Orders of the Day — Hong Kong

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:20 am on 10th March 1988.

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Photo of Mr Timothy Eggar Mr Timothy Eggar , Enfield North 2:20 am, 10th March 1988

I join hon. Members in thanking the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) for giving the House the opportunity again to debate Hong Kong. It is understandable that hon. Members should wish to refer to the Hong Kong constitution and the draft Basic Law.

Some hon. Members have asked about the version of the Basic Law to which the hon. Member for Wrexham referred. All versions of the Basic Law that are available to the hon. Gentleman and to others are best described as of uncertain authenticity. They are subject to further revision and elaboration. Versions have been published in the Chinese press in Hong Kong, but the only reliable version will be that which appears in early May, in accordance with the terms of the understanding.

The draft Basic Law is intended to implement the policies that are contained in the joint declaration that forms part of a solemn and internationally binding treaty between the People's Republic of China and the United Kingdom. That treaty was debated in the House. Therefore, it is right that the House should wish to give its views on the implementation of the treaty in the draft Basic Law.

The hon. Member for Wrexham will recall that the debate in this House on 20 January took place following the publication of the 1987 annual report on Hong Kong. It was, by common agreement, a very good debate. It demonstrated yet again that many hon. Members on both sides of the House continue to take an active and informed interest in the future of the territory.

The debate also aroused a good deal of interest in Hong Kong. On that occasion the debate was broadcast live in Hong Kong. Many people in the territory sat up until the early hours of the morning to hear what Westminster had to say about Hong Kong. They would be very pleased to know that it is now our turn to sit up until the early hours to discuss Hong Kong.

It is important to set the debate in the context of the progress that we are making with the Chinese in implementing the terms of the Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong. The joint declaration must be the starting point of any consideration of Hong Kong's future development. It is widely recognised that it provides the essential framework for the development of our policy and for our contacts with the Chinese over Hong Kong.

I make no apology for joining the hon. Member for Wrexham in reminding the House of what a remarkable document that joint declaration is. It represents a unique and historic achievement by the British and Chinese Governments. It also marks a degree of bipartisanship on a very important foreign policy issue, which is to the credit of both sides of the House.

The joint declaration represents the determination of both sides to resolve a problem that is deeply rooted in history by producing an agreement, ratified by both Governments and by this Parliament, that is lodged at the United Nations in New York and is internationally binding. It is an agreement that gives to the people of Hong Kong a realistic hope and, I venture to say, a realistic expectation of continuing stability and prosperity after 1997.

We are working now to realise that goal through the full and faithful implementation of all the provisions of the joint declaration. We are collectively undertaking a new and truly unprecedented task. This task requires a spirit of co-operation and good will between Britain and China. It requires a fair measure of flexibility and mutual understanding in overcoming specific problems as they arise, and—as the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) said—in responding to developments both in the People's Republic of China and in Hong Kong, and, indeed, in the United Kingdom. It also requires the proper involvement of the people of Hong Kong in the process, to ensure that their views are fully taken into account at all stages.

The Sino-British joint liaison group set up under the joint declaration is the forum in which our consultations with the Chinese take place. Its task is a daunting one. It has to cope with a plethora of technical and practical detail, all of which needs to be satisfactorily covered before 1997.

I am glad to report that the group has made substantial progress since it began to meet in 1985. We have reached agreement with the Chinese on a number of important matters: for example, on Hong Kong's membership of certain international organisations, such as GATT, on air services and on certain nationality matters. The group is currently holding its ninth plenary meeting in Hong Kong, and has again made useful progress.

From 1 July this year the joint liaison group will have Hong Kong as its principal base, although plenary meetings will continue to take place in rotation in Peking and London, in accordance with the provisions of the joint declaration. The move to Hong Kong will none the less be an important step forward and will signify further intensification of our working contacts with the Chinese on Hong Kong.

Another important step forward took place on 10 February, with the publication by the Hong Kong Government of their White Paper on the development of representative government, which has been referred to in the debate. The House had an opportunity to express its views on 11 February, and the Government have taken very careful note of those views. While some hon. Members took the view that the White Paper should have gone further, many others recognised the major importance of the decisions that it contained. I thought that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) exaggerated slightly the differences that that discussion revealed across the House.

The hon. Member for Wrexham referred, slightly dismissively, to the A.G.B. McNair survey. It must be repeated that that survey represents only one aspect of the review of opinion. The hon. Gentleman asked why direct elections were to be delayed until 1991, and said that the survey used the phrase "delay". Opinions on the timing of direct elections were sharply divided; we believe that the Hong Kong people's views suggested a preference for a continuous and gradual approach. We must remember that there was a major change to the LegCo as recently as 1985.