NO event of its kind can have been arranged so far in advance. Thirteen years passed between the day Britain announced that Hong Kong would return to China and the night when the Special Administrative Region was born. But, despite the years and the preparations, the handover still represented the opening of the door into an unknowable future. For all the words in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law and the proclamation of 'one country, two systems', what it amounted to in practice was as uncertain as the summer weather. Though there was little anti-British feeling, even bitter critics of the mainland regime welcomed the end of colonialism. However, precisely what rejoining China meant was less than clear. Pro-Beijing figures sounded a patriotic note, and the Chief Executive would shortly urge the people of the SAR to be more Chinese. But, given the nature of the place and its achievements - and the promise that the Hong Kong system would be maintained - one came back to the question of what it was to be a citizen of Hong Kong. That was a question people had not had to confront during the colonial period, but now it faced them as the PLA arrived and the Prince of Wales and the last Governor, Chris Patten, sailed out of the harbour. Not that it was a question the new administration and most of the SAR establishment wished to address. Instead, they liked to stress that it was business as usual, as if nothing had changed. Indeed, the predictions of tanks in the streets and mass migration by expatriates, of democrats in jail and censors in newspaper offices were not borne out. But how could such a vibrant, internationally minded place go from being a colony of a liberal democracy to a region of the last major communist power on Earth without redefining itself? Was Hong Kong to become just another Chinese city, richer than any other but hewing to Deng Xiaoping's categorising of it as an economic, not a political, place? Or was it to become a beacon of freedom in a political monolith? Was the SAR bound by the canons of the Basic Law, or could it conduct an experiment in democratic growth and accountability? How would the rule of law fare if the courts found against the Government or against the wishes of Beijing? And, unforeseen on July 1 but soon to engulf us all, was its economy sufficiently robust to withstand the economic crisis and recession? Economic crisis apart, the portents of change were remarkably encapsulated in the events of the 12 hours as June 30 became July 1. First, and most obvious, was the emotional farewell of the last Governor, the hauling down of the flag at Government House, Mr Patten's speech in the rain and the way he slumped as he regained his seat. Britain was gone, and whatever the assurances, no realist could have expected London to have much effect on our fate from then on. There was the presence of President Jiang Zemin and National People's Congress chairman Li Peng, the PLA driving in through the night and the national banner being raised across town. People might have preferred to dwell on the preservation of the two systems, but one country came first in the formula, with all that entailed as Beijing's selected man was sworn in. There was the dissolution of the elected legislature and the swearing in of its appointed successor. There was the seamless transition of policy secretaries from one regime to the next, which was a source of stability and built confidence, but which also meant that officials now found themselves defending the provisional legislature as they had previously defended democratic reform. Outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the demonstrators stood in the rain, their chants drowned out by Beethoven on the loudspeakers, free to shout but unheard by those with power. On the balcony of the Legislative Council, Martin Lee Chu-ming led a 'we will be back' stand, attracting much attention from the media but equally impotent to affect the process of change. The democratisation of Hong Kong - in the broadest sense - began well before Mr Patten put through his reforms. Now, it was being reversed. Executive-led government took on its old meaning. True, elections would be held 10 months later to replace the provisional legislature, but nobody could have much doubt that the outcome would not properly reflect the ballots cast for pro-democracy politicians. When one pro-democracy leader said all he would be able to do would be to 'make noise', attention shifted to the Chief Justice who was being sworn in during the early morning. With democratic accountability far down the road, the courts looked like the main check on the power of the executive. Despite the absence of any pro-democracy members in the legislature, the 'business as usual' slogan could be trumpeted and the image portrayed to a relieved world that Hong Kong was still Hong Kong, a unique place with a unique destiny. Much of that was true. It is easy to forget how unusual the status of the SAR is. Which other region of a unitary state has its own constitution, its own currency, its own central bank, its own legal structure, its own tax system, and its own civil service? In which other country do you have to dial an international code to speak to the capital? Unlike the inhabitants of the rest of the country they rejoined, the people of Hong Kong have human rights, freedom of movement, freedom to put their money where they wish in any currency they choose, freedom of speech, of the press, of expression and worship, and freedom to gather in Victoria Park on June 4. The guarantees of all that, and more, made the handover unique in the saga of decolonisation. This was neither independence nor complete absorption. The throng of dignitaries in the newly-completed Convention Centre was clearly unbalanced by any normal measurement. What, precisely, did Tung Chee-hwa represent? Why was nobody there from the parties that had done so well at the 1995 election? Thirty months on, many of the questions of 1997 remain unanswered. It may be in the nature of the SAR that they are unanswerable. But that does not make them any less pertinent, particularly in view of the past year. The most popular elected politicians remain with little effective influence, the administration puts a premium on country above system, the courts have been made subject to the decisions of a mainland political body, a major project has been given out without tender, a prominent establishment figure has escaped being brought to trial, immigration officers have acted as surrogates for mainland authorities. For all the speeches, photographs and lyrical prose, real change is rarely put through in the full glare of ceremony like the night of Hong Kong's handover. More often, it is a matter of the incremental addition of decisions, a series of shifts that pass by in the rush of daily events and can only be properly assessed later. The watching world may have expected something dramatic on July 1, but that was never going to happen. The executive had all the time in the world to see Hong Kong evolve as it wishes, to see the judicial atmosphere change and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong rise to challenge the Democrats, to usher in its approved interpretations of the Basic Law and to mould the economy. Given the start made along those roads, one is tempted to say that the real handover was not on July 1, 1997, but is only starting now.