China and Hong Kong

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:59 pm on 13th July 1989.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan , Falkirk West 6:59 pm, 13th July 1989

The current situation in Hong Kong has been described as a crisis of confidence. We can certainly understand why the people of Hong Kong have no confidence in the Government of the People's Republic of China after the recent atrocities in Peking and elsewhere, but they also have decreasing confidence in the British Government. Indeed, the feeling among many of them is that they are being betrayed. The first duty of the House, therefore, is to restore their confidence—especially when we consider their valuable contribution to the wellbeing of the people of Britain over many years.

We must consider the best way to restore that confidence. There have been suggestions from some quarters that the Joint Declaration should be torn up, but I believe that that would be unrealistic and undesirable. The track record of the Government of the People's Republic of China—despite what has been said about Tibet by the leader of the Democrats—has been generally a good one in terms of keeping to international agreements and treaties. The recent events in the People's Republic of China, horrific and deplorable though they have been, have not invalidated the Joint Declaration.

What can we do to ensure that the Joint Declaration is implemented, to achieve security for the people of Hong Kong and political, social and economic stability in Hong Kong? First, we can try to encourage the emergence of strong and democratic institutions, which I have advocated during visits to Hong Kong and in this House for many years—even before the signing of the Sino-British agreement. Unfortunately, successive British Governments have been guilty of dragging their feet on that issue and have been content to continue governing Hong Kong in the style of a colonial dictatorship.

I hope that the House will welcome the Select Committee's proposals for the Legislative Council—that 50 per cent. of the council should be directly elected by 1991 and 100 per cent. by 1995, and that the chief executive should be elected by universal suffrage as soon as possible. In the Select Committee I said that I should have preferred the latter election to take place at least six months before 1997. At least the Committee has gone some way towards meeting that point, although I accept the doubts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about whether an electoral college would be the best way to proceed.

At this point I part company with most other members of the Select Committee, because I believe that the second way to help to restore confidence and allay the fears of the Hong Kong people is to give the right of abode in this country to all British dependent territory citizens. I argued that point, too, in Committee, and I tabled an amendment which unfortunately was supported by only one other Member—my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh).

Bearing in mind what the right hon. Gentleman who chairs the Select Committee has said, is it not ironic that the Portuguese Government have granted the people of Macao a right of abode which in effect will give them the right not just to enter Portugal but to enter other European Community countries and to seek work in those countries, including the United Kingdom, yet the United Kingdom will exclude British passport holders in Hong Kong from that same and equal right?

It is also less than even handed on the part of the Government to have given special priority treatment to the Falkland Islanders, but to deny similar treatment to the people of Hong Kong. It is also worth bearing in mind that there are literally millions of people scattered throughout the globe who have the right of abode in this country, but who do not wish to exercise that right at present or in the immediate future. I can imagine, for example, the possible scenario in the event of a crisis in South Africa. It is estimated that 1 million white South Africans have the right of abode in this country. If a revolutionary situation emerged in South Africa, I am sure that the Government and Conservative Members would be bending over backwards to bring those people into this country. There would, probably, not be a whimper of protest from them and their supporters.

It is also indulging in scaremongering to conjure a vision of 3 million, 3½ or 4 million people from Hong Kong suddenly appearing on our doorstep. It is most unlikely, even in an Armageddon situation, that they would all want to come to the United Kingdom. Even the Government have hinted that, if the worst comes to the worst, they would try to initiate some international response. Obviously, by 1997 there will be the opportunity for members of the European Community, with a population of about 240 million, and other immigrant-receiving countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States of America, to offer a generous response. If, however, a large number of Hong Kong people came here, their entrepreneurial and other skills would be an added asset to the economic and social wellbeing of this country.

Unfortunately, the Foreign Secretary is not present in the Chamber. In a recent BBC television programme called, "Hong Kong—A Matter of Honour", when pressed by the interviewer, he seemed to indicate that part or—perhaps—the whole reason for not giving the right of abode to those people was that it would "exacerbate ethnic tensions". There are perhaps shades of Enoch Powell there. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House would deplore any discrimination on ethnic grounds. Certainly, British public opinion seems to be more progressive than British governmental opinion in that respect. An opinion poll in the same television programme, which has been confirmed by subsequent opinion polls in the quality press, showed that the majority of the British people would be in favour of granting the right of abode.

If the right of abode were granted, what would be the likely effect in Hong Kong? Some people have said that it would lead to depopulation or even mass exodus. In fact, there is a partial brain drain in Hong Kong already, because people do not have the right of abode in the United Kingdom. Many skilled people, such as the managerial classes, are going to countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States for a period so as to qualify for the right of abode in those countries. Therefore, Hong Kong, temporarily at least, is being deprived of skills. More of those skilled people would stay in Hong Kong if they had the insurance policy of the right of abode in this country.

What would be the effect on the Government of the People's Republic of China if the right of abode in the United Kingdom were given to the people of Hong Kong? The Secretary of State referred to the self-interest of the People's Republic of China regarding Hong Kong. I maintain that if we gave the right of abode to the people of Hong Kong it would act as a disincentive to the People's Republic of China to intervene in the internal affairs of Hong Kong. Currently, many people in Hong Kong have nowhere else to go, which might be a temptation to the People's Republic of China to intervene. Paradoxically, if people had the freedom to go elsewhere, China would be more likely to behave in a reasonable manner because the last thing that it wants is a mass exodus. If that happened, it would simply inherit a desert instead of a country with an economic future.

The right of abode would therefore be a disincentive to the People's Republic of China to intervene and to breach the Joint Declaration. It would also be a positive incentive to the people of Hong Kong to stay in Hong Kong, to build their future there and to have a stable, peaceful and fruitful relationship with the rest of China, with Britain and with the rest of the world.