Orders of the Day — Hong Kong

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:03 am on 10th March 1988.

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Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson , Hamilton 2:03 am, 10th March 1988

—involved in this debate. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones)— perhaps I may call him the hon. Member for Madrid, Central — and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are present, but I question whether their attention was focused directly on the amazing document that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham produced earlier.

I do not draw any conclusions from this lack of interest by Conservative Members. Were we having this debate at a more appropriate hour, I am sure that the Government Benches would be as crowded as they were when this matter was raised on 20 January and 10 February. I am sure that the House will continue to take its responsibilities towards Hong Kong with great seriousness. But the pace of change in that country troubles hon. Members. Conservative Members tend to stand loyally by Ministers when they discuss these issues. But we know that privately many of them also feel that a bolder movement forward would be appropriate in the present circumstances.

I remind the House that, in the exchanges on the statement and on 20 January, the suggestions made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) were modest in the extreme. An additional two directly elected members to the Legislative Council is hardly a revolutionary idea, yet the Hong Kong Government seem unwilling to contemplate such a change; and as that Government is a function of Her Majesty's Government, we must look to the Minister here to defend that view, even if we are critical about it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham questioned whether we should be discussing the Basic Law. He produced what he said was a copy of the draft Basic Law. We look forward to seeing further copies being made available in the Library or the Vote Office. My hon. Friend did not reveal from where he obtained his copy or whether a supply of copies exists. Those who are charged with the responsibility of drawing up the Basic Law are also involved in the debate on direct elections, and that is the great dilemma. We are in the proverbial Catch 22 situation, for the Chinese Government can rightly say that the Basic Law is a matter for them, not for us. The Basic Law was always to be a matter for the People's Republic of China; under the joint declaration, that is their responsibility.

We know that the Chinese Government have a view about the pace of change, especially the proportion of direct election. They do not shirk from expressing that view in private through the people in Hong Kong who speak for them. Yet it is logical, if not politic, for those who say that the Government are responding to the views of Beijing on the pace of change during the period up to 1997 to suggest that, because of that, the Basic Law should be a matter for discussion by the organs of the existing setup there.

I noticed that the right hon. Member for Blackpool. South (Sir P. Blaker), who is the chairman of the all-party Hong Kong group, was recently in Hong Kong and was criticised for what was perhaps an off-the-cuff suggestion that it might be possible for the Legislative Council to give consideration to the draft Basic Law, the document which my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham has been discussing tonight.

We are caught on the horns of a dilemma, and as one former great Labour Member of Parliament said, "When you are on the horns of a dilemma, sometimes it is wise to stay there." The Government must take account of the paradox that is involved. There will be a natural inclination to debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) has this evening, what is gradually becoming known about the terms of the draft Basic Law even before May when it will be published, and even before the four-month consultation period that has been laid down. That is inevitable, and indeed is healthy. Although there will be a change of landlord in 1997, the people of Hong Kong remain the same.

What is being discussed in terms of the pace of change is minimalist. Those who articulate it in Hong Kong are sometimes regarded as agitators by an establishment that want as little change as possible, but by any standards in Britain they would never be described as revolutionary. The movement towards direct election—something that we take for granted in Britain — is modest by any standard. If it is seen to be bold and to break frontiers, that is only because it is judged against the timid pace proposed in the White Paper.

In considering a part of the world that is renowned for its experimentation, its commercial flair and for the fact that it is willing to take risks, we should be looking for a political system that reflects that. The experiment that is being embarked upon is fraught with risks—we know that, as do the Chinese and the people of Hong Kong—but it also has unique opportunities. If its works, for the Chinese perhaps there is the tantalising prospect of Taiwan coming back into mother China. There is the prospect of an example of peaceful coexistence being enshrined in the world as never before.

Risks are not new in Hong Kong. The whole commercial future of Hong Kong is built on risks of great wealth, which many people have, and risks of poverty and despair. The recent collapse of the stock market in Hong Kong made a few paupers out of the great millionaires.

The joint declaration is a blueprint for the future, and it would be well within the traditions of Hong Kong if the Government were to look closely at the way in which people in Hong Kong are talking, thinking and believing and reflected some of that challenging attitude in the political framework that they bequeath to the people of Hong Kong for the future. They have given themselves commercial freedom and a highly regulated infrastructure of housing and education, and we should bequeath to them a political system within which they can exercise democracy with the same flair and success as they deploy in other aspects of life. That is the challenge that faces them and the British Government.