Orders of the Day — Hong Kong

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:44 am on 10th March 1988.

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Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Motherwell South 1:44 am, 10th March 1988

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) for raising this matter again soon after our last debate. In the intervening period the White Paper has been published. Therefore, we can now debate the plans as set out for Hong Kong over the next three years. My hon. Friend has been helpful in setting out some of the proposals in the draft Basic Law.

A number of the basic assumptions that the Foreign Secretary made in our last debate need to be spelt out, clearly understood and largely agreed. The first proposition is that Hong Kong has prospered best when China and Britain have been in harmony, and that is undoubtedly true. The second proposition is that there has to be a degree of consistency in the Basic Law that will govern the future of Hong Kong after 1997.

It is true, as my hon. Friend said, that the Basic Law is a matter for the People's Republic of China. To judge from some of my hon. Friend's remarks, it appears that he was asked by some representatives from the People's Republic of China what on earth this House was doing debating the Basic Law when the matter was solely for China. Indeed, I was telephoned and asked that question. I said that it was a matter for China, but that the House—in common with other free, democratic assemblies—can debate what it likes. It is not dictated to, least of all by the Government, as to what it can or cannot debate.

We must reaffirm that the Basic Law is essentially a matter for China, and any comments that we make should be frank, friendly, I hope outspoken, and, as my hon. Friend said, a reflection of our domestic and constitutional experience here and elsewhere throughout the world. If the essential objectives of our Government and, more important, of the People's Republic and of the people of Hong Kong are to safeguard the future interests of Hong Kong, further thought must be given to the Basic Law. The White Paper proposals are extremely disappointing.

Hong Kong must be governed in a way that works in three essential respects. First, the integrity of the Government must be maintained and free from corruption. The Government must be vested with authority that is respected by the people of Hong Kong. Secondly, that Government must be socially responsible. They must care for the social well-being and welfare of the people. They have already demonstrated that care in a number of ways, and their housing policy, health policy and, to an extent, education policy are quite extraordinary. Thirdly, the Government must be efficient. They must deliver. When one visits the various departments of the Hong Kong Government, one cannot but be impressed with their efficiency. We would look with envy at certain efficiencies.

From our experience and the role of British people in the government of Hong Kong, it is clear that the maintenance of those three characteristics of integrity, social responsibility and efficiency requires constitutional developments of a nature that have not yet taken place. Those characteristics have been safeguarded by the long stop of the responsibility that our Government have had for many years for the government of Hong Kong, during which time Hong Kong has established itself as a community. We have had a democratic tradition that has been brought to bear in the appointment of the Governor, the terms within which he is expected to operate and the tradition that people from this country have gone out to govern Hong Kong.

It is right that that should be changed after 1997. The traditions will then stem from within China, and it is right that that should be so. The great strengths and resources in the history and tradition of China will give new strength to the Government of Hong Kong. Again, if one considers the history of government in China, there must he an awareness of the difficulty, in such a vast continent of peoples, of maintaining the relationships between the centre and the many provinces in a way that preserves the authority of the centre, but enables the special administrative regions, of which Hong Kong will be one, to function efficiently.

Hong Kong is a unique animal which the People's Republic of China will be inheriting. It will have characteristics which, at present, other special administrative regions do not have. It will have overseas links. It will have vast financial and economic power, which will be vested in the hands of some very powerful and rich individuals, who will have a powerful incentive to seek to influence decisions, not only in Hong Kong, but stretching back to Beijing. In the past it has been easy for corruption to seep into the system. One asks the People's Republic of China what defence it has in Beijing to stop corruption from being generated in Hong Kong and spreading back into the Republic.

In our experience, incomparably the best safeguard against corruption in the long term is democracy and a law firmly rooted in the democratic procedures and support of the legislature. That needs to be established in a mode that can cope with the characteristics and complexities of Hong Kong society.

If one considers the behaviour of the stock exchange and of the enormous infrastructural developments that are going on in Hong Kong — for example, the huge contracts that are let — one sees that there is an administrative structure that needs to be monitored, kept in check, and watched by the proper political machinery. That is not yet in place in a way that can survive after 1997.

I say most seriously, not out of any particular respect for the Government or the House, but out of concern for the well-being and good government of China, that it is in the interests of the People's Republic of China to think carefully about how to safeguard its integrity by a proper democratic base within Hong Kong.

The other point that needs to be made, not only about Hong Kong, but about the People's Republic of China itself, is about the quite extraordinary pace of change in the Republic. The rate of change politically, economically and socially is huge. In parts of China it is at least as fast as it is in Hong Kong, and the China of 1997 will be very different from the China of 1988. If we find that Hong Kong is frozen in a mode because it is stuck with the Basic Law which represents a view which, perhaps, has been drawn more from the past of China than from China's future needs, China itself will not be well served.

There is considerable diversity within the present arrangements for the government of provinces and special administrative regions in China. They continue to develop. It is quite wrong to suppose that development will stop in 1997 in China or Hong Kong, or in the way in which China governs Hong Kong. But Britain and the House would not be fair to the people of Hong Kong or the People's Republic if we left things as they are now. We need, rather, to point a way ahead in which developments in Hong Kong and in its relations with China can continue, so that up to and beyond 1997 developments will continue in a way that will give Hong Kong a splendid future and bring China much more fully into touch with the rest of the world. That is something in which Hong Kong has a special role to play.

It would be helpful if the Minister could underline the point about continuing development. The 1997 proposals are by no means the last word on the direction in which things are moving or the distance that we shall travel in that direction. Probably the most important thing that the Government can give now is confidence in continued development.