaries say they can't die in peace until they have been able to witness the glorious event with their own eyes.
It is unlikely, however, that Deng Xiaoping, who negotiated Hong Kong's return, will be flown in for the ceremony. He hasn't appeared in public in two years.
China would like to attract world leaders to help celebrate what it considers a righting of an old wrong. But because the transition will feature the installation of a controversial unelected provisional legislature, many leaders in the West may decline, a snub that Chinese will remember and and resent.
In the end, Britain and China will no doubt agree on some formula for a dignified departure. It will be proper and correct but, as things stand now, not very joyful.