Hong Kong

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:25 pm on 20th January 1988.

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Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley Sidcup 4:25 pm, 20th January 1988

I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to intervene in this important debate. Unfortunately, I was unavoidably prevented from hearing the first part of the Foreign Secretary's speech in which he paid tribute to Sir Edward Youde. I join him in that, as I knew Sir Edward Youde when he was ambassador in Beijing. He was our second ambassador there after we assumed complete diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, and he carried out an expert job in having working relationships with Mao Tse-Tung, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

When Sir Edward came to Hong Kong, he had a formidable task in following Lord MacLehose who had been governor there for 11 years and was immensely admired and respected, and had performed remarkable feats as governor of Hong Kong. However, Sir Edward assumed that task willingly and with great skill, in his own style, which was different from that of Lord MacLehose. His death was a tragedy and we should pay tribute to him for his achievements in Beijing and Hong Kong.

Before I come to the main question about elections, I wish to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary in saying a few words about the boat people. We must face the fact that that situation cannot continue. Those of us who have seen the camps are convinced that the Government of Hong Kong are doing absolutely everything possible to make them tolerable, but year after year children are growing up confined to those camps. That situation cannot be maintained. As we shall be responsible for Hong Kong for another nine years, we cannot allow a situation to continue in which so many young lives—they will soon become youths capable of work — are confined in camps. We cannot respectably hand over Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China with people kept in such conditions.

I do not believe that the People's Republic of China would allow such a situation to continue. Therefore, I urge my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, who has a compassionate nature, to recognise that year after year human lives are continuing, and young people are growing up in a situation which—however much the Hong Kong Government do—is intolerable.

I do not believe that it is impossible for Hong Kong to assimilate the numbers that are involved. A colony of 5 million people could absorb such a number; it is perfectly possible if it is handled properly. Britain certainly could take more people than it has already taken. Voices will always shout against that, but a country of 50 million people must be able to absorb more than we have been prepared to accept so far.

After all, when my Government — of which the Foreign Secretary was a member—faced problems with Uganda, we were able to absorb 25,000 Ugandan Asians in 10 days. They have proved themselves to be admirable working people. They have created their own private enterprises and have been immensely successful. I am not in a position to make a comparison between those people and the Vietnamese, but I am quite convinced that Hong Kong could handle the problem once the Governments of this country and Hong Kong made up their minds to do so.

The major point of the discussion today is elections. When we debated this matter on 5 December 1984, 1 congratulated my right hon. and learned Friend on the agreement that had been reached. I summed up my position by saying: Far greater than any danger of haste is the danger of not having fully representative working government with experience by the time the handover takes place." —[Official Report, 5 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 405.] That is still my view. There is a much greater danger of our dragging our feet than of being over-hasty.

For the remaining period before the handover, the all-important thing for Her Majesty's Government to consider is that we are still the Government of Hong Kong and that we have accepted our full responsibilities, placed upon us, with the full agreement of the People's Republic of China, for all the activities and particularly for the government of Hong Kong, until 1997. If we are to do that, we must show all the time that we are not only managing the affairs properly, but dealing with the problems that arise. There is no point in trying to hide the problems of Hong Kong, because everybody there knows about them only too well. There are problems with the stock exchange and scandals that have taken place in industry, commerce and within other activities in Hong Kong. They must be dealt with quickly and firmly if we are to demonstrate that we are still carrying out our responsibilities.

If we are to maintain the confidence of the people of Hong Kong we must show that we are still running the show properly. We cannot afford to let it gradually slip. If we do so—there is some evidence to suggest that people believe that that is already happening — the financial, commercial and industrial interests of Hong Kong will rapidly reach the conclusion that we will not carry out our part of the agreement reached between ourselves and the People's Republic of China. If they reach that conclusion, the prosperity of Hong Kong will fade away. That will be the test of whether we properly carry out our responsibilities under the agreement.

One of the questions open to discussion is that of elections. We should be able to hand over Hong Kong with a system of representative government. My right hon. and learned Friend has said that Hong Kong should develop its own system, and I entirely agree. However, it must be a system of representative government, and unless action is taken quickly now we shall be unable to hand over any form of experienced, representative government. I made that observation three years ago and now we have less than nine years left. As Members of this House, we know how long it takes to acquire the experience within the House to enable us to achieve anything individually within our parties or in government.

In Hong Kong the operation of a full system of government must be achieved in a short period of time and it is rapidly getting shorter and shorter. When my right hon. and learned Friend is considering the White Paper he must take that fact into account. The People's Republic of China accepted that a system of representative government would be established and it is committed to the continuation of that system for 50 years after the handover. Therefore, what we hand over is of vital importance. That lends emphasis to the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend should be prepared to take action, but in what direction?

Obviously, when a new constitution is being devised it would be wise to ensure that any action taken now should not be in conflict with it. I fully accept that. However, do we need to do anything that is in conflict with that constitution? I believe that the answer to that question is no.

The first option for consideration is extending the functional system of government in Hong Kong with internal elections, and that is fully acceptable to the People's Republic of China. Those who are considering constitutional developments within the People's Republic of China at the moment are undoubtedly thinking along those lines. However, they face enormous difficulties. When they talk about opening up China or its liberalisation they are talking about the economic development of the country and they are determined on that. However, when it comes to the liberalisation of political activities the attitude is different.

It is genuinely believed that, with more than 1 billion people, the country is not sufficiently developed or experienced to carry on an effective system of government. One can understand that. A crucial point will be reached — as we have seen in other countries — because with economic development and liberalisation there inevitably follows a demand for political liberalisation. That always represents the crux for any country that is trying to develop its economy and political institutions.

We could increase what I term the functional representation in Hong Kong at this moment and that would be carrying the territory in the direction that would be followed by the People's Republic of China. Secondly, I understand that there are options contained in the basic constitution, as presently shaped, that concern 25 per cent., 30 per cent. and 50 per cent. of the Legislative Council seats for election. If those options are already within the proposed Basic Law and are accepted by the People's Republic of China, I do not believe that we would be in conflict with the constitution if we moved on that path between now and when the Basic Law is accepted. If we were certain that the Basic Law would be effected in a year's time all would be well, but, as we know, such matters tend to drag on and on. It may well be 1991 or 1992 before the matter is settled. In that case, the time left before the handover would be even shorter—one could count the years on the fingers of one hand.

If such options were taken up, I do not believe that we would be pursuing a path that would be in conflict with the forthcoming constitution to be agreed between the People's Republic of China and Her Majesty's Government. If I am wrong, no doubt my right hon. and learned Friend will correct me in due course. If we are not in conflict, I believe that it is possible to advance. Therefore, there are two options available to us by which we can help to develop representative government in Hong Kong. We would then be able to hand the territory over in 1997 with a system that could continue, without further controversy, for the remaining 50 years to which the People's Republic of China will be committed.

When my right hon. and learned Friend is considering the White Paper, which is the importance of today's debate, he should recognise that, from the point of view of governmental experience, it is urgently necessary to develop a system of representative government in Hong Kong. Such a development would not be in conflict with the new constitution.

Therefore, it should be possible for us to advance along such a path without the People's Republic of China claiming that we are in any way infringing the undertakings that we have given. If we follow that path it will not be possible for the people of Hong Kong or any of our other friends to say that we are not carrying out the responsibilities that we have undertaken. If we do not infringe our undertakings or fail our responsibilities, it will be the best position for our Government.

The practical way in which the people of Hong Kong will respond to elections is a matter to be considered. I was not quite certain whether my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) was saying that 135,000 people represented a small or large number or whether it meant that people wanted elections or not. I do not mind which way my hon. Friend interprets it, because, when it comes to the point, it is up to the people to decide whether they wish to vote in elections. My own judgment is that the people of Hong Kong—the greater part of the 5 million inhabitants—are mainly concerned with getting on with their own business, which they do extremely well. That does not mean to say that they should not have representative government, especially when we have given such an undertaking.

My hon. Friend and I may agree—probably for the first time, but I hope not for the last—that the people of Hong Kong can carry on doing their own business and continue to be successful. However, progressively, there will be opportunities for those who want to vote in elections and form their own Government. We shall then hand over in 1997 not only a very successful Hong Kong, commercially and industrially, but one which is satisfied with its form of representative government which can then continue for 50 years until further changes come under the People's Republic of China.