Hong Kong

Petitions – in the House of Commons at 10:32 pm on 31st October 1983.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch 10:35 pm, 31st October 1983

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing this debate to take place. I also thank many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and Opposition Members for staying to listen. I am particularly pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), because he so ably led the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to the People's Republic of China last year, and he takes a close interest in this matter.

I have a problem. Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have asked whether they can participate in the debate. They will realise that it is impossible to allow that in a 30-minute debate. I hope that my right hon. Friend the member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker), as chairman of the Anglo-Hong Kong parliamentary group, will be able to participate. That is all that is possible if the Minister is to reply.

We have just listened to a debate about missiles and the future of mankind. For over 5 million people Hong Kong represents a more immediate problem—the problem of their future. It is customary to declare an interest, but to try not to make it sound like an advertisement. I am chairman of the British-Chinese parliamentary group and I make no bones of my wish to foster good relations between Britain and the People's Republic of China. I am connected with the Holiday Inn hotel group, but I have no financial or commercial interest in, or attachment to, the two Holiday Inn hotels in Hong Kong. I occasionally write books, one about steam engines in China being due out shortly.

It is ironic that since this debate was announced, television, radio and the press in Hong Kong have been consumed with interest, but the United Kingdom media have taken almost no notice of it. The future of Hong Kong is at stake, and yet its people are merely observers of the talks. The United Kingdom is responsible, but the level of awareness and interest beyond this House is not as great as it might be. It is about time that the importance of the matter was reflected by the subject being raised here.

I reminded of the days before the Football Association changed its rules, when players could be transferred between clubs without being consulted about their future. Many people in Hong Kong are frustrated and unhappy because they have no real voice in the talks. In Beijing, Hong Kong and London, people are worried about the problem, but only here at Westminster is it possible to have an open debate in a legislature with power of decision.

The timing of the debate is mine, or Mr. Speaker's. It is not the British Government's choice, the Hong Kong Government's choice or the choice of the People's Republic of China. I make no apology for raising an important subject.

It is suggested that there is annoyance in Hong Kong at my seeking the debate at this time, although the Minister has never expressed such an opinion. The Hong Kong establishment is not accustomed to the pressures and practices of a free parliament. It is right that this subject should at least appear on our agenda.

I am told that I am most unpopular British politician in Hong Kong, with the possible exception of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The reason is that I do my best to confront people with reality rather than to fill their ears with platitudes. It is a delusion to believe that change in Hong Kong can be avoided, but we have no reason to assume that change has to be damaging.

Britain and China are old nations with a history of conflict that has long since changed to one of close cooperation. The two nations are still very different. Britain is a society of documents and lawyers and has a different concept of dealing with the problem from that of China. Therefore, mutual understanding is important and is not just a phrase.

Our objective should be to secure for the people of Hong Kong constitutional arrangements that would enable them to continue to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed. There is no reason to believe that this objective is unattainable. That is what Her Majesty's Government want, and it is what the Government of the People's Republic of China want. There are, however, dangerous rocks of miscalculation and shallows of misunderstanding that have to be avoided at all costs.

I have no intention of trying to usurp the negotiations, but this issue must be raised here because recent events in the world have shown us the need, if possible, to avoid the element of surprise, which is not conducive to the conduct of international relations. Therefore, I should like to avoid the situation of the House of Commons being presented with circumstances that some may find surprising in a year or two. I have been rereading the treaty of Nanjing during the recess, which is not one of the most glorious episodes of British history, with its enshrinement of our right to sell opium, and the exemption of British citizens from Chinese justice. Perhaps the only virtue to be found in the treaty is that it had united the former Kuomintang regime and the present Communist Government in China in their view of what they have always regarded as an unequal treaty. They also so regard the later treaties dealing with Kowloon and the New Territories.

The question is how best to deal with a situation that seems unique. That is the most overworked word in the English language, but it is hard to find any other. One thing upon which we can all agree is that it is better to have jaw-jaw than war-war. One thing that gives me comfort is that if, in the fervour of liberation and revolution, followed by the clamour of the cultural revolution, the Government in China did not use force to get their way, whatever their way may have been, over Hong Kong, we can safely assume that negotiation is the way ahead now. The only analogy that I can see to any other unequal treaty is that of Suez, and fortunately China is a great deal more patient than was Nasser.

China and Britain share the same objective, but the atmosphere of pessimism that is pervading Hong Kong needs to be dispelled. The relationship of Britain and China through Hong Kong gives us a unique opportunity to work with the Chinese, a better opportunity than that enjoyed by other countries to develop links, and an excellent position from which to develop mutual confidence and respect. Let us regard the Hong Kong link as a bond for strength, and the Hong Kong position as a bridge, not a barrier. The main need is to avoid misunderstanding and a misreading of the signals. The sooner the problem of sovereignty is settled, the sooner the positive aspects of the situation can be developed. My hon. Friend the Minister knows my views on that aspect, so I shall not repeat them tonight.

Two essential factors have a vital influence on the progress of the discussions, and both are wrapped up with the history of China. The first relates to unequal treaties. China does not recognise the treaty and does not recognise that British sovereignity exists legally. It does not accept that British administration is necessary to maintain stability, or that Britain is "more concerned" for the welfare of the Chinese citizens of Hong Kong than are the Chinese Government.

I make these points because it is important that we should have an understanding of what is in the mind of the person with whom we are negotiating. A bland statement of fact to us can be seen by other people as a direct insult, and I can give examples. Somebody might say, in this House or outside, "China needs Hong Kong for her currency earnings." We read this phrase all the time. It is a statement to which many do not take exception. However, another interpretation can be put on that statement when it is heard through Chinese ears—"The People's Republic of China is dependent on a colonialist capitalist regime for its welfare." Then people here might say, "We are nervous of any agreement not sufficiently guaranteed because we do not know what sort of Government there will be in Beijing in 10 or 20 years. We do not know what that Government may do." Let me rephrase that through the ears of a Chinese in Beijing. It would sound as though we were saying "We cannot trust the Government of the People's Republic to honour their word."

The British Government have what the Prime Minister has described as a moral responsibility for the people of Hong Kong. But the Chinese Government have a responsibility also. So, if I could arrogantly presume to give advice to both sides in the negotiations, it would be "Watch your words."

The second point of history on which I wish briefly to touch is Taiwan. For the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong is an untidy hangover of history, but Taiwan is unfinished business of the revolution. The People's Republic wants a peaceful settlement in Hong Kong. Its ability to show the people of Taiwan that the People's Republic can regain sovereignty and retain stability, while allowing separate arrangements to continue, is its number one priority. For that reason, the Kuomintang regime in Taiwan is extremely fearful of a peaceful and satisfactory conclusion to the negotiations between Britain and China over Hong Kong. There are many agents of Taiwan in Hong Kong who are doing their best to frustrate the success of the talks.

Since the end of the cultural revolution, China has emerged as a very different country under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Years ago I lived in Malaya and Thailand—two countries with large Chinese populations. In those days China was seen as the great ogre. Everyone in south-east Asia feared the Chinese. I recently had the pleasure of a conversation with Siddhi Savetsila, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Thailand—a country that was once in the vanguard of fear over China. He is an interesting man. He told me that he has total trust in Deng Xiaoping. He and his Government, like many other Governments, have moved from regarding China as a source of destabilisation in the region to regarding it as a source of stability. Indeed, China is a barrier to Soviet aggression and expansion. What is happening in Afghanistan, and through the Russians' Vietnamese clients in Kampuchea, shows why some of the countries in south east Asia are so fearful of the Soviet Union and look to China to stand up to the Soviet Union.

Photo of Mr Paul Bryan Mr Paul Bryan , Booth Ferry

Everything that my hon. Friend has said so far must be known, and more than known, by Sir Percy Cradock and Sir Edward Youde, who are carrying out the negotiations. What fault can my hon. Friend find in the way in which they are conducting the negotiations?

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

I made it clear that I was not seeking to conduct negotiations this evening. Not all our colleagues and constituents have had the benefit of discussions with Sir Percy Cradock and Sir Edward Youde and their colleagues. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. It is important that in this House, and to a wider audience outside, we put the question of Hong Kong on to the parliamentary agenda. I have no wish to criticise those conducting the negotiations; they are two of our most excellent diplomats.

Britain has helped to create an extraordinary place called Hong Kong. Almost 99 per cent. of its citizens are Chinese. Our great failure over the years has been the failure to provide any democratic institutions to enable them to determine their future. The Government are responsible in their negotiations with the Government of the People's Republic of China for the framework for their future. I have suggested that misunderstanding or troublemakers could frustrate the emergence of a satisfactory outcome. In due course the Government must present this House with proposals to amend or annul the treaty of Nanjing. It would be best for the House not to be taken by surprise. In a phrase, the less drama the better.

I fully support the Government's wish to keep the details of the negotiations secret. I recognise that asking people in Hong Kong to be patient is not easy. One reason why I wished to raise the matter tonight is to let the people of Hong Kong know that we are aware of and care about their future.

No fair-minded person could possibly doubt that the Prime Minister's sole objective is to do what she believes is best to secure an agreement acceptable to the people of Hong Kong, to the Government of the People's Republic of China and to this House. As the future of the people of Hong Kong rests in reality in the hands of the Government in Beijing, it is essential to ensure that we enable them to achieve this shared objective.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Is the Minister content that the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) should intervene in the debate?

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

I am glad to have this opportunity to intervene briefly in this important debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley).

China and the United Kingdom have a strong common interest in Hong Kong remaining prosperous and if it is to remain prosperous it must retain its traditional way of life. I think from what he said that I carry my hon. Friend with me on that. The prosperity of Hong Kong, so remarkably achieved, is of great advantage to the people of Hong Kong who have created for themselves under British guidance a standard of living better than that of almost any other country in Asia. It is a great advantage to China because China derives a high percentage of her foreign exchange through Hong Kong. It is of advantage to the United Kingdom because Hong Kong is one of our best export markets in Asia. This common interest provides grounds for optimism about the outcome of the present negotiations.

The United Kingdom has an obligation and a commitment to secure a satisfactory solution for Hong Kong's future. I believe that Parliament will support Her Majesty's Government in the efforts they are making to that end and, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, Parliament in Westminster will have to pronounce on the agreement which in due course will be achieved.

It is useful that a dialogue is taking place between the members of the Executive Council and Her Majesty's Government. There have been a number of meetings between those parties. The members of the Executive Council, because of their wide experience and knowledge and because of the structure of government in Hong Kong, are in a good position to assess the feelings of the people and to know what is necessary to maintain confidence.

The issue has been debated whether it is right for Her Majesty's Government to maintain silence about the content of the negotiations. I believe it is indeed right that Her Majesty's Government should continue to regard the talks as confidential. Complicated points will be discussed in the negotiations as we get deeper into them. They will involve complex and detailed matters, and that is an added reason why the Government should continue to observe confidentiality. That is the best guarantee of success.

Photo of Mr Richard Luce Mr Richard Luce , Shoreham 10:54 pm, 31st October 1983

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) on securing this Adjournment debate on Hong Kong and my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir Peter Blaker) on his contribution to it. They both have a distinctive contribution to make to the debate on the future of Hong Kong—one in his capacity as chairman of the British-Chinese parliamentary group, and the other in his capacity as chairman of the British-Hong Kong parliamentary group. Their contribution goes beyond that because they have shown a strong interest in Hong Kong and in connection with our relations with China. My right hon. Friend has, like me, been Minister of State in charge of Hong Kong affairs and knows a great deal about the subject.

The remarkably high attendance for the debate shows the importance that the House attaches to the future of Hong Kong. I am sure that it reflects the great anxiety on all our parts to ensure that a solution acceptable to the people of Hong Kong, to the Government of China, to the British Government and, ultimately, of greatest possible importance, to the British Parliament, is reached.

That is our objective. I repeat that our aim is to find a solution which is acceptable to the British Government, to China and to the people of Hong Kong. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South said, at the end of the day the solution which we hope will be arrived at will be put before this House, and it will be this House which will have to decide whether that solution is acceptable. That is an important safeguard which it is important for me to stress on this occasion.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch—most, if not all, hon. Members present tonight will agree—that there is an overwhelming desire on the part of the people at all levels in Hong Kong—in the villages, in the New Territories, in the urban city areas, at a humble or very senior level to see continuity of their way of life. I found that when I visited Hong Kong recently. That means the continuation of stability, the continuation of prosperity, freedom of speech and worship, an independent judiciary—all the factors that go to make up stability. That was brought home forcibly to me during my visit and I know from what my hon. Friends have said, that they feel it too.

I sense that there is an understanding of why it is important that the talks should remain confidential, as was agreed between the British and Chinese Governments originally. Looking over our history this century, it is clear that one cannot negotiate in public without the serious risk that those negotiations will not succeed, and we want these negotiations to succeed in the interests of the people of Hong Kong as well as those of China and Britain. I believe that there is an understanding here and in Hong Kong that the talks must remain confidential. It may be frustrating for hon. Members and the people of Hong Kong not to know the precise details of what is happening in the negotiations and what is the British and Chinese posture, but it would be counter-productive if we were to start negotiating in public.

There have been various important phases to the talks and we are now embarked on a more detailed phase. The talks are at present being conducted in a sensible and friendly atmosphere. The last communique emanating from the talks at the end of October said that they were "useful and constuctive", and they were precisely that. At this stage I should say, prior to the next round of talks on 14 and 15 November in Peking, that I have nothing but praise for the ability and skill of the leader of the British team, Sir Percy Cradock, supported marvellously by the able Governor of Hong Kong, who is a member of the British team, Sir Edward Youde. They both have conducted their part with the greatest possible skill and the British Government have great confidence in them.

It is important to state at this stage—I have tried to explain this to the people of Hong Kong—that if we want a solution which is right for them and for us all, we cannot expect a quick decision and solution. It will take time, though it is difficult to ask the people of Hong Kong to exercise patience because understandably they are uncertain about their future. We must aim for the right solution. If it is necessary to take time to find the right solution, then time there must be. No time limit must be imposed on the talks. We must try to conclude them as far as we possibly can, but we must not allow ourselves to be rushed.

Photo of Mr Hilary Miller Mr Hilary Miller , Bromsgrove

My right hon. Friend refers to the aim of the talks as being to secure a satisfactory solution to the future of Hong Kong. Can he confirm, without infringing confidentiality, that the future extends past 1997 and does not end at 1997? Has any thought yet been given to how to test whether that solution is acceptable to the people of Hong Kong and how that test might be evolved?

Photo of Mr Richard Luce Mr Richard Luce , Shoreham

I am aware of my hon. Friend's close interest in these matters. We acknowledge the facts that surround 1997 and we acknowledge the sovereignty position. We are seeking a long-term solution that is acceptable to the people of Hong Kong as well as to the Chinese Government and the British Government. The testing of opinion in Hong Kong is obviously important.

The talks are being conducted against a background of friendly relations between ourselves and China. There is much co-operation between our Government and the Chinese Government. We are co-operating in oil developments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is to be in China from 3 to 8 November to discuss a range of important energy co-operation matters. There is co-operation through Cable and Wireless between the Chinese Government and the British Government in developing communications. There are no fewer than 625 Chinese students in Britain. The broad framework of our relations is close and we see eye to eye on many important international issues. It is against that background that the discussions are being conducted.

We are committed to the people of Hong Kong and to finding a solution which is acceptable to them and which will enable their way of life, which they cherish, to continue. It is true that they do not have the sort of democratic institutions that we have seen in other parts of the world for which we have had responsibility. Despite that, there has evolved in Hong Kong a remarkably sophisticated range of methods of consultation. That is so from the Executive Council through the Legislative Council down to the urban councils and district boards. Those bodies have an element of elections in them, including those which deal with day-to-day problems. It is important for us to remember and to recognise how sophisticated that system is. I was struck by that during my recent visit at the end of September and I made a point of ensuring that I heard the views of all the various bodies. I attached the highest importance to that.

It is understandable that there is a feeling of uncertainty among people in Hong Kong. We must do our best to put ourselves into their position. They are wondering about their future and it is understandable that they feel uncertain. It is our task to reassure them that our primary objective is to work for a solution that is acceptable to them. Despite the fact that the dollar has been shaky—the Governor has taken measures to stabilise it—there are some healthy signs. Exports have been increasing dramatically from Hong Kong to other countries. A real mark of confidence in Hong Kong on the part of the Hong Kong Government is the tremendous increase in public expenditure in the Hong Kong infrastructure. There is a mass of trade missions between Britain and Hong Kong which I hope will lead to further activity. All these and many other factors show that there is still a great deal of confidence in Hong Kong despite all the difficulties about the future.

When I arrived in Hong Kong in September, I asked the people of Hong Kong to have confidence in themselves as we have confidence in their future. They must realise that we are working patiently and as hard as we can for a settlement which is acceptable to all sides, for we believe that that is truly in the interests of the people of Hong Kong as well as in the those of the Governments of China and of Great Britain.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Eleven o'clock.