LANTAU'S 26.4-metre bronze Buddha ''symbolises close co-operation between China and Hong Kong as well as the unity of the Chinese people'', Beijing's senior representative in the territory said yesterday. Director of Xinhua (the New China News Agency), Zhou Nan, told the 10,000 guests from all over the world at yesterday's inauguration that the statue, sitting with its back to the South China Sea, but facing China, implied ''the loyalty'' of the people inHong Kong to the motherland. He said the Buddha, having been designed in Hong Kong and built on the mainland, was the fruit of their close co-operation. Mr Zhou said religious freedom in Hong Kong after 1997 would be assured. ''The Chinese Government has always upheld the policy of religious freedom for the people . . . the Basic Law stipulates clearly that when Hong Kong returns to its motherland in 1997, Hong Kong residents will enjoy religious freedom as before. ''The future Special Administrative Region government will protect this right.'' He said contacts between Buddhists in Hong Kong and the mainland would be ''further strengthened''. The Buddhist Association of China had sent a 70-strong delegation for week-long rites and prayers for the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, China and the world which preceded the inauguration. In his speech, Governor Chris Patten stressed the importance of religious freedom saying it was ''one of the hallmarks of our own civilised society''. ''It recognises that every human being, whatever their achievements or for that matter whatever their infirmities, reflects the majesty of the infinite and the wonder of the unknown.'' He said ''the statue is a shared ground of optimism and sense of spirituality and gives life itself hope and purpose''. Mr Zhou and Mr Patten stood on either side of the president of the Buddhist Association of China, Zhao Pu-chu, to cut the ribbon marking the opening. The two-hour ceremony passed off almost without incident, but the crowd of spectators was smaller than predicted and there were none of the problems feared. But, police are bracing for another mini-invasion of Lantau at the weekend as thousands more people visit the site. Charles Mitchell, company commander of the police tactical unit on duty at the monastery, said: ''It has gone very well. The crowd was much smaller than we expected. ''We think about 10,000 people came by public transport, while we had been told to expect 20,000, 30,000 or even 40,000.'' For Senior Superintendent Morgan Majurey, district commander (marine island), and the 250 policemen in his command said it was a quiet day. ''The crowd were peaceful and it was a pleasant ceremony,'' he said. He said the crowd dispersed peacefully and the site was back to normal by about 4.30 pm. But he said about the same number of people would be back again on Saturday and Sunday. One monk had overheated standing motionless during the ceremony, but he soon recovered when he was given glucose. The monastery gave away free vegetarian packed lunches and the volunteers handed out bottles of mineral water and buns to the pilgrims as they queued for an hour in the sunshine waiting for the statue to be opened.