Orders of the Day — Hong Kong

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:10 am on 10th March 1988.

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Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek , Wrexham 1:10 am, 10th March 1988

I am pleased to be able to open this short debate on an important topic, which concerns what happens to our largest remaining colony.

With Hong Kong, we have not been able to do what we have been able to do with many of the other countries which were colonies but which, through self-determination, achieved independence and were able subsequently to look after their own affairs. In 1997, Hong Kong will again become a part of China.

Governments of both parties in the United Kingdom have not sought to introduce any form of democracy in Hong Kong, certainly in this century. The reason is probably that it was not expedient to do so. The Administration were more capable, and had an easier time, governing the colony if there was no problem of democracy — because democracy always causes problems. It is not necessarily as efficient as a benevolent dictatorship, and in recent times it was not encouraged because of what might happen on the mainland of China. Whatever the reason, democracy was not the number one priority for the British Government.

All that has changed, or ought to have changed, in the past few years — not because we do not want Hong Kong to be transferred peacefully, properly, efficiently and optimally to China in 1997, but because we should recognise, belatedly, that we owe the people of Hong Kong some democracy. We should leave them with that legacy—a legacy that can be provided by the Basic Law that will be promulgated by the People's Republic of China in two years' time.

The Prime Minister went to China in the early 1980s with a flea in her ear. When she came back, following the new realism, she had realised what was necessary: diplomacy, negotiation and consultation. The result was the joint declaration, which everyone in the House probably agrees is a remarkable document, principally because of what China was prepared to allow. It is clear that, if China wanted Hong Kong back tomorrow, there would be no question but that the United Kingdom would say anything other than "Certainly. Give us three hours to leave." But China has not said that. China was able to negotiate with the present Government and produce a joint declaration. If the next nine years go the right way, that declaration ought to allow Hong Kong to be transferred in the best way possible to become a special autonomous region in China.

Many results flow from the joint declaration, but I want to deal principally with the constitution, the legislature and the elections in the first part of what I have to say. In the second part, I should like to deal with the draft Basic Law, of which I have a more or less up-to-date copy.

The White Paper produced by the Hong Kong Administration said that direct elections for the legislature were to be introduced not this year but in 1991. For the life of me, I cannot understand why that should be the case. On page 12 of the White Paper, it says: Nevertheless there is a strong argument against moving too quickly in this direction. Then it talks about there not being enough official members in the Legislative Council but it really does not give a logical argument why there should not be direct elections introduced for some of the members of the Legislative Council in 1988.

One has to square that with what is in the joint declaration. Paragraph 3(2) said: The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be directly under the authority of the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People's Government. That is absolutely right. I do not think that any hon. Member would dissent from that.

It goes on: The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. I mention that now because it is an important part of the joint declaration. It talks about the Hong Kong special administrative region being vested with executive and legislative power. It can do that only if the legislature has some of that power.

Of course, there will be a chief executive who will propose, but there must be checks and balances. They may be there now but they must be seen to be there by the people of Hong Kong when the Basic Law is promulgated.

Paragraph 3(4) says: The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be composed of local inhabitants. The chief executive will be appointed by the Central People's Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally. Annex 1, paragraph 3, says: The legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be constituted by elections. The executive authorities shall abide by the law and shall be accountable to the legislature. I hope that hon. Members will bear in mind that the chief executive and the other executive authorities, besides abiding by the law, shall he accountable to the legislature. In particular, the previous sentence says: The legislature … shall be constituted by elections. It does not specify how the elections will take place and what type of elections they will be, but it would be to misconstrue the meaning in the joint declaration if the definition is such that those elections will be constrained so that only a few people in Hong Kong will be able to partake in the election of the legislature or if those who elect the legislature require certain qualifications.

No system of representative democracy is perfect and it is a matter of seeking the optimum that can be achieved. That would be 100 per cent. direct elections based on the principle of one person, one vote. There should be no quarrel with that. It is amazing that the Government have shown such reticence about that, saying that 1988 was not the time but perhaps they might be achieved by 1991. Indeed, the White Paper says that in 1991, 10 directly elected members will be introduced into the Legislative Council.

There may be various reasons for that reticence. One could be that the Foreign Secretary wishes to hand over Hong Kong to Beijing as quietly as possible and at as easy a time as possible. If there was too much discussion about what elections should be held in Hong Kong and there became a desire in Hong Kong to have elections, that might create difficulties.

Another reason could be that the Foreign Secretary is afraid of what China will say. I accept that China has a say in this and that under the joint declaration the Basic Law is solely China's responsibility, but we can try to get the legislature of Hong Kong as close as is possible to the ideal expressed in the joint declaration before 1997. There will he not any direct elections to LegCo this year, but having 10 elected members in 1991 is making haste slowly. That is not understood by many people in Hong Kong.

Even the Hong Kong chamber of commerce said in its submission to the survey office that 80 per cent. of the people who replied wanted some form of direct elections to the legislature. The White Paper suggests merely 10 members in 1991 and no more than that afterwards. Those 10 are in advance of what will be in the Basic Law. I hope that the Basic Law will say that many more directly elected members will be in LegCo in 1997.

I have another disappointment with the White Paper relating to the balance of power. Even in 1991 the number of appointed and official members in the Legislative Council will outweigh those members who are directly elected, or elected from functional constituencies. I know that democracy is inconvenient, but it is carrying it too far for the Government not to allow a majority membership in LegCo in 1997. The White Paper clearly says that it is not envisaged, but the balance will be 30 to 26. It will be at least 1994 before we have a majority of elected members who can speak because they are elected by a functional constituency, or elected directly.

At present the appointed members are not just toadies of the Governor, who put up their hands whenever the Governor suggests something. Of course, they know their own minds and speak independently, so it is no slight on appointed members, but democracy must be seen to exist, and it is not being seen to exist when there is a majority of appointed and official members in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong.

Why the timidity? I can only think that the Foreign Secretary either wants a quiet life and thinks Hong Kong is asleep, that the people who arc questioning are very few and far between and, although they may make a lot of noise, most people in Hong Kong are not listening to him; or perhaps he is scared of what the People's Republic of China might say if he were bold and introduced too much democracy.