The opportunity for the House once again to consider Hong Kong and its future is welcome and it is important. It is welcome because the British and Hong Kong Governments can take much pride in what their policies—with support from all parts of the House—have achieved. It is important because we are entering the critical final phase of Hong Kong's 13-year transition.
Much is at stake for Britain, for China, for the wider Asian region, but above all and always for the nearly 6.25 million men, women and children who are proud to call Hong Kong their home. We have been glad to see in London this week their elected representatives—a Legislative Council delegation—who have ably and articulately conveyed their concerns to me, to ministerial colleagues and to many other friends of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is special because of its geography, as a great maritime and now aeronautical hub on the southern coast of a nation of extraordinary potential and power. It is special because of its history as a British colony which was mercantile in its origins and achievements, but which became, especially in the years since the second world war, a beacon of political and economic hope to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly from mainland China. It is special because of its economy, which bounced back from the dark days of war and, through three decades of uninterrupted growth, moved from making things to providing services. It is now one of the world's strongest and most free economies. And it is special because of its politics, past and present—special as a largely self-governing British dependent territory, and in future as a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.
In just over 30 weeks from now, sovereignty will pass from the United Kingdom to China—a transition without parallel in modern history. Making a success of the handover is one of the Government's highest foreign policy priorities. In a moment, I will review the progress that we have made towards that goal, and the ground that we have still to cover. First, however, I want to describe two backdrops to our policy.
First, Hong Kong is—and will remain, now and after 30 June next year—central to Britain's relationship with China. Both countries have an overwhelming shared interest in a successful transition for Hong Kong. Hong Kong provides nearly two thirds of all foreign investment in China. About half of China's exports pass through Hong Kong. Much of the trade that does not physically enter the territory is financed or otherwise managed from there. With an economy roughly one fifth the size of China's, Hong Kong truly is China's gateway to the world. Economically now, as politically in future, China and Hong Kong are bound together.
For Britain, there is no realistic choice between our relationship with China and our responsibilities and interests in Hong Kong, now or after 1997. Our duty towards Hong Kong is best discharged—in fact, can only properly be discharged—in the framework of a sensible relationship with Peking. That is an important reason why, since becoming Foreign Secretary, I have had no fewer than four meetings with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Vice Premier Qian Qichen. It is also one reason why we were pleased to welcome to Britain last week Vice Premier Li Lanqing.
No doubt the Secretary of State will have seen the letter from Martin Lee, chairman of the Democratic party of Hong Kong. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman met various senior Chinese politicians, did he make any mention of the fact that an appointed legislature violates the joint declaration?
I will come to question of the Legislative Council and the Chinese proposals on it later and I will deal with the hon. Gentleman's question then.
In May my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister met senior leaders in China, and in Peking this week my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher will also be seeing Chinese leaders. At all those meetings, Hong Kong is at the top of the agenda. The steadily increasing pace and range of exchanges between Britain and China has greatly helped in managing the agenda of the transition. It has also contributed to our wider objective of developing a closer political and commercial relationship with China as it resumes its historical position as one of the world's most important centres of power and civilisation.
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the mounting concern felt not least in Hong Kong, but also here, about the way in which China continues to treat its dissidents? Only last week, a prominent dissident was gaoled for 11 years. Why did the Deputy Prime Minister not raise those issues even once when he went to China? Surely the Chinese can only be encouraged by our indifference to human rights.
Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman makes an incorrect assumption. We raised the particular issue to which he referred with the Chinese Vice Premier when he visited London. I also raised the issue of human rights when I was last in China. The hon. Gentleman must inform himself before he makes inaccurate accusations. I know that it is not the first time that he has done so, but he should try harder in future.
The second backdrop to the past seven and a half months of the transition is what Hong Kong itself has achieved in the past 12 years. Hong Kong continually defies the predictions of the most irredeemable pessimists. Indeed, it often exceeds those of the most incorrigible optimists. Since 1984, Hong Kong's gross domestic product has almost doubled in real terms—to some £100 billion. Per capita GDP is now higher than that of many members of the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, including the United Kingdom. The trend rate of growth is a healthy 5 per cent., inflation is the lowest for nearly 10 years and unemployment, after soaring to 3.6 per cent. last year, is now back to 2.6 per cent. and falling. The Hang Seng index, which rose from around 1,000 in 1984 to 9,000 in 1995, is now approaching 13,000.
At the same time, the Hong Kong Government have taken giant steps to make social, educational and health provisions the envy of any OECD country. More than a million flats have been built in the past 20 years. Life expectancy is higher only in Japan. Child mortality is lower than in Germany, the United States or here. Crime is down—lower than a decade ago. A quarter of 18-year olds enter tertiary education—up from 3 per cent. in 1986.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Hong Kong owes its great achievements to a successful education system, to the large numbers who enter higher education and to the Hong Kong people's sheer vitality in educational, intellectual and other spheres?
Yes. Does he believe that there is any connection between that programme and Hong Kong's low crime levels and stability? Could the United Kingdom learn any lessons from that policy?
A more likely explanation is the thriving market economy, the removal of trade barriers and the happy adoption of capitalist practice.
Such achievements have not stopped the Hong Kong Government cutting taxes to a swingeing 15 per cent. top rate of salary tax—which, incidentally, is paid by only 2 per cent. of the working population—raising public expenditure, but keeping it below 18 per cent. of gross domestic product, and increasing reserves, which next year will be worth about £25 billion.
We can compare that with the gloom and doom that was peddled at the time that the joint declaration was signed and with the pessimistic nonsense that appears from time to time in the international media. A business magazine's cover story last year forecasting the imminent death of Hong Kong has, to put it mildly, proved greatly exaggerated.
For all the anxieties that Hong Kong has faced in recent years, its Government have continued to govern triumphantly with a judicious light touch which has produced freedom and prosperity for millions. Hong Kong has not just lasted the course: it is entering the final lap of the transition at the top of its form. The Governor of Hong Kong would be the first to place the credit for that achievement where it belongs—with the men and women of Hong Kong. I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to their astonishing achievement at an extraordinary time for Hong Kong.
I also pay tribute to the vision and courage with which Chris Patten has steered Hong Kong through these difficult days. His decency and his determination to stand up for Hong Kong people at all times and in all places have won him admiration in Hong Kong and around the world. Who else would, or could, have done so much to ensure that the last years of our stewardship of Hong Kong were conducted with dignity and honour? He is a Governor of whom we can be properly proud.
If Governor Patten's work is so laudable, why do the Government not listen when he advises them to allow non-ethnic minorities to have British passports? He also sympathises with the ordinary Hong Kong people in their desire to possess passports—they do not necessarily want to come to Britain, but they need passports to leave the country. Is not the Foreign Secretary's speech so far filled with complacency?
No, I ask the hon. Gentleman to judge me by the whole of my remarks. I have concerns to express, and I shall come to them. However, we must put events in their proper context. There have been remarkable achievements in Hong Kong, such as the growth of the Hong Kong economy and that country's social achievements in the past few years when others predicted decline and depression. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we must put that in context.
So much for the backdrops to what we are doing to secure as successful a transition for Hong Kong as we can. On the positive side of the joint liaison group's work, a remarkable amount has been achieved or is in prospect. For example, Britain and China have reached agreement about Hong Kong's continuing participation, in its own right, in some 30 international organisations ranging from the World Trade Organisation to the International Monetary Fund. Significant progress has been made towards ensuring that the 200 or so multilateral agreements that apply to Hong Kong now will continue to do so after the handover.
Work is well under way on preparing a full network of bilateral agreements between Hong Kong and third countries, covering everything from investment protection to air services. A programme to localise to Hong Kong some 150 United Kingdom Acts now extended to Hong Kong is nearly complete, as are preparations for implementing next July the agreement that Britain and China reached last year to establish in Hong Kong a Court of Final Appeal to take the place of the Privy Council. I also greatly welcome the agreement that was signed in Hong Kong yesterday confirming arrangements for the transfer of foreign exchange assets of almost £38 billion to the new Special Administrative Region Government.
That nexus of agreements—laws and treaties, rules and regulations, covering almost every sphere of human activity—reflects Britain's greatest legacy to Hong Kong: the rule of law and the level playing field. Everyone—in government or outside it—is equal before the law. The connection between Hong Kong people's rights and freedoms under law and their prosperity and stability is intimate and indissoluble. In a society of Hong Kong's sophistication, the rule of law is an essential ingredient of success—and it is Britain's most enduring contribution to that success.
Most importantly, Hong Kong's superlative civil service—led by Anson Chan—is in good heart. An impartial and efficient civil service is a key to Hong Kong's success. It is vital that civil servants continue to have confidence in Hong Kong's future and that there be maximum continuity throughout the transition. The signs are encouraging so far: morale is holding up well and wastage is low. China has given repeated and welcome assurances that it, too, favours continuity in an impartial civil service.
Britain and China are also making steady progress in another area of great concern to Hong Kong's people: passports and immigration. In January, Vice Premier Qian Qichen and I confirmed agreement on arrangements for issuing the new passport of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The passport has state-of-the-art security and meets the highest international standards. It will be quite distinct from passports issued by mainland China and its issue will be controlled exclusively by the Hong Kong immigration department. In March, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that Britain would take the lead in granting visa-free access to holders of the new passport. We are now actively encouraging our partners in Europe and around the world to follow our lead.
Also in March, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced an important move to reinforce the assurances already given to the small solely British ethnic minority population in Hong Kong. He gave an absolute guarantee that those people would be granted admission to, and settlement in, the United Kingdom in the unlikely event of their coming under pressure to leave Hong Kong.
Everyone is grateful for my right hon. and learned Friend's assurances, which we take entirely on trust. However, if he can go that far, why can he not go one step further and provide real comfort to the people of Hong Kong?
I believe that they have real comfort. The position of that community in Hong Kong is secure. China's Basic Law for Hong Kong guarantees community members right of abode. Contrary to what is often claimed, no member will be left stateless: all will continue to hold British nationality. Community members have been given the specific assurance that, if pressured, they would have right of abode in the United Kingdom which would lead to their being able to claim full British citizenship.
In the economic sphere, Britain and China reached agreement earlier this year on the next stage in developing Hong Kong's great container port.
The Prime Minister's statement was certainly an advance on the Government's previous position. However, the Foreign Secretary will be aware that there is considerable confusion among the ethnic minority in Hong Kong as to what those exceptional circumstances might be. The Government have offered no definition in that regard. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House in what circumstances the right of abode would be triggered?
We have said that if those people came under pressure—it is in their interests that we do not try to specify circumstances which must be hypothetical—if there was undue discrimination against such people, if they could not carry on their normal lives without unacceptable pressure being placed on them, and if there was activity which clearly demonstrated that they were being treated unreasonably and unacceptably, we would wish to honour the obligation that we announced. That is a source of additional security to the people concerned.
Does the Foreign Secretary realise that leaving the circumstances undeclared means that in the messy circumstances in which the problem would arise, some would want to come, but without a general declaration being made that would embarrass those who remained in Hong Kong? Only by making the position clear now can he straighten matters out.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. If we spelt out in advance specific factors which would lead to our commitment being complied with, that would imply that any other form of pressure would be acceptable, or would not lead to any benefit to the individuals concerned. That would not be in their interests.
I appreciate that this is a difficult situation, which my right hon. and learned Friend has addressed with great care. Does he recognise that we are at the end of a great chapter, and we seem to be getting caught up on the fate of 4,000 human beings, or possibly fewer, who in many cases have served Britain extremely well? It leaves an overall feeling—an aroma—of meanness that we cannot deal with them imaginatively and sensitively, as a former Home Office Minister said in the House the other day. In response to the feeling in all parts of the House, will he undertake that, with our right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, he will re-examine the matter and see whether a noble solution is possible to this small but important problem?
Of course I understand the concerns being expressed. They are shared by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and led him to give the unprecedented assurances which even the shadow spokesman confirmed and acknowledged a few moments ago.
Those people already have a right of abode in Hong Kong. They wish to remain in Hong Kong. If, contrary to the clear and unequivocal commitments given by the Chinese Government in the Basic Law, they were to come under pressure, they have already been given an explicit assurance that they would have the right to enter the United Kingdom. That would enable them in due course to acquire citizenship. I believe that that is a reasonable position.
From the interventions from all parts of the House, the Secretary of State must recognise that if he moved in the direction that right hon. and hon. Members have been urging upon him, he would have the support of the whole House. The numbers involved are extremely small. If, as he says, the right of citizenship would ultimately be available as a result of the triggering of certain events, there cannot be any objection in principle to the right of citizenship. In those circumstances, why is that right not being extended now?
The right of citizenship to which I referred is available under existing law to anyone who lawfully enters the United Kingdom and has a lawful right to reside in the United Kingdom. That is quite a different situation. I should say in response to the hon. and learned Gentleman that of course I acknowledge that there are Members on both sides of the House who share his views, and there always have been—it is not a sudden new development. Those views have been expressed on previous occasions. Partly because of that, the Prime Minister gave the additional assurances which, although they did not go as far as some were advocating, were nevertheless warmly welcomed both in Hong Kong and here. That point has therefore been taken into account.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way again, as he has had many interventions. I refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). On a recent visit we met representatives of that group. Over the years, they have been devoted servants of the British cause—military, political, economic, private and commercial—and some of them would not wish to carry on living in Hong Kong indefinitely anyway. Will my right hon. and learned Friend reconsider the words "in due course" that he used in his last response but one? People may need the flexibility to make such decisions sooner than the Government expect, depending on how matters work out.
Of course I understand that many individuals have given good and valued service to the United Kingdom. That is true of many of the 6 million people of Hong Kong. I am delighted to acknowledge the fact that it has been true of many thousands—probably tens of thousands—of the people of Hong Kong over the years. It is not an exclusive feature of the group in question. Although in our judgment there is a secure position, we recognise that they also want a sense of security. That is why the Prime Minister gave the additional assurances of an unprecedented kind when he visited Hong Kong earlier this year.
Would the Government consider putting their assurance in writing to individual members of the ethnic minorities? That would at least be something in their hand.
If any individual would like such a written assurance, he or she has only to write to us and we shall be happy to repeat it. It has all been well publicised, so no one can be in doubt, but if any individual wants such a written reply, I am happy to ensure that one is provided.
In the economic sphere, Britain and China reached agreement earlier this year on the next stage in developing Hong Kong's great container port—already the world's busiest. Twenty or more important contracts and franchises straddling the transition have been endorsed by the joint liaison group, ranging from tunnel management to mobile telephones.
There is progress, too, on another issue of great concern to Hong Kong people: the Vietnamese migrant population. We are working hard to achieve our aim of complete repatriation as soon as possible. Nearly 200,000 Vietnamese have arrived in Hong Kong since 1979 Some 11,000 remain. I was in Vietnam a couple of weeks ago and discussed the matter with senior leaders there. I was pleased by their willingness to help to tackle the outstanding problems in a positive and flexible manner.
The letter circulated by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), makes no reference to the fact that, among the 11,000, there are about 1,200 who are recognised as political refugees. What is the Government's attitude towards them?
There can be no question of the compulsory repatriation of people who are recognised to be refugees. The United Kingdom has already accepted 15,000 such refugees over the past few years. We are in discussion with several countries about granting admission to the remaining refugees, and I hope that we will be able to find places of refuge for them all. We recognise that that is an important objective.
Recently, the House has played its part in Hong Kong's transition. Two Acts of Parliament have this year been added to the statute book. Last month, a third Bill was given three Readings here and sent to another place. One Act provides for decent pension and retirement arrangements for members of Her Majesty's overseas civil service in Hong Kong, whether or not they choose to serve after the handover. I pay tribute to the part that members of that service have played and are playing in Hong Kong's success.
Another Act, fulfilling the pledge given by the Prime Minister, grants British citizenship to the wives and widows of those who fought in the defence of Hong Kong in the second world war. The third Bill provides for reasonable privileges and immunities for the economic and trade office, which we hope the Government of the Special Administrative Region will maintain in London after the handover.
Two other important matters have been resolved in recent months. First, Qian Qichen and I were able to reach agreement in New York in September on the principles for a suitably dignified joint handover ceremony on 30 June. That ceremony will be held in the convention centre extension to which I referred a moment ago. Officials of the two sides are now working on detailed arrangements for an event that is bound to command the attention of the world. I took the opportunity of my meeting with Qian Qichen to tell him that Britain planned to mount a simple farewell ceremony of its own on the Hong Kong waterfront earlier in the evening of 30 June.
The other matter settled between us was an agreement on the future British consulate-general in Hong Kong. Staff moved into the new building last month. I am pleased to tell the House that Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal will open the new building officially in January. It will be our largest consulate-general in the world, and larger than most of our embassies. There could be no more powerful symbol of our continuing commitment to Hong Kong.
The record of achievement under the auspices of the joint liaison group is, sadly, not the whole story. There are two vital areas in which wide differences between Britain and China remain, and where—I must tell the House frankly—the prospects for full or early agreement are not encouraging. I discussed these difficult issues with Members of the Legislative Council earlier this week.
The first is an area in which hon. Members have taken a close interest since the earliest debates on the joint declaration: the development of representative government. Our efforts to reach agreement with China, through 17 rounds of talks lasting most of 1993 on durable and mutually satisfactory arrangements, are well known. The details were described in the White Paper that my predecessor placed before the House in February 1994. Since then, elections have been held for all three tiers of representative government in Hong Kong on the basis of the legislation adopted by the Legislative Council in the spring and summer of 1994.
Those elections attracted turnouts unmatched in the history of Hong Kong. The representative bodies that they produced have performed their different roles—making laws, holding the Executive to account—with exemplary diligence and notable moderation. They have shown that no one, certainly not the incoming sovereign power, has anything to fear from the measured development of democratic government that we have set in train well within the parameters of the joint declaration and the Basic Law.
Despite that, and despite the clear wish of the Hong Kong community for duly elected Members of the present Legislative Council to complete their natural four-year term, China seems determined to appoint, perhaps as early as next month, some sort of provisional legislature. We continue to make it clear to the Chinese, in public and in private, at every level, that their planned provisional legislature is neither desirable nor necessary. It is not necessary because there is nothing that it can do that should not more properly be done by others before the handover; it is not desirable because Hong Kong already has a duly elected Legislative Council which should be allowed to continue its work, and because a provisional legislature running in parallel with the constitutional Legislative Council risks creating confusion and uncertainty when they are least needed.
We have told the Chinese that we see no justification for the establishment of a provisional legislature. Neither the joint declaration nor the Basic Law makes any mention of such a body. China will have to explain to Hong Kong and the world why it chose to replace a body for which more than a million Hong Kong people voted with one chosen by a hand-picked electorate of 400. I call most sincerely on China to address the anxieties that these plans are creating; to think through the full political consequences of building this legislative edifice on such shaky foundations.
Exactly how the British and Hong Kong Governments react to the establishment of the provisional legislature depends on what it purports to do and when. Its establishment and operation as a parallel legislature before the handover would seriously call into question China's commitment to its obligations under the joint declaration, but this will be more than a legal debating point. It raises much more fundamental political questions about China's willingness to follow its own principle, enshrined in the joint declaration and the Basic Law, of
Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong".
I see no benefit in saying more on this difficult and sensitive issue now, beyond encouraging hon. Members and Hong Kong's friends outside it to do all they can in the months ahead to encourage China, in a spirit of well-intentioned advice, to act in this area with all possible prudence.
I cannot believe what the Foreign Secretary is saying. He cannot be surprised that an authoritarian Government such as Peking are acting as they are. The joint declaration is an internationally recognised agreement. We were told that in the House in the debate on 5 December 1984, and an elected legislative chamber was part of that international agreement. What is the Foreign Secretary saying? Is he saying that we should not say anything more? On 11 December this year, the Chinese will set up an appointed body. He must protest about that now, and if they set it up, go to the United Nations and register a complaint. There is an international agreement, and it is about to be breached.
The hon. Gentleman is getting terribly excited, because he appears to agree with what I have just been saying to the House. I am not quite sure what he is trying to convey. If it is genuine frustration and anger at what might happen, that is shared by the Government and the people of Hong Kong. He must not get overexcited. The legislature has not yet been set up. The time to come to a view about what will happen will be in the event that China acts in a way that could be inconsistent with its commitments under the joint declaration. I know that the hon. Gentleman's views and concerns are widely shared on both sides of the House. That is a point about which I should not have had to remind him.
My right hon. and learned Friend knows full well the high regard in which the Legislative Council is held in Hong Kong and, indeed, far wider, not least throughout the Commonwealth. Do his Chinese counterparts accept that if they go along the line of this appointed council, they will in effect have repudiated the Basic Law that they agreed, which quite clearly sets out that there shall be a Legislative Council in Hong Kong elected by universal suffrage?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Neither the joint declaration nor the Basic Law provides for a provisional legislature, if that is the right word—it is not—elected by a pre-appointed committee of some 400 people. It clearly does not represent a genuine Parliament and it can in no way be compared with the genuine democratic expression of Hong Kong opinion as represented by the present Legislative Council.
I do not think that there is much use in appealing to the good nature of the Chinese authorities, but it should be pointed out to them—I am sure that it has been already—that the appointment of a provisional legislature with the power to pass laws in Hong Kong would be very damaging indeed to the rule of law in the territory and to the confidence of investors in Hong Kong. Chinese commercial and economic interests will be damaged if they pursue that course. Surely the Chinese understand that, if they start mucking about with elected government in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, the possibility and prospect of their ever enticing Taiwan into some different and closer relationship will be gone.
The right hon. Gentleman makes two very powerful points that I entirely endorse. The Chinese have tried to reassure public opinion by saying that, if they set up a provisional legislature, it will not seek to compete with the existing LegCo but simply prepare for what might happen after 30 June. I find that a very unconvincing response because if two bodies exist simultaneously—one a properly elected Legislative Council, the other purporting to be a provisional legislature—at the very least that will be a recipe for confusion, and it will damage confidence and in no way benefit the people of Hong Kong either directly or indirectly.
Bearing in mind the fact that there is an interesting comparison between the monarch—one person—appointing the Governor on the advice of Ministers, and 400 names, selected on a wide basis one hopes, choosing the chief executive, does my right hon. and learned Friend expect there to be an enormous amount of comfort if the People's Republic of China authorities, with the new Special Administrative Region system, ensure that the provisional legislature comprises a large number of LegCo Members?
If that is what they are going to do, the much better solution would be to continue with the existing LegCo, because that is the body that has the democratic legitimacy. It has been properly elected. We urge the Chinese authorities to involve those who have the support of the people of Hong Kong, such as the Democratic party of Hong Kong and others—all the parties. We hope that anyone who has been elected by the people of Hong Kong will be fully involved in the public affairs of Hong Kong after the transition. That would make a major contribution to the confidence of the territory.
That is an important point. As one would expect, we have been speaking to many countries. I am delighted that a large number of countries are making it clear to China that the welfare, freedom and way of life of the people of Hong Kong is of importance not just to the people of Hong Kong or to the people of the United Kingdom, but to the international community as a whole. The United States, France, Japan, Australia and many other countries have recently made that point clearly and unambiguously to the Chinese authorities, and we hope that China will recognise that the world will be watching what is happening in Hong Kong after 30 June 1997.
Any action that denies to the people of Hong Kong the best opportunity to maintain their freedom and way of life will gravely damage not only Hong Kong, but China's reputation. I believe that China has much to lose if Hong Kong's interests and welfare are damaged, and that there are good reasons for China to reflect on what may be its current intentions.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way again. I wish to ask about a very important subject: the other so-called election—the election of the chief executive. The choice of chief executive will be extremely important to the people of Hong Kong, and the Chinese have made a great deal of fuss about the fact that he or she will be elected rather than chosen by a Government in London. The committee composed of the 400 people who have been chosen so far—although 5,700 Hong Kong people put forward names—is dominated by representatives of the pro-Peking parties. There are only two mild critics of Chinese policy on it. Does my right hon. and learned Friend share that opinion?
I should make two points in response to my right hon. Friend's intervention. First, like him, I am not hugely impressed by the suggestion that the chief executive will be elected. I think that we can confidently assume that the chief executive will be selected by the Chinese Government, even if the choice is formally endorsed in the manner that he mentioned.
Secondly, I am slightly more optimistic about the likelihood of an appropriate person being chosen. I have been impressed by the extent to which the Chinese Government have emphasised that they recognise that the choice of chief executive will be crucial to the continuing confidence of the civil service and people of Hong Kong. I believe that there is an extremely good prospect of the Chinese Government being sensitive to that matter, and that—although we may have doubts about the procedure being used—there is at least a good chance that a person will be chosen on the basis of the need to ensure confidence in Hong Kong and how best to achieve it. We must wait to see, but that is my judgment now.
The Foreign Secretary really cannot get away with that. That was part of the Basic Law and the joint agreement, and to pretend that that was not so is somewhat dishonest. He knows perfectly well, as we all do who know about these matters—apparently very few do—that the one who aborted the through-train arrangement was Governor Patten.
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his point of view, but I do not think that it is shared by the vast majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House, or by the people of Hong Kong.
The second sphere in which agreement has proved elusive is that of future human rights safeguards in Hong Kong. Hong Kong people are anxious—understandably—about whether the guarantees given in the joint declaration and the Basic Law will be honoured, in letter and spirit, after the handover. They need reassurance, and only China can provide that reassurance.
Sadly, such reassurance has not always been forthcoming. I have referred in the House to our concern at remarks that the Chinese Foreign Minister was reported to have made to The Asian Wall Street Journal last month—remarks which suggested that the guarantees of freedom of the press and of assembly, given by China in the joint declaration and the Basic Law, might somehow be constrained in ways not prescribed by law. We have urged the Chinese Government at the highest level to offer reassurance on that front. More is needed if the Hong Kong people's anxieties are to be allayed.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for allowing me to intervene a second time. In fact, the British can do something—place those issues on the agenda of the United Nations human rights committee in Geneva. China is extraordinarily sensitive to any direct threat or proposal to place such issues on the agenda of an international body. Between now and June, will the Government consider doing that?
We are very willing to take any measure that, in our judgment, will contribute towards enhancing the prospect of the people of Hong Kong's human rights being observed. That is the only criterion that we will apply in deciding whether to pursue the option suggested by the hon. Gentleman, or to take a different approach. If that option strengthens the prospects of human rights being observed in Hong Kong, we will take it; if it does not, we will not be able to—but that is the criterion we will apply.
Hong Kong people have been further alarmed by the sentencing of the Chinese dissident, Mr. Wang Dan, to 11 years' imprisonment, apparently for behaviour which, as the Governor rightly pointed out, would not even have been illegal in Hong Kong or in most other countries. Again I urge the Chinese authorities to have regard to the concerns of their Hong Kong compatriots—and, indeed, of the House. In similar vein, we are continuing to press China to make it clear how, after the handover, it intends to fulfil the requirement to report on the implementation in Hong Kong of the two international human rights covenants. Under the joint declaration, the provisions of the covenants as applied to Hong Kong will remain in force in Hong Kong. The UN human rights committee has said that it hopes and expects reports still to be made on Hong Kong after the handover.
By far the easiest way to resolve that difficulty is for China to accede to the two covenants, which I urge China to do without delay. On that and other issues, I urge Chinese officials, when they visit Hong Kong tomorrow, and in the months ahead, to listen to the voices of Hong Kong people. They have done so in the past and responded in welcome fashion, and I am sure that they can do so again.
More encouragingly, however, China has so far taken no further action on earlier proposals from an advisory group to water down Hong Kong's Bill of Rights and to make consequential changes to six other laws. I hope that that matter will be left for the people of Hong Kong and their future Government to decide.
For the next few weeks in Hong Kong, the main preoccupation will be choosing the first chief executive and his team. The importance of that choice for the future in Hong Kong cannot be overstated. The entire Hong Kong community, the civil service—on which so much depends—and the international community will be looking to the selection committee and to China to make a choice that commands the confidence of Hong Kong people. At this most sensitive time in its history, Hong Kong needs someone to provide leadership, on the basis of the principles set down in the joint declaration and the Basic Law.
The latest signs are that the appointment of the chief executive will be confirmed by the middle of next month. The Governor and the Hong Kong Government have made it clear that they stand by their commitment to give the chief executive every assistance. We are determined to work with him—whoever is chosen—in the interests of Hong Kong and of a successful transition.
If my right hon. and learned Friend is coming to the end of his speech, may I ask him to pause and tell us whether he has noted, as I have noted, that this may be an historic occasion—the last occasion on which the House debates the future of a major British colony? This is the last of the debates—conducted over perhaps half a millennium—that have affected the fate of millions of people around the world. Before he finishes his speech, and hauls down the flag on the empire, will he pay tribute to the many men and women who created something that was special, not only in its extent, but as a great example in world history of good government and justice?
I will very willingly do that. I believe that the people of Britain—of the entire United Kingdom—can have a deep sense of pride in what the British empire has achieved. The provision of the rule of law and democratic government, and a massive increase in prosperity for all the territories, was an historic achievement. The fact that we now have a Commonwealth of nations—with more than 51 member countries with historic links with the United Kingdom, which they wish to maintain—is clear evidence that there is a deep sense of common values that are of great importance in those countries and in the United Kingdom.
I find it significant that India, for example, has invited Her Majesty the Queen as a state visitor in the year in which it will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence. That is further evidence of the fact that the achievements of our empire, to which I pay tribute, are valued around the world.
I do not want to contradict such splendid sentiments, but I very much hope that this is not the last time that the House will debate Hong Kong. I hope that we have a major monitoring role to play and that we shall keep a sharp eye on the human rights and conditions of the people of Hong Kong in the future. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure us that if, even at the level of the United Nations, things do not turn out the way we hope, and even if the Government are not able to intervene as we would like in checking on what is happening, the House can play an effective part in ensuring that Hong Kong remains a place of liberty?
My right hon. Friend is quite right. We should also remember that the welfare of the people of Gibraltar, the Falklands and a number of other smaller territories still lies with the Government of this country. Their welfare is very much our responsibility.
I hope that I have shown this afternoon something of what is at stake in a successful transition for Hong Kong. Success for Hong Kong matters, not just for the territory and its people, not just for Britain with its huge and continuing political, ethical and economic commitment to the territory, and not just for China, the incoming sovereign power to which the world is looking for reassurance, but for all those with an interest in China and its future engagement with the wider world.
The whole international community has a stake in a successful Hong Kong. Its representatives will be there, at the midnight stroke next June, as Britain's and China's guests at the handover ceremonies. Afterwards, as the years unfold, the world will watch how China discharges the responsibilities it then assumes for Hong Kong and fulfils the promises made in the joint declaration.
For their part, the British Government are determined, as the Prime Minister told the people of Hong Kong in March this year, that
Hong Kong will never have to walk alone".
In June next year, our relationship with Hong Kong will change, but it most emphatically will not end. Our interests and our obligations will continue, in this century and on into the next.
The solemn promises that China made to us in the joint declaration—a binding treaty registered at the United Nations—remain in force for at least half a century. The Sino-British joint liaison group, through which Britain and China consult on implementing the joint declaration, will continue until 1 January 2000. Our political and ethical responsibilities towards Hong Kong and its people will stand long thereafter.
Some 3.5 million Hong Kong people have British passports now, and will continue to have them. Our exports of goods to Hong Kong—our second largest market in Asia—are worth nearly £3 billion. A growing proportion—nearly half at the last count—of our exports to China pass through Hong Kong. British investment in Hong Kong amounts to as much as £70 billion. One thousand British companies based in Hong Kong operate from there into China and across the Asia-Pacific region. British sovereignty may end—will end—on 30 June; British commitment will not.
I hope that the House will continue to take the closest possible interest in the affairs of Hong Kong and its people. The Government remain ready and willing to bring before the House developments in a territory with which this country has had a close and fruitful association for a century and a half. We must all do all we can to ensure that the partnership continues and that Hong Kong people receive the support and commitment they deserve—and which we owe them—as they embark on the next stage of their remarkable journey.
I think that the Foreign Secretary will acknowledge that the Opposition did press for this debate. It is more than a year since we held a debate on Hong Kong, and it is now less than a year—indeed, it is barely 200 days—before the transfer of sovereignty to China. That transfer is not only a formal diplomatic exercise between two Governments; it is an exercise with a major human element to it.
The great majority of people in Hong Kong look forward to the transfer with some anxiety and concern. The population of Hong Kong is greater than that of Scotland. Half of the people are British nationals. albeit British nationals of overseas territories. We have a responsibility to them and to all the residents of Hong Kong to ensure that we leave behind the best possible assurance and guarantee for their rights, their safety, their quality of life and their ability to pursue their economic interests with the extraordinary success that they have achieved over the past five decades.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that I visited. Hong Kong earlier this year. Like every visitor to the colony, I was immensely impressed by its staggering economic achievement, its prosperity, dynamism and innovation, which are all the more remarkable when one reflects on the fact that they have been achieved in an area crammed into tiny, inconvenient parcels of land, an area that has to import almost half its water supply and which has no natural resources other than the talents of the people, of whom, at the end of the war only 50 years ago, there were only 500,000.
The visible evidence of the success can be seen at the dockside, in the ranks of containers crammed with high-tech goods, and in the financial houses which provide the majority of investment that goes into the economy of mainland China. To mention a topic of which all hon. Members will acknowledge that I have extensive experience and on which I can speak with authority, Hong Kong has not just one but two of the most modern and best-attended race courses that I have ever visited. From bitter experience, I am sorry to report that the percentage chance of a return on a bet is no higher than on this side of the globe.
Hong Kong's success is very much its own distinctive achievement. I caution hon. Members against attempting to conscript the Hong Kong economy into supporting their own fixed political prejudices. The most obvious feature of Government policy in Hong Kong at present is an increase in public spending, so much so that the communist Government of China have complained that we shall not leave behind a big enough budget surplus.
To some extent, I can share the Foreign Secretary's praise of Governor Chris Patten. The programme that he has pursued in Hong Kong could be written as an illustration in a textbook of social democracy. In his time there, he has provided more than 2,000 more teachers, cutting class sizes in primary schools to only 24. He has added 4,000 more hospital beds, and cut the waiting times at accident and emergency departments to a maximum of 30 minutes. He has built 100 new public sector flats every day that he has been there—he has been very busy—and expanded the number of people eligible for welfare benefits. Those policies have made him so widely popular that he achieves a popularity rating double that of the British Government, who may wish to ponder the connection between such policies and popularity.
Perhaps it has something to do with being able to achieve all that thanks to a top rate of tax of 15 per cent. and thanks to public expenditure being only 18 per cent. of gross domestic product.
The Foreign Secretary has to acknowledge that that spending and that tax rate are a function of the growth in the economy. It would be extremely unwise to suggest that the growth in the economy is a function of that tax rate.
In addition, Governor Patten has made sure that there is a balance between an increase in public welfare and the availability of tax reductions to those who are in need of them. We only wish that the same balanced judgment had been exercised in Britain by this Government. [Interruption.] I do not wish to turn this into a long debate on political, or other, influences. I was warning hon. Members not to conscript the conditions in Hong Kong in support of their prejudices, and I urge the Foreign Secretary to be careful what he is laughing at.
It has to be said that privatisation in Hong Kong has essentially involved the sale of land—some to people who may be candidates for Chief Minister.
Having contemplated the popularity of Governor Patten, I wonder whether it is wise for him to plot a return to British politics. He has built a level of popularity in Hong Kong that he can never match as leader of the Conservative party in this country. However, his conduct of diplomacy with China has achieved a lack of agreement in inverse proportion to the popularity of his domestic policies.
Our most recent debate on the issue was under the title "China and Hong Kong". The title for today's debate is simply "Hong Kong", but, as the House knows, it is impossible to discuss Hong Kong without talking about China. The industrial growth of China is one of the seven wonders of the world economy. Those who have visited Shanghai will know that it is less a city than an immense, sprawling construction site. I understand that 40 per cent. of the large construction cranes in the world are in Shanghai.
The exponential growth of China's economy is bound to force some accommodation on its political structures. The largest dimension to the political debate in China is the amount of autonomy to be accorded to the provinces, against a background of differential growth and the need for different provinces to pursue distinctive economic policies.
There is also a healthy and relatively open debate in China about the impact on the environment of industrial growth. In the one large successful demonstration to have been held independently in Tiananmen square since the events of 1989, several thousand students took to the square with candles as a vigil to the threat from logging to China's golden monkeys.
These developments are positive, but none of them should obscure the fact that China's modern, dynamic economy is paralleled by a very unmodern and static attitude to human rights. I do not think that those two features of Chinese society can co-exist indefinitely. In a high-tech industrial environment that promotes a culture of innovation, initiative and information exchange among its work force, the Government cannot expect the people to submit to political structures under which they have no opportunity to contribute their opinions.
That tension is particularly pointed in the case of one victim of Chinese Government policy, which I raised when I was in Beijing—that of the Hong Kong financial journalist Xi Yang, who has been imprisoned for 12 years on a charge of stealing state secrets. Nobody knows what the state secrets were, because the charge is not specific, but it is widely believed that it referred to an article in which he disclosed the size of China's foreign reserves.
It is plainly impossible to imagine that the growth of the financial sector in Shanghai, with its multi-storey stock exchange, can continue to exist side by side with a political structure that imprisons people for publishing the central reserves. As China plunges into the era of the fibre-optic cable, the modem, e-mail and the fax, the control of knowledge and power by the central authority in Beijing will become increasingly hard to maintain.
That is why my conclusion is that, to foster political change in China, the most sensible course is to embrace China into contact with the modern world and the influence of the global economy. Any strategy based on the exclusion of China may well create the only circumstances in which the hardliners can retain power.
In the meantime, it is only too easy to understand the unease caused in Hong Kong by the transfer to China, with its current political structures. It has created heavy anxiety about what Chinese rule might mean for the Hong Kong way of life.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the 11-year sentence given to a dissident last week is causing mounting concern in Hong Kong? Although the Foreign Secretary got hot under the collar when I put the issue to him, because he does not like criticism, is it not a fact that the Deputy Prime Minister did not raise the issue of human rights when he went to China? When pressed on that on his return, he simply responded that the Chinese knew the views of the British Government. Should he not have raised the issue? Should not every opportunity be taken to raise with the Chinese the violations of basic human rights that they are conducting day in and day out?
I was not present when the Deputy Prime Minister visited Beijing, but I noticed that, in his response to my hon. Friend's earlier intervention, the Foreign Secretary did not confirm that the Deputy Prime Minister had raised human rights cases in person.
I agree that all senior political figures have a duty to ensure that, at every discussion with the Chinese leadership, we raise our legitimate concerns about the need for China, as an important member of the United Nations, to match the standards on human rights expected of United Nations members. At separate meetings, my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party and I have raised the same three cases of victims of human rights abuses in China. I am pleased to say that one of those three has now been released on compassionate grounds.
Given that there are many anxieties about human rights, in China and in other countries, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the process would be helped if the leading world power—the United States—had an even-handed view on such matters in all countries and did not take selective examples from one country, notwithstanding the fact that the People's Republic of China is the largest country in the world?
For example, the United States' attitude to Saudi Arabia, which has 9 million people and carried out 420 beheadings last year, mostly for economic crimes, is very different from its attitude to the People's Republic of China. Would it not be better for the United States and other western democracies to adopt an even-handed attitude to all such problems throughout the world?
I am slightly reluctant to get myself into great difficulty, while we are trying to resolve the issue of Hong Kong and China, by pursuing the case of Saudi Arabia. However, I entirely endorse the basic thrust of the hon. Gentleman's observation, that it is the legitimate concern of the international community to ensure that the same minimum standards on human rights are observed by all members of the United Nations. It is no offence to China to suggest that it should match those obligations, because China, quite rightly and properly, is entitled to a senior place at the United Nations. It must accept the obligations that go with such membership.
I was about the refer to the heavy anxiety in Hong Kong over the impact on its way of life caused by the transfer of sovereignty. The people of Hong Kong have tasted democracy. It has happened rather late in the day under British rule, it must be admitted, but they have tasted it. They do not want that taste to become a memory.
As hon. Members who have been there will know, the Hong Kong press are vigorous, and their system is firmly based on freedom of expression. They want to ensure that that can continue. Although I am slightly disappointed by the Hong Kong business community's lack of candour in public, in private it shares concerns that the basis of its successful business enterprise should continue.
I have visited Beijing and discussed these points with the Chinese leadership. It is clear to me from those conversations that they want Hong Kong to succeed as a business centre. They have everything to gain from that. Hong Kong accounts for 20 per cent. of China's GDP. It provides most of the inward investment into mainland China. Some 3 million workers in mainland China are employed by Hong Kong firms. Hong Kong provides China with the gateway to the global economy. Based on vehicle movements, the crossover point between China and Hong Kong is the second busiest in the world—second only to the border between the United States and Mexico.
All those factors give China every reason to want Hong Kong's business prosperity to continue, but that can be achieved only if the Chinese Government recognise that that success is built on the foundations of a civic society that includes the rule of law, freedom of information and expression, respect for the freedoms of the individual, and a recognition that political and economic freedoms are indivisible.
Those with whom I have had discussions recognise that the rule of law is important, and understand many of the points that I have made about that being one ingredient of the commercial success of Hong Kong. That is why, a year ago, one Chinese leader produced the celebrated metaphor of the teapot that will give them the right flavour of tea only if they do not scrub it out too clean when they get it in their hands.
I think that there must be some nervousness about whether the Chinese Government have enough experience of operating in that environment to respect the nuances that make that environment such a success. That is why it is so important that we leave in place legal and political structures which will protect the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong; and that those structures be entrenched so that they can survive after we go.
Time is now running out. The Foreign Secretary gave us a resumé of the history of negotiations, going back to 1984. Lady Thatcher can quite properly claim parentage of the 1984 joint declaration. Some of the difficulties that we have encountered in the negotiations since 1984 are due to the central ambiguity in that declaration, which left China with the clear impression that, in 1997, it was going to receive Hong Kong as it was in 1984. China was encouraged in that belief by references in the joint declaration to the system remaining unchanged. The United Kingdom, rightly and properly, has maintained that Hong Kong could not be preserved in ice for 13 years, and that, after the events of Tiananmen square, there was powerful pressure for change.
Our case for the legitimate legal basis of such change has been partly clouded by different interpretations of what was meant in the joint declaration. It is certainly fitting that Lady Thatcher should intend to be present on 30 June to witness the fruits of her handiwork. It is a fact of political life that this Foreign Secretary may not be there on 30 June as the representative of the British Government—I do not wish to speculate, but it is a possibility.
May I therefore, for the avoidance of doubt, record the fact that, if there is an election here before 30 June—I hope that that is a fairly safe speculation—and if it does lead to a change of Government, there will be no change of policy on the transfer of Hong Kong? There will be no time for even the most modest change. Even the handover ceremony has already been negotiated, down to the precise hour at which Governor Patten boards Britannia and sails off into the sunset.
If it should happen that the Government leave office before the handover ceremony, they cannot leave behind their responsibility for what they have left in place. We shall indeed hold them responsible for that arrangement, and, in the pursuit of holding them responsible, there will be two areas of unfinished business which the House would expect them to resolve over the coming months.
I intend to raise a number of questions as I discuss those two items of unfinished business. If they cannot be answered in the course of this debate, I issue an open invitation to both Ministers who are present to write to me with the answers once they have had time to reflect. Nevertheless, the questions I want to ask are questions to which both I and the House are entitled to answers.
The first area of unfinished business relates to the Legislative Council, about which there were several exchanges while the Foreign Secretary was speaking. The joint declaration and the Basic Law envisaged a through train for the Legislative Council, elected under British sovereignty, which would continue to serve after transfer to Chinese sovereignty. That through train was important as a symbol of continuity, and also as a demonstration that democratic institutions would survive the transfer of sovereignty. No issue, however, has contributed more to the gulf between Governor Patten and the Chinese Government than the conduct of negotiations on LegCo.
Governor Patten announced his arrangements for the new LegCo before he had ever visited Beijing. When Beijing refused to agree to those proposals, he proceeded without Beijing's agreement. Having discussed the history of these matters with people in Hong Kong, I surmise that a calculated gamble was taken. The idea was that, if Governor Patten forged ahead with the changes for the new LegCo, China would eventually be forced to come along in the slipstream.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that a succession of former ambassadors to China have expressed their anxiety that that was a naive misreading of Chinese political reality. Their misgivings have proved correct. China has persisted in refusing to recognise a LegCo the arrangements for which were not negotiated with China, and the Chinese are now insisting on derailing the through train.
One reason why China holds strong views on this point is that the Chinese believed that they already had an agreement on the basis for elections to the Legislative Council, and that that agreement was enshrined in letters exchanged between the Government of China and the Foreign Secretary's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd). Those letters were exchanged in January and February of 1990, and set out the basis for the election of functional Members by an electoral college of 800 people. Those arrangements were then superseded in October 1992 by Governor Patten's proposal to increase the number of functional Members, and to have them directly elected by individuals. I want to ask the Foreign Secretary a direct question: were the letters exchanged between the Government of China and the right hon. Member for Witney shown to Governor Patten before he announced quite different arrangements? If they were shown to him, why did he repudiate them without warning Beijing? If they were not shown to him, how can the Foreign Office excuse its failure to share with the Governor, at a time when it knew that he was working on arrangements for LegCo, the exchanges of letters that it had had on this very point with the Government of China?
Meanwhile, it is the people of Hong Kong who face the consequences of the failure of the gamble. China intends to appoint a provisional Legislative Council; "appoint" is the correct term—there is a committee of selection, but the committee of selection is in turn selected by the Government of China. In the one vote that has been held so far, the appointees were split 399 to 1, which hardly argues for an immense plurality of views in the committee of selection.
There is no provision in the joint declaration or the Basic Law for the Government of China to appoint a provisional LegCo. The Foreign Secretary was eloquent in denouncing China's intention to appoint one. China should be left in no doubt that that denunciation is fully endorsed by all parties in this Chamber.
But the House did not need to hear from the Foreign Secretary that China was wrong to take such a step. What the House needed to hear from him was what the Government are going to do if China does take the step. If I understood the Foreign Secretary's response to interventions correctly, he suggested that it was not yet clear that this will happen. I do not think it could be clearer. The Government of China have even set out the timetable in which it is going to happen. By 21 December, selection of the new provisional LegCo will have been completed.
So when we reach the winding-up speeches today, the House, I think, will be entitled to hear from the Minister who replies not more denunciations of what China intends to do but a clear statement of the Government's strategy for when China carries out what it has clearly said it intends to do.
After all, if there was indeed a gamble that China would follow in the slipstream of Governor Patten's statement, there must have been a contingency plan for the eventuality that the gamble might fail. What was it? Is it really true that the Government have come this far without knowing what they intend to do if the Chinese persist in what they have made it perfectly plain they intend to do?
Should China appoint this provisional LegCo, it will damage not just the rights of the people of Hong Kong but China's image in the world. During my discussions in Beijing, I got the clear impression that China's leaders have not yet grasped that the removal of the elected LegCo on the night of the handover of sovereignty will dominate international reporting of the event. That will certainly damage China's image abroad; but it will also damage the British Government's reputation and the reputation of this House, because it will provide embarrassingly visible evidence that we have failed to secure arrangements that made sure that democracy was entrenched once we left Hong Kong.
I wholly agree with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, and have much sympathy with the way in which he is putting it, but is not the situation even worse than his description? The body will exist, will apparently meet in the territory, and will even examine laws, amendments and reforms. So we will have a sort of crazy dual system, a parallel legislature, which puts a torpedo through the usual concepts of the rule of law.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The Government of China have already—to be fair to them, they are always clear about their intentions—made it perfectly clear that they cannot accept the Bill of Rights ordinance, and intend to bring forward proposals to amend it. I believe that it would be doubly unsatisfactory if such measures were brought before an appointed Legislative Council.
If it is indeed China's view that the Bill of Rights ordinance must be revisited, it should not do so until it has carried out its commitment for fresh elections to a new LegCo under Chinese sovereignty. If a provisional LegCo is appointed, the work should be confined to making arrangements for those elections. Although that would be a welcome limitation if we could obtain it, it does not undermine the essential principle that a Legislative Council elected by the people of Hong Kong will have been replaced by a provisional Legislative Council appointed by the Government of China.
Further to the point that the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) has just made, is there not a rather worse dilemma, in that many of the Legislative Council's Members are having to make up their minds whether they should try to apply for the new provisional legislature? That could also be quite destabilising to the Legislative Council's work during this very important period.
It is very important that it is clear that there can be only one functioning authoritative Legislative Council up until 30 June. It is welcome that the Government of China have given a clear commitment that the provisional Legislative Council will not be taking decisions as such until after 30 June. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend raises a very serious issue.
My understanding is that barely half the Legislative Council's Members are already willing to accept nominations to the provisional Legislative Council. That inevitably means that that membership will be unrepresentative of those who were elected in very recent elections, and demonstrates the substantial hostility in Hong Kong to the procedure.
I said that there were two issues of unfinished business. The other to which I turn is the unresolved nationality question concerning the Asian residents of Hong Kong, which was extensively raised by the Foreign Secretary. That small community and its descendants are not able to obtain Chinese citizenship, because it remains confined to ethnic Chinese. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) therefore referred to them, as they are sometimes referred to in a Hong Kong debate, as "non-ethnics", although I have some difficulty handling the concept that anybody can be a "non-ethnic". It is not surprising that many in the Asian community in Hong Kong have been left insecure about their future under Chinese sovereignty. The community is small in number—probably under 10,000 in total—and consists overwhelmingly of professional and business people. Many of them run family businesses with substantial capital. If they were ever to come to Britain, they would be exactly the people who provide a boost to our prosperity and jobs. If they were given the right to come here, it is probable that many would not do so, but might invest in building a business in Britain to provide themselves with assets here if they ever had to leave Hong Kong.
Earlier in the year, as the Foreign Secretary advised the House, the Prime Minister gave those in the Asian community an assurance that a Conservative Government would admit them to Britain if exceptional circumstances arose that required them to leave. That raises as many questions as it answers. What are those exceptional circumstances? Do they have to apply to the whole community or just to the individual who is applying? I was left in some doubt as to which one was so by the Foreign Secretary's answer. How long would those people have to wait in exceptional circumstances until their case was accepted?
As the Foreign Secretary will know, the Labour party has written to the Prime Minister urging him to extend British citizenship now to that small group of people. Such a step would honour our obligation to them, because of their past contribution to our colony, and remove any uncertainty about their rights in future. I assured the Government that Labour would co-operate in facilitating the passage of such legislation. I repeat that offer.
If, however, Ministers will not take up the offer of co-operation from us, I ask them for their co-operation. I have consulted my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), our shadow Home Secretary, and I can inform the House that, if a general election produces a Labour Government, we will be prepared to legislate to extend citizenship to the small Asian community of Hong Kong.
In order to do so, though, we will need the same co-operation from the Conservative party that we offered it. We need that because, without it, we could not succeed in passing the legislation in the short interval between 1 May and the transfer of sovereignty on 30 June. I therefore ask the Foreign Secretary to give us the offer of co-operation we need if we are successfully to extend citizenship to that small group of residents in Hong Kong, who will otherwise be left without any other secure citizenship. It is a fair offer, and I hope that it will receive a frank reply, either tonight or subsequently in writing.
In the event that the Conservative party is unwilling to offer the same co-operation that we have put on the table for them, I repeat our existing commitment to the Asian residents of Hong Kong. A Labour Government would grant them the right of entry to Britain without requiring any proof of exceptional circumstances. Such a right could be extended by a Labour Government by administrative procedures, and would not require the legislation for which we would require the co-operation of a Conservative Opposition.
I hope that that will enable those in the Asian community of Hong Kong to plan with confidence for 30 June and to arrange for their affairs to continue in the colony beyond 30 June with the security of a guarantee of citizenship or the right of entry to Britain if they need it.
Much of this week in the House and the press outside has been preoccupied by debates over the transfer of sovereignty to Brussels—real or imagined. I rather wish that the transfer of sovereignty in Hong Kong would get a tenth of the attention given to the imagined transfer of sovereignty to Brussels. There is no precedent this century for two nations without war or conquest between them to come peacefully—
The hon. Gentleman is probably perfectly correct.
I would not wish to hazard myself across the whole of history, but as far as my memory stretches, it is certainly correct that no two nations without war or conquest have peacefully—perhaps occasionally acrimoniously—negotiated such a voluntary transfer of sovereignty. It is an immense undertaking.
If we can resolve the outstanding issues and complete the transfer with success, that success will be of immense value to both China and Britain. For China it is important. The concept of one nation, two systems was not originally coined in Beijing to fit Hong Kong. It was originally proposed in Beijing to fit the situation in relation to Taiwan. If Beijing is to be successful in eventual rapprochement with Taiwan, it is essential that it can prove that the concept of one nation, two systems can work in Hong Kong.
For Britain, it is also important that we achieve a successful transfer. It is important to show that we have discharged our obligation to the people of Hong Kong that we will surrender sovereignty of the territory of Hong Kong without surrendering the liberty of the people of Hong Kong.
That is also important because our connection with Hong Kong will not end on 30 June. Indeed, one might argue that Hong Kong as an economic port will be more valuable to Britain after 30 June, because our economic and historical ties with it will provide us with an improved base from which to increase our trade and investment in the growing economy of China, in which Hong Kong will be the largest single economic centre. If we handle the transfer successfully, Hong Kong can become a bridge, not a barrier, between Britain and China. Irrespective of our other political differences, right hon. and hon. Members on both Front Benches—whatever side of the Chamber we find ourselves on by 30 June—must work together to achieve a successful outcome and to ensure that the Government of China are held to the undertakings that they have given to the people of Hong Kong.
We have heard two good speeches summing up the challenges and the problems of a unique event in history and I wish only to endorse some of what has been said and to raise one additional subject. On recent achievements, I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was able to authorise the legislation, which subsequently went through as a private Member's Bill, to ensure that the war widows are given passports. That should have been done and now has been done. We have had a few exchanges this afternoon about the non-Chinese minority, who have been told by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that if they are under pressure to leave, they will have the opportunity to come here. I am of the view, and have been for some time, that that is not enough. They are magnificent people who come, in many cases, from families who have served the British armed forces, the former British empire and this country with utter dedication and real feeling. It is not enough to leave them merely with the right of abode but not actually citizens of any country. I am fully aware of all the difficulties and problems, but I ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary whether he will reconsider.
I listened to what the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said about co-operation and I heard the loud sound of chickens being counted before they were hatched. The right hon. Gentleman should pause a little before thinking about deals that he would make were there ever to be a Labour Government. I hope that the matter can be solved, whoever governs, in a non-adversarial, bipartisan way and the problem dealt with expeditiously by Parliament. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary—I hope that he will still be in office this time next year—can play his part in that.
The other points, which have been thoroughly covered, arise from the question of the provisional legislature. We all appeal to the People's Republic of China—because after 30 June the power will lie with its Government—to recognise the dangers of trying to run parallel Administrations and Legislative Councils.
I hope that the Chinese also see the dangers in starting to amend, or examining in preparation for amendment, certain laws. The proposal that the Basic Law for dealing with subversion, treason or sedition should be confirmed by Hong Kong after the transfer needs careful handling. If that law is to be turned into catch-all pieces of legislation that prevent anybody from doing anything that the authorities do not like, that will definitely undermine confidence in the future of Hong Kong and that of the international investing community. The result will not be that Hong Kong does not thrive, because it is full of people of enterprise who will continue to be as enterprising as they are in Guangzhou and Shanghai, but we shall see the end of Hong Kong as a miraculous world financial and industrial centre. It has been a fantastic global beacon during the last part of the 20th century, but that is the price that will be paid.
The provisional legislature needs close consideration—I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has given it that—as to whether its existence is consistent with the Basic Law. As we heard this afternoon, the Governor—my former right hon. Friend—was accused by some when he introduced the famous Patten reforms of contravening the Basic Law. I do not agree with those accusations, and the Foreign Affairs Committee considered the matter carefully and took the highest independent legal advice. We came to the conclusion that there was no breach of the Basic Law. But the new legislature would be set up flatly against the advice and wishes of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, as he said this afternoon, and of the British Government, and we must ask whether that action would be in co-operation with the British Administration. Clearly, it would not and it would contravene article 4 of the joint declaration, under which the People's Republic—with good faith, I am sure—and the British Government signed their undertaking that they would co-operate. The People's Republic undertook to co-operate with the British Administration before 30 June 1997. It is hard to describe its intentions as co-operation after what my right hon. and learned Friend wisely said this afternoon.
The argument that might prevail is that the Chinese proposals were a regrettable but necessary tit for tat, but that would raise the question whether two wrongs make a right—if the Patten reforms were wrong, and I do not believe that they were. If that is the argument, how soon will new, genuine elections be held to replace the Legislative Council? If the answer were that preparations would be made immediately after 30 June for a new LegCo and anyone could stand, as before—mostly the same people would be re-elected—it would be a mild reassurance. But that is not the case.
We are told that the elections will take place at the end of 1998, so that is a year and a half with a provisional, transitional, hand-picked, selected and unelected Government for the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. That is a grave worry, which must send tremors round the world about investing in Hong Kong and in China, and which will weaken the general hope in the world that China is moving towards the global mainstream of economic, social and political development. There are real dangers in the second LegCo, because it weakens the rule of law if the source of law is being duplicated and if half the Members of LegCo are seduced into another legislature, as the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) said.
The undertaking of the Chinese Ministers—and I believe them to be wise and dignified men—was that they would maintain the laws and freedom of Hong Kong and its way of life. That is what was said in article 5 of the Basic Law; if that is what was meant, it cannot be consistent with changing the way of life by introducing a selective rather than elected Legislative Council, even for only 18 months. Much has been said on that point this afternoon, and I endorse what my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said about trying to get a message to our Chinese friends that their proposals are not in their interests, nor in Hong Kong's interests, nor in the interests of the wider world.
I wish to say a brief word about monitoring after 30 June. The joint liaison group has some remit and some responsibilities for keeping an eye on the unfolding situation and seeing how the ends are tied up. I hope that it will be able to do that. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was in Hong Kong recently, he made a superb speech about Hong Kong not being forgotten and said that we would be watching and would be vigilant. We must take those words seriously—I am sure that my right hon. Friend meant them—and give them some content. They would be given content if the covenants were signed by the Beijing Government and if they reported to the United Nations. Indeed, Hong Kong could report on itself and it would be good if that could happen as soon as possible. But there are also some tasks to be performed by the House and perhaps by independent groups elsewhere, outside the official parliamentary system. The other day, the Governor, Chris Patten, set down four matters that he believed needed to be watched carefully after 30 June. First, will the civil service be independent and continue to act in a sensible, uncorrupted way? We hope so and there are good signs that that may be the case. Will the monetary authority be interfered with? We hope not, and the recent agreement is quite reassuring. Will the legislature—LegCo, or whatever shape it takes—pass local laws, or laws that have clearly been pushed upon it for ideological and party reasons by Beijing? We do not know, and we shall have to watch closely. Above all, will the courts be allowed to operate freely, with an independent judiciary?
I hope that the House will continue to ask those questions. They ought to be asked, and if our friends in Beijing say that that is interfering, we must say, "Sorry, but Hong Kong is really an international affair. It is an international centre for the entire planet, important to the world's economic system just as it is to China's economic system, and its affairs would deserve the clearest monitoring even if we were not transferring sovereignty. Moreover, we are transferring sovereignty. We have this responsibility here and we must fulfil it." Thoughts must be turned to the way in which we can fulfil the monitoring responsibility after 30 June next year.
Inevitably this will be a short debate, and I have little to add. However, I am left with a slight unease about the saga from 1984 onwards. Was that really the best that we could do? At the time everyone said yes, but I was never totally convinced that we might not have handled Beijing a little differently with regard to a possible renewal of the lease.
There is a certain sourness in some quarters, and a feeling of resignation and sadness about the way in which the story is ending. I put no blame whatever on Governor Chris Patten, who has fought magnificently to entrench and to raise standards of democracy, and to meet the feeling of the people of Hong Kong that they want to speak for themselves. He has done everything humanly possible to set the scene for a Hong Kong that will continue to be free, proud and prosperous within the greater China.
Perhaps it is not useful to dish out blame, but looking back, I must say that we were badly let down by the so-called China hands, who said that they knew exactly how to talk to China. Somehow they got us into a position in which everything started in a peremptory way, and we had no chance to argue that although Hong Kong had always been part of China, it might be better for us to continue to administer it—that we had done so for 100 years and could do so for another 100 years. The so-called experts on how to deal with the Middle Kingdom turned out to have no idea how to do that in practice.
Since then, all successive British Government leaders and Foreign Secretaries have handled the matter well, with the help of highly skilled Governors—both the previous Governor, who did excellently, and the present Governor. We have succeeded in making the best of the 1984 position.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said, the economy of Hong Kong and its stock market have roared ahead. Property prices are a little shaky, but they have not done badly, and in general, enterprise has continued to thrive. May all that continue, and may the gloomier views—that difficulties and doubts about the rule of law would undermine everything—be wrong.
Hong Kong is a challenge. It will need watching. The people of Hong Kong are determined to meet that challenge, as they tell us when they come here and speak so magnificently, and I hope that this Parliament of liberty will be with them in their struggle.
Just after the 1979 election, I went to Hong Kong with a newly elected Member of the House. His name was Chris Patten. During that visit, what struck and impressed us both was the fantastic, vibrant, energetic society developing there, with an increasingly well-educated community and society.
When we came back, we went jointly to plead with Ministers to try to introduce a degree of representative democracy, at least at local level—municipal and district—so that the changing and developing nature of the community in Hong Kong could be reflected in democratic representative institutions.
There may be differences of view, but I appreciate the fact that when, more than a decade later, Chris Patten ended up in the incredible position of being the Governor of the colony, he faced a complicated and difficult choice. Perhaps we forget the context of that choice. It was not simply a through train from 1984, because between 1984 and the early 1990s, when Chris Patten assumed responsibility, traumatic events happened in China.
We cannot underestimate the traumatic effect of Tiananmen square on the people of Hong Kong. I was in the square in the early weeks when the crowds were gathering, when there were a mere quarter of a million people there. The traumatic effect of the events that followed some weeks later led to a profound change of attitude in Hong Kong.
As Governor, Chris Patten faced a real dilemma—whether to find a solution acceptable to the Chinese, but utterly unacceptable to the people of Hong Kong in the wake of Tiananmen square, or to do the opposite. He chose the latter, and I support that decision. However, he paid the inevitable price—that the Chinese would renounce and denounce the arrangements that had been put in place.
Anyone who talks to the LegCo councillors elected under the new system, anyone who knows the people and supports and listens to them, realises that what has happened is a wonderful example and illustration of democratic institutions. They reflect the opinions and feelings of the people of Hong Kong in a varied way, across a wide spectrum.
There is open debate, and the councillors argue among themselves. There is no unanimity. But that is the healthy nature of the pluralistic society and its reflection in a pluralistic institution. It would be a tragedy if that was dismantled and destroyed by the Chinese authorities.
A perfectly reasonable question for my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) to ask Ministers is, "Where do we go from here?" What else can be done to try to safeguard the situation in Hong Kong? I am less sanguine than some. Although growing economic liberalism has been developing within China, there is no evidence that the Chinese leadership connects economic liberalism with any form of political liberalism. At present, Chinese Ministers appear to believe that they can have one without the other.
If that is so, the Chinese Government may draw the wrong conclusion about Hong Kong. They may believe that they can continue to have economic liberalism while severely restricting Hong Kong with an arbitrary political arrangement. Surely that is the idea reflected in the proposed "selectorate" that will choose the new provisional Legislative Council or committee.
However much we may huff and puff in the House, how can we influence a powerful nation that feels committed to dismantling and disrupting the present arrangements and the elected Legislative Council? China has said that it will do that, so it will.
As I asked the Foreign Secretary earlier, without ganging up or driving people into corners, is there any way in which, possibly collectively with our partners in the European Union, we can say to the Chinese that it would be a dreadful mistake on their part, and would affect their relationships with Europe and their other international relationships, if they went ahead and dismantled the elected Legislative Council?
My hon. Friend is right, but will he also think about the fear felt by the unelected leadership in Beijing about what may happen in Hong Kong if the Chinese do not dismantle the democracy? That is what makes them propose the provisional legislature. The Foreign Office and Her Majesty's Government have a role to play in trying to dispel that fear. I do not think that it will make any difference to the leadership in Beijing if LegCo as now constituted continues after 30 June. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I am sure that there is that fear. I am sure that there is also a fear that that would set an example that an increasing number of people in China might wish to follow. The all-night vigils have also caused the young people of Hong Kong to stand up and identify with the problems of young people in China.
I would not know; I do not wish to presume what it would have done 40 or 50 years ago. I am sure that it would not have been a democratic, liberal response of the kind that, I suspect, my hon. Friend is referring to, but fortunately we have moved on. The demonstrators in Tiananmen square were reflecting the change in attitudes that has taken place in international society and which is taking place in China and in Hong Kong. It would be tragic if the Chinese authorities were deliberately to undermine a perfectly democratically elected institutional structure of the kind that now exists in Hong Kong.
In further response to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), I hope that, whatever the Chinese decide to do, and whatever critical developments they decide need to take place in China, we shall argue that Hong Kong is supposed to be a Special Administrative Region and that it must be a special democratically elected region. The Chinese should be able to make that distinction. However, there is not much evidence that they are making it. That is because—from what I read, anyway—the Chinese authorities have not reached the conclusion that economic liberalism must be accompanied, in due course, by political liberalism of the kind that has developed in Hong Kong.
Will Ministers please consider what further diplomatic political action they will take, alone or in conjunction with others, to attempt to head off the collapse and dismantling of the democratically elected Legislative Council in its present form? Otherwise, this debate will have been only empty words.
I read with great interest the statement by the Governor in his last address:
I hope that the world will judge Hong Kong not by preconceptions but by the evidence of what actually happens here.
He listed some clear benchmarks that the international community and the world should observe. They included:
Is the Hong Kong legislature passing laws in response to the aspirations of the Hong Kong community …?
Is the Hong Kong press still free, with uninhibited coverage of China and of issues on which China has strong views?
Are new constraints being imposed on freedom of assembly? Are the annual commemorations and vigils of recent years still being allowed?
Those are pertinent questions. The international community can check those benchmarks, to test how much the special position of Hong Kong and its newly democratically elected institutions are being sustained. We should do more than check that excellent series of benchmarks. We should invite our partners in the European Union, the United States—to which China looks for support in a variety of international organisations—and many other nation states to join us in arguing those points to the Chinese authorities, in the hope that they will back down and at least modify their position and their view in relation to the existing institutions in Hong Kong.
The Chinese authorities should realise that, if the next vigil in commemoration of the Tiananmen square massacre is interfered with, in the year post 1997, that will send an incredible signal to the international community and the world that the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong have been undermined.
Let us therefore make the Governor's benchmarks our own.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) rightly asked how we, in the House of Commons, can influence that powerful country, China, to which sovereignty over Hong Kong will return in only eight months' time.
Shortly before today's debate, I was on a radio broadcast with Christine Loh, one of the very well-known, very strong-minded members of the Legislative Council delegation that is visiting this country. The first question that Nick Ross asked us both was, "What is the point of the debate that is happening in the House of Commons today?" In effect, he was asking, "How effective or ineffectual will the House of Commons be in everything to do with Hong Kong, once the transition has taken place in eight months' time?" That is a fair question, and it behoves us Back Benchers, after the good Front-Bench speeches, to adopt a practical approach to answering it.
I first went to Hong Kong in 1966 as a young business man. Right hon. and hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I shall not bore the House with memories of what Hong Kong was like then—how big the godowns were and so on—but I remember that the transition had just been made from a fleet of Austin Morris taxis that met one at the docks, station or airport to a fleet of Mercedes, and at the time that was regarded as a step with very dangerous consequences for British imperialism and British trade. Thirty years later, that thought remains in my mind.
That year, 1966, was dominated by China's threat to cut off the water supply to Kowloon. Let us be realistic—throughout the past 30 years, Hong Kong has been on the receiving end of that threat, literal or metaphorical, to cut off water supplies. Our position has always been that of a leaseholder who has a full repairing lease stating that he must return the property—the territory, except for the island of Hong Kong, a few other small islands and a very small part of Kowloon—to the freeholder on 30 June 1997.
As has been said, in what an extraordinarily good condition we are returning the property! When else in the history of the world has a lease been returned with values of property—including property belonging to the Government—as high as they are, with the stock market almost at its top and with £38 billion in the Treasury? The Chinese can never have expected to receive anything like that in the handover, but there it is; it is going to happen.
Will the Chinese show their gratitude to Britain or to the Governor of Hong Kong for the extraordinarily generous handover of that extremely successful economy? When I say gratitude, I do not mean large orders for GEC and British Aerospace, very nice as those would be, but gratitude in terms of the strict observance of the joint agreement, the Basic Law and the principle "one country, two systems" for at least the next 50 years.
I do not propose to talk about LegCo and provisional LegCo. Our worries have been properly expressed by right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House. I would rather talk about two other aspects. The first aspect is the free press, television and radio. As Minister responsible for Hong Kong for two and a half years under Lord Howe, I regarded the Hong Kong press as the nastiest in the world after the British press.
I am sure that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), knows that often a Minister who travels abroad receives a great deal of deference, unlike what one receives in London. That is certainly not the case in Hong Kong. There was not much television when I visited, but there was an incredible number of newspapers, all seeking an angle from which to attack the Minister. I believe that that independence of mind in the press and broadcasting must continue in some shape or form after 1 July 1997. There should not be a caving-in to the pressure that will certainly come against dissent and for uniform, stereotyped and monolithic broadcasting and press reporting.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the South China Morning Post—which gave him such a hard time when he visited Hong Kong as a Minister—is now a pale shadow of its former self? Mr. Murdoch has sold it on, and it is adjusting rapidly.
The Government and the House must fully back the World Service in its television and radio manifestations. Governor Patten paid tribute to the World Service in his speech to the CBI in Harrogate earlier this week, when he was campaigning for a place back in this country. The House can take practical and concrete decisions on boosting the BBC World Service operations in Chinese, Cantonese and Mandarin.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates something that I proposed to say in three or four minutes. I remember the South China Morning Post well. When I was the Minister responsible, I came from Beijing to Hong Kong, via Guangzhou. I remember the political secretary bringing me a copy of that day's South China Morning Post, the banner headline of which stated:
Renton to run the gauntlet in Hong Kong tomorrow".
I had said something in Beijing of which LegCo did not approve and, my God, I was to be told so the following day. That is the spirit of independence, free speech and dissent that one wishes to see continue.
The other matter that has been touched on to a great extent in the debate is human rights, a subject to which the Legislative Council delegation that is here at the moment has wished to draw the attention of the House. I was struck by the third paragraph of the first page of the memorandum that it sent to us, which points out that the UN Commission on Human Rights took the view
that human rights treaties devolved with territory and that states continue to be bound by the obligations under the covenant entered by the predecessor state. Once a people living in a territory find themselves under the protection of the covenant, such protection cannot be denied to them by virtue of the mere dismemberment of that territory, or its coming within the jurisdiction of another state or more than one state.
If the Government are unable to persuade China before the end of June to accept that reports on civil rights in Hong Kong should continue to go to the UN Commission on Human Rights, I hope that this Parliament, and other friendly Parliaments, can concentrate on that matter in the years ahead.
The example of Wang Dan, the pro-democracy leader who was sentenced to 11 years in Beijing gaol, has been quoted in the debate. It is noteworthy that Governor Patten said that what
Wang had done was regarded as legal in many places.
Those are words that must worry us all, just as the treatment of human rights in that other Special Administrative Region, Tibet, must cause deep worries in the House. I hope that the eyes of the world will focus on those aspects of Hong Kong after 1 July 1997.
Some say that Hong Kong will succeed because the Chinese will wish to persuade Taiwan to rejoin the People's Republic, and the Taiwanese will look closely at what happens in Hong Kong. That is an understandable and pragmatic argument, but I hope that Hong Kong succeeds because the mainland Chinese genuinely want and believe in the joint declaration and the Basic Law. One must repeat, however, that Tibet does not have the economic strength of Hong Kong, and the principle of "one country, two systems" that should apply to Tibet clearly has not. Last week, Li Lanqing, the Vice Premier of the state council, was here, and was asked by a colleague at a meeting before lunch at the Foreign Office whether people had the right to worship any kind of religion. He replied, in terms, that they did. Clearly, that should apply to Tibet just as much as to Hong Kong, or to any of the provinces and regions of mainland China.
The right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) talked about China being linked up with fibre optic cable, and he saw this as a means of centralising information in Beijing to create greater control over the regions and provinces. It is true that interactive technology leads in an extraordinary way to the possibilities of global learning using the electronic information networks. By the beginning of the next millennium, it is reckoned that 1 billion students throughout the world will be in the process of, or will wish to be in the process of, learning English as their second language.
That gives me a suitable opportunity—as an unpaid vice-chairman of that great body, the British Council—to mention that that is a fantastic opportunity for the British Council to be involved in China, as we propose to be, in the extension of English language teaching, the training of English language teachers and the bringing of postgraduate Chinese students to this country. We are taking positive steps in that direction, and we shall launch our first joint venture English language teaching centre in Beijing in early 1997, in co-operation with the State Education Commission. We shall open other centres in Shanghai and Guangzhou in subsequent years.
In 1995–96, the number of people taking our English language and professional examinations in China was 2,550. By 1996–97, that will have increased by 250 per cent. to 6,375. We propose to open examination centres in 10 Chinese cities from March 1997, and we shall continue to increase the use of British teaching qualifications. I mention those matters to the House as examples of positive ways in which the British Council can and should have a distinct role in the development of Sino-British relationships in the 21st century.
Let me reinforce the point that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) made to me by saying that that work can often be done in partnership with the BBC World Service. I hope, therefore—I address these words to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office—that the British Council and the BBC World Service will receive reasonable and generous treatment in the next expenditure round, the negotiation of which is drawing to a conclusion. It would cause great upset in the House to friends of both organisations if such a reasonable settlement did not appear.
A number of colleagues have referred to my right hon. Friend—I mean those words literally—the Governor, Chris Patten. When he took on the job of Governor four and a half years ago, he knew that it was an impossible job and that his task was to make it seem as possible as he could. In addition, his task was not only to leave Hong Kong economically and socially strong, but to ensure that one part of its strength was the habit of multi-party elections. He tried to make that little oak tree grow faster than it had before. That resulted in the popularisation of the functional seats—changing the process from "election by small colleges of members" to, in effect, "election by a reasonably large number of concerned voters". As we all know, that was never accepted by China. The Governor—to use one of the tennis analogies of which he has become increasingly fond—served the tennis ball, expected it to be returned and was ready to develop a rally of suggestions and counter-suggestions. In fact, no attempt was made to return the ball: it simply hit the back fencing and has stayed there ever since.
There is no point in speculating, with the 100 per cent. vision that is hindsight, whether different tactics could have achieved more lasting and better results. In that respect, Chris Patten tried for all he was worth, but he failed. He should take full credit for what he aimed to do, although it was unsuccessful.
It is foolish for Back Benchers to pretend that the end result is good for democracy; it is not. The Legislative Council elected in 1994 will be abolished, the successor body will be unelected and, about 18 months later, there will be another elected LegCo. It is essential that that further elected LegCo should not be a quisling body and that it should have different, contentious, argumentative and dissident Members.
The first judgment of Hong Kong in the eyes of the world should be on the basis of whether the new body is merely uniform and pro-Peking or whether it is truly a difficult legislative assembly, like ours and others throughout the world. The judgment of the outside world will depend on its being a multi-party legislative assembly.
There is the rub, because, as many of us know, China is not a multi-party country; it has not yet learnt how to adapt itself for the post-communist age. The 20th century has largely been the century of the United States; the 21st century is likely to be the century of China. I respect that, and I understand the wish of British firms to do business there and to get bigger and bigger orders, but China faces the enormous problem of adapting to the post-communist age.
It remains to be seen whether China's transition will be peaceful or bloody and whether it will be uniform and controlled from the centre or diverse and spread throughout the regions. The long-term future of Hong Kong depends more on the transition in mainland China than on anything else.
In a recent speech in Edinburgh, Lord Skidelsky referred to one country with two systems—one of capitalist economies and the other of communist politics. That is the paradox that China has yet to work out. No doubt, Parliament will have some role in monitoring and discussing how that development takes place but, realistically, we should all remember the words of the Dalai Lama, spoken in the Jubilee Room when he was here in July:
Each of us can work to change a small proportion of events.
That is all that the House of Commons can seek and aim to do in the years ahead.
Despite the upbeat way in which the Foreign Secretary began this debate, it has been—and cannot be other than—a sombre debate. As the right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) said, 11 years have passed since the debates on the Hong Kong Bill; one would have thought that that was more than ample time for any differences, ambiguities and uncertainties remaining after the conclusion of the joint agreement to be resolved. Yet fundamental differences persist.
The joint agreement was warmly welcomed when it was made; it was hailed as a remarkable breakthrough, with its concept, as the right hon. Gentleman reminded us, of one country and two systems, and it was greeted in an atmosphere of excited optimism. In a debate in 1984, I said:
can Britain do anything about making the agreement stick in the spirit as well as the words? … As someone said to me in Hong Kong in October"—
that was October 1984—
'the music is good but the song must be well sung.' In other words, it is the implementation and practice that are important.
That remains the position today. I went on to say:
I am sure that something can be done."—[Official Report, 5 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 415.]
I am not so sure now, and time is much shorter.
The omens for the maintenance and extension of democracy, the sustaining of a judiciary independent of government, and the continued operation of a free press and free media are fairly bleak. Those are the crucial characteristics that the joint agreement was thought to conserve and protect; they define the distinctiveness of the system in Hong Kong by contrast with the system in the People's Republic of China.
Reference has already been made by the Foreign Secretary and by the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) to Wang Dan, the 26-year-old dissident student imprisoned for 11 years. What were his crimes? They were writing articles in overseas publications criticising the Chinese Government, joining an overseas correspondence course run by the university of California and setting up a mutual aid scheme for dissidents released from gaol.
When the Chinese were criticised by the British, French, Americans and others, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said:
the trial of Wang Dan is entirely a Chinese legal procedure, carried out in accordance with the law".
I want to couple that quotation with one from the letter circulated to all hon. Members by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), responding to criticisms of Chinese Foreign Minister Qian's interview in The Asian Wall Street Journal. The Minister said that the Government had reminded China of its obligations concerning freedom of speech under the joint agreement. He added:
Mr. Qian has since said that the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people set out in the Basic Law will be protected according to law".
That inspires much less confidence and much more trepidation than it used to.
We must, as most hon. Members have been, be blunt, clear and open about our concerns. I want Britain to leave Hong Kong with honour. We are, after all, delivering a
large group of people into the hands of those from whom they fled. A member of the LegCo delegation that I met yesterday put it succinctly:
What the British can do they won't; what they want to do they can't.
We could, of course, have offered the guarantee of British citizenship—and we still could. That would be the ultimate proof of our confidence in the agreement; it would provide security for people in Hong Kong and show China that we accepted our responsibility for them and believed that China would fulfil its accepted obligations. I do not believe that it would lead to a vast influx of Chinese into the country, but it would put enormous pressure on China to make the agreement work.
The Government often preach about morality. The issue of citizenship is a profoundly moral question. It is greatly to the credit of the LegCo delegation led by Emily Lau—whose tenacity in the pursuit of democracy I salute—that despite the passage of 11 years since the agreement left them with a toytown passport which gives them no right of abode outside Hong Kong and subject to the willingness of the Chinese to accept them, it spent much time pleading the cause of the 6,000 or so, mainly Indian, ethnic minority people.
I shall not say much about that, because the matter has been well rehearsed. However, the Foreign Secretary quoted again the Prime Minister's remark to the effect that if they
come under pressure to leave
they will be allowed into this country. As the right hon. Member for Livingston said, defining that condition, given the way in which the Home Office deals with refugees, could be a nightmare. The treatment of the families of the Gurkhas who left Hong Kong does not impress in that regard. I warmly welcome the statement of the right hon. Member for Livingston on the ethnic minorities.
I studied the Minister's letter with great care. There was some repetition of it in the Foreign Secretary's speech. The appointment of a provisional legislature has been dealt with already. I welcome the Foreign Secretary's strong condemnation of that proposition. The House's response should encourage him to pursue the issue with vigour. In mentioning that Hong Kong had been accepted into several international organisations, he said that Hong Kong had been accepted in its own right. If the legislature is appointed and not elected, to talk of Hong Kong in "its own right" is meaningless.
I followed with interest the remarks of the right hon. Member for Livingston about the effect of Governor Patten's extension of democracy and the fact that the Chinese were supposed to have felt that it breached their understanding. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee seemed not to support that contention. I think that Governor Patten was right. I am not sure what the right hon. Member for Livingston would have done otherwise—apart from nothing, which is not a good idea.
Reference has been made to the fact that perhaps 50 per cent. of the existing Members of LegCo may be persuaded to join the proposed provisional legislature if it comes to pass, but it has been insufficiently stressed that the 50 per cent. who will not join are the democratically elected Members. They will not join because they know that if they did, their future as democratic politicians would be prejudiced. What about the international covenants? The Minister's letter states that the Chinese are "actively" considering accession. What evidence is there of that? It would be a considerable advance if they were, but I take leave very much to doubt it. If they were to do that, it would be not only Hong Kong with which they would be concerned, but other parts of China such as Tibet, as the right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said.
I ask the Minister again to spell out how Britain views her monitoring responsibilities after the handover. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) mentioned that. There is no mechanism, or proposed mechanism, to deal with it. Perhaps the consulate might be involved. I should like to know.
The Minister says that the United Nations human rights committee has stated that it will accept reporting
on whatever basis China and Britain agree".
But they have not agreed, although they have had 11 years to do so. What commitment does Britain make to monitor and report to the United Nations? The Minister must answer that.
The Minister rightly said that confidence in Hong Kong has been holding up well. But as one LegCo Member said to me,
there is a deep sense of resignation. For good or ill we can do nothing: we must be optimistic.
I want to be optimistic, too. I want the transition to go well.
In Chris Patten, we have had in our last Governor our best Governor. But our refusal to guarantee citizenship shames us. Our bystander approach to the erosion of basic elements in the agreement does not do us credit. Hon. Members will have read the trenchant and direct letter from Martin Lee. We still have time to make amends and to go out proudly. I hope that that is what we shall do.
It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston), with whom I have co-operated on several ventures and with whom I rarely find myself at odds on foreign affairs. I agree strongly with much of what he said. I agree that we have a moral obligation. Moral obligations are real. What is morally wrong is never politically right. I think that we made a mistake in not granting passports. Like the hon. Gentleman, I believe that, far from being faced with an influx of indigent people from the east, we would merely have given due reassurance where it was deserved. We would also have shown China that we truly meant business in every way.
There are things that we could, and should, still do. It is disappointing that the Chamber is so empty, but those hon. Members who are present are deeply committed and concerned. I hope that we can translate that commitment and concern not only beyond today but beyond 30 June 1997.
Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary remedies. It has been said during the debate that we are dealing with an unparalleled and unprecedented situation. As we have a continuing responsibility, which is recognised by the fact that the joint liaison group will continue to the year 2000, should we not discover what we can do through the mechanisms at our disposal in the House? Is there not a case for a special Select Committee to continue to monitor what happens in Hong Kong? Would that not be an earnest of our good intentions to our friends from Hong Kong?
I cannot pretend to the long and detailed knowledge of Hong Kong that many hon. Members can bring to the debate. I went there for the first time little more than a month ago. It was a great honour to lead what will be the last Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Hong Kong. It was an attractive invitation, not least because the week that we went coincided with the Conservative party conference, so I was able to employ myself productively and miss what is not my favourite week of the year.
It was a fascinating experience. I know that the six of us who went—three from each side of the House—were deeply impressed and very moved by what we saw and heard. The vibrancy of the place is quite amazing. Those who have been there know that from experience, while those who have not can only imagine, as I sought to do in the past. Whether one was looking down at the floor of the stock exchange or watching the extraordinary movement of earth to create the new airport, one was aware that one was in a quite amazing place. It really is fantastic, with its innovative skills and the wonderful industry of its people.
We were impressed, too, when we met our former right hon. Friend the Governor, who gave us a good portion of his time. I agree again with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber that Hong Kong can never have had a better Governor: he has served Hong Kong and his country with immense distinction during the four and a half years that he has been there. Yes, in many ways it was an impossible task, but he has brought to it a determination and a realism that few could have matched. What was noticeable when one talked to people in Hong Kong was that even though some had reservations about some of the Governor's judgments, and it would be idle to pretend that they did not, no one really had a bad word to say for him.
I am afraid that that honour was denied to us on that occasion—my vote is for Patten in all circumstances.
We met the deputy director of the New China News Agency and we were assured that all would be well. We must hope and pray that it is. Even among those who expressed the greatest buoyant confidence, as many did—it would do them a disservice not to make that plain tonight—one detected an underlying apprehension. One also discovered that many of those who were investing, quite rightly, so much of their time, talents and, yes, their money in Hong Kong, nevertheless had the security of another passport. They hope, and I hope, that they will never have to fall back upon that security. It will be a test of the new Chinese administration that they never have to.
I should like to mention one or two issues, some of which have been touched on before but which are tremendously important as Hong Kong moves inexorably towards the transition to a new sovereignty. I shall not labour the point about ethnic minorities as I hope that I have made my position plain on the general passport issue. I do not doubt for a minute the good faith of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, because I have great admiration for him, which is well known. I am afraid, however, that his statement, while full of good intent, was not enough. I beg my right hon. Friend to go that further mile—it is not even that, rather a few feet—and give that finite group of people proper protection. They are typified by the Indian whom we met at Whitehead detention centre, who has served Her Majesty the Queen with immense distinction over many years, but who does not know what the future holds. If anyone deserves the security of a proper passport, it is that man and others like him.
It is incumbent upon the House to do all that it can to impress upon our right hon. Friends in government the need to give those people passports. It will be seen as mean-spirited if we do not, and it will be seen as no more than proper recognition if we do—and we should.
In Hong Kong there is a real unease among the ethnic minorities and others about what will happen to their freedoms. Apart from the economic magnitude of the place, two things are most impressive to the first-time visitor. One is the true freedom of the press and the media to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) referred. The other is how one can wander around at almost any hour of the night and feel totally safe.
People fear for those freedoms. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber has already referred to the young man, Wang Dan, and his example brings back the terrible memories of a few years ago.
Of course we want the concept of "one country—two systems" to work. Of course I am prepared to acknowledge that the 21st century will probably be China's century, and I recognise the importance of that country. Nevertheless, one has to say to the Chinese that they must demonstrate that those freedoms will survive. For our part, we must do everything we can to impress upon them just how important we reckon that survival to be. What has happened in China recently and what is happening with the provisional Legislative Council do not offer encouragement. One has to communicate that to the Chinese firmly and clearly.
Another remarkable thing about Hong Kong is the lack of corruption. That country has a legal system of which it has every right to be proud, and it is important that that remarkably buoyant society should retain those incorrupt values. One is worried not least because of the enormous disparity in payments between those who will be in one system and those operating under the other. When one considers what the garrison of the People's Liberation Army will be paid in comparison with what the Hong Kong police rightly receive, one can see the seeds of problems. We must be alive to those issues.
I am delighted to see that one of my companions on our trip, the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), is in the Chamber because we should not let the debate pass without paying tribute to the way in which the forces of the Crown have defended Hong Kong for a century and a half. I speak for all of us when I say how impressed we were by the sheer professionalism, efficiency and dedication of the young men of the Navy and Army whom we visited on one of our days in Hong Kong. The new garrison has a lot to live up to.
Gesture politics are rightly often condemned, but there is a time for the gesture when it is truly symbolic. Much has been said about the handover ceremony, and it is extremely important that we should be represented at the highest possible level. I hope very much that the Prince of Wales will be there. I hope that the Prime Minister, whoever he is—and of course I hope that it will be the present Prime Minister—will also be there. Although the noble Baroness Thatcher will be very welcome, she should be only one of many in attendance. The Prime Minister of this country should be there, and I hope that by his attendance he will demonstrate yet again our continued commitment to Hong Kong.
I conclude where I began, with the joint liaison group. There is provision for it to sit until 2000. It must do so, and it must remain active. I believe that we should monitor continually the workings of the transition in every possible way, not just to 2000 but beyond. I repeat my suggestion that the House should devise some means of allowing a Select Committee to examine the affairs of Hong Kong and to monitor continuously what occurs. All hon. Members have a duty to that last great colony. If we are to honour our commitment in the way the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber suggested, we must do something rather than merely make proclamations.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), whom I have to call an honourable and an old friend. He and I work closely together in cultural matters upon which he is very good and extremely knowledgeable. He also has considerable political courage on issues such as Bosnia, where only very few of us understood what was going on and pursued the right policy of intervention. Perhaps when he has lived with the Chinese and Hong Kong relationship for as long as I have, he will be nearly as good on that issue as he was on Bosnia. I am happy to help to educate him tonight in a brief speech which I hope will make some pungent and factual points.
The signing of the joint declaration in December 1984 by the Chinese and British Governments was a great and historic achievement. It was the outcome of the dedicated work primarily of our own Sir Geoffrey, now Lord Howe, who played a most significant role in bringing that agreement into being. The other contributor was Lord MacLehose who, if we are talking about Governors of Hong Kong, we must put at the apex of achievement while Mr. Patten would be playing in the puddles. Lord MacLehose was a great Governor and there have been others nearly as great as he. It was also the work of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Vice Premier, Zhou Nan, and very much involved in that work was the present Chinese ambassador to London, whom I have known for 24 or 25 years and for whom I have the greatest respect as an extremely able diplomat.
That declaration set the Basic Law of Hong Kong and was, to those who knew anything about the problems of bringing those two systems together, an immense
achievement out of all expectations. Very importantly, in his statement in the House of Commons, the then Sir Geoffrey Howe stated:
I should like to draw the attention of the House"—
to my speech at the moment, but on that occasion Sir Geoffrey continued—
to the following important features of the draft agreement. It constitutes a formal international agreement, legally binding in all its parts. This is the highest form of commitment that can be given by one sovereign state to another".—[Official Report, 25 October 1984; Vol. 65, c. 819.]
That is why Patten failed us. Unfortunately for Hong Kong, Chris Patten lost his seat in the 1992 general election—would to God he had held it, by however small a majority—and the Prime Minister, in recompense and, I presume, in solace, appointed him Governor of Hong Kong. A man—I must be frank about this—who seems to know little of either Hong Kong or China and a man who, deplorably, was not prepared to listen to those who did know about those two countries.
There was excellent article in the South China Morning Post in September this year, which some of my colleagues may have read. It was by Sir Percy Craddock, another great figure in our relations with China. In that article, he said one or two moderately unkind things about the Governor, puncturing his pretensions and showing him up as an ambitious, scheming politician—and I don't think anybody who met Patten in his earlier manifestations would disagree with that analysis—in this instance with an eye on his own future regardless of the real interests of Hong Kongers. I feel not the slightest embarrassment in being as blunt as I can about what I think has been a disastrous term by Patten as Governor of Hong Kong at the worst possible moment in history.
The Basic Law provided that Members of the last Legislative Council under the British Administration—that is, before 30 June 1997—could become Members of the first Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. What an admirable arrangement. That was the so-called through-train agreement, which was in the original agreements. There had been also an exchange of seven letters—not two or three—between the two Foreign Ministers to agree on the composition and the method of election for that process. Those arrangements would have ensured a smooth transition.
However, the arrogant and ill-informed Governor Patten pursued his policy of constitutional reform. It had all been agreed and then Patten introduced constitutional reform. He reneged on the through-train arrangement, and on the seven letters, and pressed ahead with local legislation to change unilaterally the system for the 1995 Hong Kong election which introduced a different plan for the composition of the last Legislative Council. That clearly violated the agreements between the two countries—it is no good either Front Bench trying to dissimulate or pretend it is not so. It is disingenuous—I use a charitable expression—for the Foreign Secretary to claim otherwise.
Understandably, China could not accept this breach of the agreement and stated that the LegCo, thus introduced by Patten's reforms, would cease on 30 June 1997. And they announced the setting up of a provisional Legislative Council as a temporary body whose laws would not become operative until 1 July 1997? That body will be disbanded upon the establishment of the first Legislative Council of the Hong Kong SAR which will be elected—I do not believe talk about a later date—no later than 1 July 1998. If there is two or three months' slippage, so what?
It serves no useful purpose to argue about what was an inevitable outcome. The idea that China would accept the deal was arrogance beyond belief on the part of the Governor and his ill-informed advisers. Once that failed Bath politician had monkeyed about with the agreed arrangements, there would be no completion of his new project. I refer the House back to Sir Geoffrey Howe's statement that I quoted at the beginning of my speech. It was quite clear that was a cut-and-dried series of agreements and Patten's constitutional reform aborted it.
There are some politicians in Hong Kong who wish to see the outcome for Hong Kong in the dire terms that they describe. They ignore the most basic fact in the whole matter: it is in China's interests that, under the two systems one country policy set out in the joint declaration, Hong Kong's capitalist system and its success should continue. There is a guarantee that that will ensue for at least 50 years. China, for those of us who know something about its history, is historically a country that keeps its agreements.
We can all, however, guarantee our bottom Hong Kong dollar that the scaremongers and the wreckers such as Martin Lee already have their get-out passports tucked conveniently hidden in their back pockets.
It is very sweet of you to give way to me, dear Friend. May I say to my very good Friend, whom I listen to carefully and from whom I have learnt a lot, that Martin Lee has made it clear that he intends to stay in Hong Kong after 30 June 1997. I suspect that he is running a damn sight more risks than my dear and hon. Friend is running, even with his bad cold.
I think that matter had better be dropped.
We must have differing views on this. I do not have the benefit of having met Martin Lee, but there are many like him arguing the odds to make it as difficult as they can under the transitional system. Once the transfer is achieved, however, they will be off with their passports tucked in their back pockets. There is no doubt of that at all.
There is one issue for which the British Government retain full responsibility, which they must accept and act on. There is still time for that. This is the issue that has been raised time and again this afternoon—the issue of British nationals in Hong Kong who in July 1997 will become stateless. It is no good arguing about that word; that is the position that they will be in. There are about 5,000 of them, I am told. Our spokesman on foreign affairs mentioned 10,000. But however many thousand, there are not that many. The Select Committees on Foreign Affairs of both 1989 and 1993 recommended that full citizenship be granted to them.
I am delighted that our spokesman, the admirable right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), has made the commitment that the Labour Government, who are coming along nicely, will keep the commitment that those chaps will be allowed British citizenship. It would really be shameful if this Government, which has done a number of fairly shameful things, did not enact the required legislation. If they do not, we will. We cannot abandon those unfortunate people.
The situation is ludicrous when one compares the figures in Macau and in Hong Kong. The citizens of Macau—all 450,000 of them—are entitled to Portuguese citizenship. That Portuguese citizenship would, in principle, through the EC, give them the right of abode in the United Kingdom. We are saying no to that right for 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000 people. It is nonsense. We must in God's name provide for those last few thousand for whom we are responsible the same heartening settlement as the Portuguese Chinese are to have.
The hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) could not be more wrong in attacking the governorship of Christopher Patten in Hong Kong. Had the hon. Gentleman been with me recently when I went round some of the housing estates in which the ordinary people of Hong Kong live, he would have seen that Chris Patten was not just respected, but loved by the people there. He is loved because he cares for the ordinary people of Hong Kong, and they know it.
—British-Chinese parliamentary group blinker him to the warm feelings that exist towards Governor Patten and the respect for his achievements, his caring and his affection for the people.
Hong Kong has a particular place in the hearts of the British people. Sadly, we can do nothing to stop it being taken from us, but there is much that we can still do to reassure those who are nervous about the transfer to China. We can do much to let the people of Hong Kong know that we care, as Governor Patten cares, and that we in this place will go on caring about Hong Kong, its people, its prosperity, its rights and its liberties.
I certainly hope that this will not be the last debate on Hong Kong before the handover next year. We can give the people of Hong Kong the reassurance that we will do anything we can in the council chambers of the world to make sure that China observes its undertakings. We have almost every reason for thinking that the Chinese will honour the joint declaration and the Basic Law. If there is any indication that they will not, we in this place will go on debating the issues that we know are close to the people of Hong Kong. We will consider their case and do what we can to allay their fears.
We must be prepared to face up to China if it looks as though it is trying to assert itself. As far as I have any authority to say so as chairman of the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, we will look for acceptable ways of keeping a close and continuous interest in Hong Kong, as the joint declaration gives us not only the right but the obligation so to do.
We have no concerns about the future prosperity of Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong, their outstanding administrators and, I think, the Beijing Government will ensure that that prosperity will endure and grow. However, as today's debate has made clear, we have great concerns about the liberties and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong—concerns that we can only hope the Beijing Government understand and recognise. Every act of Chinese repression, whether of a country such as Tibet, of groups or of individuals, stops those concerns dissolving away. We hope that the Chinese Government understand why we have those concerns.
The right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) is not often right, but he was certainly right in the major part of his speech today and he was right to say that we left democracy in Hong Kong a little late. I remember debate after debate in the 1980s—those one-and-a-half-hour debates at a late hour—where I had a speech that I was never able to deliver. By the time the two Front-Bench spokesmen had opened and wound up, and a handful of Hong Kong experts called Blaker, Miller, Bray, Johnston, Whitney and others had spoken, there was never an opportunity for someone like me to speak.
I will summarise that undelivered speech in a moment or two. It said: let us get the seeds of democracy in now, not later. Let us give those seeds the time to take, in an unaccustomed soil, and grow into saplings so strong that when the cold winds of anti-democracy start blowing from the north, the saplings will be strong enough to withstand them and endure. That was my speech, but I never got anywhere near putting that message across in the Chamber, although I did what I could behind the scenes.
We did delay. We delayed too long. When we planted the seeds, we gave them too little chance to grow before the handover and the chill, cold, hard winds came. Now we can see them blowing. The provisional LegCo is to replace the duly elected LegCo, although there is no mention of it in the joint declaration or the Basic Law. It is a matter that alarms and concerns the people of Hong Kong, as it must alarm and concern us.
On the face of it, there seems to be no point in a provisional LegCo, which will undoubtedly intervene in the government of Hong Kong and generate confusion and resentment. China has never even tried to explain why it wants a provisional LegCo that will cause confusion and resentment.
If I heard correctly, the hon. and learned Gentleman just said that he could not understand why China had behaved as it has. I thought that I had explained rather explicitly in my speech that it was because Governor Patten aborted the through-train arrangement that China introduced the provisional council.
I am afraid that the obvious explanation is that the Chinese are attempting to assert the fact that they are master, and to get in, as it were, at an early stage to make quite sure that nobody will dispute, when they take over, where that masterdom lies. That is the obvious conclusion that we must draw in the absence of any explanation other than that which the hon. Member for Warley, East, on behalf of the Chinese Government, offers.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for protecting me.
I do not need to state, because it has often, and better, been stated by others, that that action alone has caused such alarm and concern that, if it grows, it will do inevitable harm to Hong Kong's long-term interests and future. I am pleased that the United Kingdom Government will continue to oppose the proposal. I am gratified that, the hon. Member for Warley, East apart, that view is common across the parties.
Then there is the cold blast that has blown from the Chinese mainland over the Bill of Rights—in an effort to reverse the amendment to the six Hong Kong ordinances. Happily, so far, it has not been proceeded with. Perhaps China is realising the depth of our concerns about civil liberties and human rights. Such actions cause shudders of alarm and concern which all the good governance of Governor Patten, and all the economic support and prosperity in Hong Kong, has not been able to deflect. I hope that we will continue to debate these matters regularly in this place so that the Government in Beijing can see that we are not letting those concerns go away, that we are not bored into apathy, that we care and will continue to care about Hong Kong and its people.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is a lawyer. What does he think of the deal, agreement—however we like to describe it—about the Court of Final Appeal and the fact that the idea of having two outside judges has been cast aside in favour of having what I think is described as "one or none"?
That is another of the cold blasts of air that send a shudder through everyone concerned. During early discussions about the matter, there was the terrible fear that the court's last place of resort would be Beijing, not Hong Kong, but I have to say that the Chinese Government showed sensitivity about the jurisdiction of the Court of Final Appeal. It is a good sign that the Beijing Government reacted positively to the deep concerns that were felt several years ago about the venue of the court. I remember spending several days in Hong Kong in the early 1980s with the then Chief Justice, who went out of his way to inculcate in me a thorough understanding of the consequences of the court's not being its own master in Hong Kong. But there is a cold wind, and it causes concern.
There is, of course, a lesser matter, which has been much canvassed this evening, but it is still important. It is a matter over which we most certainly have control: the issue of the ethnic minority. I can see how valuable the British Government's protective undertaking has been and how welcome was my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's undertaking that any ethnic minority British national in Hong Kong who is placed in fear and threat can come here, settle and, in due course, gain British citizenship. The gap between that and offering full British citizenship is very narrow.
I do not understand why the United Kingdom Government are deliberately making it appear that they do not want to be seen to be magnanimous. Why? There seems to be no purpose in it. It is such a small step. No more of the minority in Hong Kong will come here because we do the right thing than if we appear to be churlish about it. I was going to say that if we did not bridge that gap, the Labour party would promise to bridge it, and lo and behold we heard that commitment made this afternoon. We are still in power, and I hope that we will remain in power so that the Labour party's commitment will not need to be invoked. We must take our own action in this matter. I simply do not understand why we are making so much of it. As I have said, it is a small step and it begins to look churlish if we do not take it.
Why are we allowing any feeling of resentment, any feeling of disappointment, when it is so easily within our power to be seen and felt to be doing the right thing? Is there some reason that we are not being told? I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that we are listening for the reason. We are interested. Do we expect the Chinese Government in Beijing to let the democratically elected LegCo remain in existence? Is that the reason? I doubt it, but if it is, let us hear about it, because if that is so it would be worth the appearance of churlishness if we were to make some other significant gain in the security and happiness of Hong Kong.
Is it perhaps that some other explanation is being held out to us, some other offer, some benefit, if we continue to appear churlish? If so, I ask my right hon. Friend to tell us so that we might understand and stop our nagging, as that is what it is beginning to sound like on this issue. We are all united here in Parliament. If there is no reason, I have confidence that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and the Government will see the virtue of thinking again, as we did with the war widows.
For just as the Chinese intransigence over LegCo weakens confidence, so would our change of mind in this matter strengthen confidence. Let us do what we can to build up that confidence and reassurance where we can. We owe that to the people of Hong Kong.
Debates on Hong Kong have over the years tended to demonstrate the width of agreement in the House. There are exceptions to that. The recollections of the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) of debates in the 1980s seem a little incomplete. Some of us were arguing precisely what he was saying, not only in the House but in Hong Kong. My hon. Friend the Member for Warley. East (Mr. Faulds) has strong views on Chinese policies that he never hesitates to air, and he did so eloquently again tonight.
The speeches of the Foreign Secretary and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who is shadow Foreign Secretary, demonstrated the width of agreement in the House and the commitment to stand by Hong Kong. We have all been of common mind on the treatment of non-Chinese ethnic minorities. It is a quite shameful and unnecessary act to exclude them from the citizenship of this country, to which they are fully entitled.
There is another function of debates on Hong Kong in the House—to look ahead. For many years, certain words have not been spoken in Hong Kong. For many years, one such phrase was "1997". Years later, it was "elections", and then "direct elections". Now the unmentionable words are "the political impact of Hong Kong on China."
There is much talk of the political impact of China on Hong Kong. We have heard much about it in this debate. However, there is very little talk about the impact in the other direction. Hong Kong has always lived for the moment, and it has done very well as a result. It is not for British Ministers or the retiring British Governor to reflect on the future political impact of Hong Kong on China. They have no wish to make their job more difficult by seeming to interfere in China's politics.
People are thinking, however, and now—as in the past—it would be better if more people started talking about the unmentionable. People in Hong Kong fear that, if they ventilate their views on the political future of China, they and their concerns will suffer. Speaking only for myself, I think that those concerns would not suffer if hon. Members were to speak out more fully. Far from appearing a destabilising threat to China, I believe that such talk about China's political future would help it to benefit more fully from the peaceful resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong.
Contrasting the experience of the people of the former Soviet Union, I can find no wish in the House, in the United Kingdom, in Europe or in the United States for the people of China to be destabilised in the same manner. Hong Kong has a much higher income per head than China. As many hon. Members have said, China has strong economic interests to maintain Hong Kong's prosperity. Hong Kong will be seen, however—it will want to be seen—as a honeypot in China, with all the advantages and risks that that entails.
The joint declaration and the Basic Law provide that China will levy no taxes and exact no payments from Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong will manage its own currency and monetary affairs. Only yesterday, an agreement was signed between Britain and China on the transfer of Hong Kong's foreign exchange funds—worth about $62 billion—which will be transferred, on 1 July 1997, to the Government of the Special Administrative Region. That one transaction will increase China's total foreign exchange reserves by 38 per cent. Mr. Lu Ping, head of the Hong Kong and Macao office in Beijing, said that the People's bank of China—China's central bank—will not establish any branches in Hong Kong. I believe that China will honour its commitments to non-interference in such matters.
China and Hong Kong have huge and inescapable common interests within those commitments—in the stability of the economy, in investment and in trade. There is also a common interest in resisting and rooting out corruption. Anyone who has followed Chinese history for long knows how that is a continually recurring theme in China. It has also been a major preoccupation in Hong Kong. Although the starting points and the jurisdictions are different, the fight against corruption will be much more likely to succeed if the two systems reinforce rather than weaken each other's strengths.
Hong Kong will not be responsible for foreign affairs or defence. It will not contribute to the costs of those policies, but it will be greatly affected by their results. There will be an inevitable interaction of media and communication systems. Perhaps most important of all, there will be a growing interaction of the culture, ideas, social aspirations and behaviour of people in China and those in Hong Kong.
In recent years, Hong Kong has been strengthened in its role as China's window on the world by the rapid expansion of its universities. The great national universities of China—Beijing, Qinghua and Fudan—draw their students from all the provinces of China. For understandable reasons, however, such as the higher cost of living, that is not practicable at the undergraduate level in Hong Kong. Hong Kong graduate schools, however, would be able to achieve higher standards and make a greater contribution to China, and to Hong Kong, if they recruited from all over China, and financed those students at the expense of the SAR Government.
No first-class graduate school anywhere in the world limits its recruitment to a population of only 6 million people. Recruitment of professional skills and their export to China would greatly benefit Hong Kong and China. Why should all the Chinese students want to go to America when they could be trained in professional skills as well in China and in Hong Kong?
How will people in Hong Kong play things? There will be no wish in Hong Kong to treat Beijing as a court of appeal, to which people go if they do not get their way in Hong Kong. But Beijing's support will be important in matters that cannot be settled in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has thrived as a city state. Now, it is resuming its role as an integral part—also the most rich and powerful part—of the most populous nation on earth. That is a very different role from the one it has played, with whatever great success and distinction, since the war. It will bring new opportunities and responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong.
Article 21 of the Basic Law provides:
Chinese citizens who are residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be entitled to participate in the management of state affairs according to law. In accordance with the assigned number of seats and the selection method specified by the National People's Congress, the Chinese citizens among the residents of Hong Kong SAR shall locally elect deputies of the Region to the National People's Congress to participate in the work of the highest organ of state power.
In politics in Hong Kong today, the National People's Congress does not rate very highly. It is not seen as the seat of power—where the action lies—in China, and even less so in Hong Kong.
There is uncertainty about what will be the role of the other organs of government in China—particularly, after July, the role of the Communist party in Hong Kong. The official position in Beijing is that, under article 27 of the Basic Law,
Hong Kong residents should have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike.
When hon. Members hear such words, they wonder how much they have to do with reality in China, which has similar words in its constitution, as it had before Tiananmen. The question is not what interpretation was or is given to such words in China, but how those words will be interpreted in the jurisdiction of Hong Kong's courts, as they will function there.
The interpretation of "freedom of association" by Beijing seems to be that anyone in Hong Kong will be able to form political parties. If people wish to establish the Communist party or to join it in Hong Kong, they can do so. Anything can be read into that. It seems a little unlikely, however, that the party will be constituted as a dual channel of government in Hong Kong as it is in China.
Under the joint declaration and the Basic Law, those provisions under the banner of "one country, two systems" will remain unchanged for 50 years—but only for 50 years. That seems a long time but, in the perspective of Chinese history, 50 years soon passes. Even in the history of Hong Kong, it is 33 years since I called for the first debate in the House on the future of Hong Kong. It was a Back-Bench-initiated debate on the Easter Adjournment in 1963.
I said then that the future peace and prosperity of Hong Kong after 1997 depended on its economic integration with south China. Thanks to the initiative of Hong Kong people, and of people in China, that integration has happened, is happening and will go on happening for many years to come. It remains the best guarantee for Hong Kong in the next few years.
Over the next 50 years, which will pass very quickly—they represent only the lifetime of those who are now starting their adult lives in Hong Kong—the best interests of Hong Kong and China will be secured if the people of Hong Kong are able to contribute effectively to the politics of China itself.
As we hand sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, one demonstration of good government that we have still to make is the tidying up of the problems which have been the main preoccupation of today's debate. The issue on which Governor Patten has been touring Europe and the case for visa-free entry of SAR passport holders to Europe would be greatly strengthened if the UK Government were a bit firmer in their own commitments to the non-Chinese ethnic minorities.
As for the Legislative Council, it is, of course, a matter of great regret that it was not possible to reach agreement with China on the through train, but the election of the Chief Executive is proceeding precisely according to the Basic Law. I must say, it is going ahead with far greater openness than I had expected, and there has been active canvassing and a readiness to stand on the part of four substantial figures in Hong Kong who, in the language in which we used to talk about elections in Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, would never have let their names go forward for fear of the loss of face. However, we are through that phase now and are witnessing in Hong Kong a readiness on the part of the Government of the People's Republic to see Hong Kong as showing the way ahead, for politics not just in Hong Kong but in China.
When I visited Hong Kong in September with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation, I was interested to note a change from the mood of 1995, when everything seemed to be slipping away as the Governor presided over a steady loss of authority. This year, there was a mood of almost obligatory optimism. The atmosphere was one of "We've come through" and everyone breathed a sigh of relief because they would be handing over an efficient, functioning machine.
What worried me was that no substantial concern was expressed, other than in the Legislative Council, about what amounts to the removal of the basis of a sustainable and viable democracy on the through train into Chinese rule. That seems to me a curious failure, because democracy is central to maintaining the unique position of Hong Kong. After all, what makes Hong Kong unique and, in a sense, impregnable? What gives it its strength?
The Government's assumption throughout this debate—and, indeed, for years—is that Hong Kong's uniqueness is its economic strength, and that China needs Hong Kong's economic dynamo, its market access and its access to capital. However, as time goes on and as China develops—the speed of growth in China, and especially in competing centres such as Canton and Shanghai, is phenomenal, and much more rapid than that of Hong Kong itself, which has been comparatively slow for the past couple of years because the dollar seems to be over-valued—Hong Kong becomes comparatively less important. It becomes just another player in what amounts to a regional competition within China. The tendency must be towards increasing regionalisation and increasing competition between the regions. In such circumstances, competing cities will want Hong Kong's airport and container port for themselves, to develop them in their own way.
Another basis for Hong Kong's strength was always assumed to be that, thanks to the settlements with China, it had access to the top of the Chinese leadership. However, that is no longer the case. The agreements were made because of the authority of Deng Xiaoping. He had the strength to impose those agreements and ensure that they were carried out. He was committed—I am sorry to speak of him in the past tense, but, in the sense of active leadership, it is perhaps appropriate to do so—to sustaining those agreements. That was the basis of Hong Kong's independence, uniqueness and authority.
There is no longer that authoritative leadership; instead, there is a struggle for power and competing leaders. In that competition, Hong Kong becomes a pawn in a power play at the Chinese centre. Hong Kong is in danger of being interfered with. There is a danger that regional administrators and cadres will get their sticky fingers on Hong Kong and that it will no longer have the right of appeal on the strength of the centre that it did have. There is danger in the erosion of Hong Kong's uniqueness and in the acceptance of an increased population, because China is characterised by a massive drift to the cities. How is Hong Kong to stop the attempt to get at its capital?
The concept of one nation, two systems was designed not for Hong Kong but for Taiwan, which has a much greater population. It does not give Hong Kong strength in the system—it has a population of 6.3 million, compared to Taiwan's much greater population—to sustain itself and maintain its uniqueness. What gives Hong Kong its strength is surely democracy. That is what we should have been strengthening to hand on to China.
The phenomenal economic development of Hong Kong is based on the fact that it is a safe, stable island in an unpredictable world, and that it had a powerful and unpredictable neighbour—unpredictable, because authoritarian. All authoritarian regimes are unpredictable. There were abrupt changes in policy under Mao Tse Tung—his era personified unpredictability. Hong Kong has been insulated from that by the rule of law—commercial law, law enforced by independent courts and an uncorrupted civil service.
All that was based initially on British authority, but, as British authority recedes, it has to be based on the legitimacy of an elected Legislative Council—in other words, democratic legitimacy—which makes that uniqueness and rule of law sustainable, so that it can be handed on. It was not as democratic as we would have wished. It was always a question of too little, too late, but it is fair to say that democracy was conceded so slowly to Hong Kong because of a desire not to offend China in the Mao Tse Tung era. It is not altogether the fault of the British Government, although they should have gone further and faster when they had the opportunity.
Yet the Chinese use a minor extension of collegiate democracy by Governor Patten—not the fact of that minor extension, but the failure to consult—as an excuse to stop the democratic through train of the Legislative Council. I think that that is the key to a series of threats to Hong Kong. Once China had said that it would not accept that extension of democracy, we should have gone the whole hog and introduced universal suffrage. Why not? It is the only viable alternative. A vote to that effect was almost carried by the Legislative Council.
We did not do that, so let us start from where we are now. China has stopped the through train. It has said that it will abolish the Legislative Council and create an appointed council—many such problems of overlap have been dealt with today. The joint declaration, which has the force of a treaty, guarantees constitutional government by a Legislative Council constituted by elections. Abolishing that council violates the joint declaration.
Why have we not made that specific point frequently, ramming it down the throats of the Chinese Government and taking it to every available international forum or court? The Chinese have rejected a basic component of a treaty. Why have we not taken that up with the United Nations? Why have we not got the European Union, as a body, to give its backing to this critique of the Chinese Government and to demand guarantees that democracy will be sustained in Hong Kong?
Other creeping failures follow from that failure to resist the abrupt derailment of the through train. A repeal of the Bill of Rights has been announced, together with possible restrictions on democratic dissent, with the Chinese Foreign Minister inviting dissidents to leave, saying that no political activities that go against the leadership in China will be allowed. Restrictions have been proposed on the freedom of the press-the Chinese Foreign Minister said that newspapers will not be able to spread "rumours" about the Chinese leadership. If British newspapers were prevented from spreading rumours about our present leadership, there would be blank pages in every newspaper.
Basic democratic freedoms are crumbling away, because the removal of the freedom underpinning them all—the existence of a democratically elected Legislative Council—has been tacitly accepted by the British Government. They have not protested as effectively and vigorously as they should have done. Democracy, the rule of law and the freedom of the press are all encrustations on the teapot, as one Chinese leader put it. The teapot has effectively been smashed. The Legislative Council might have been the spout of the teapot, but all those freedoms were essential to underpin the rule of law, which has been the basis of Hong Kong's success.
It is worrying to see the press begin to kow-tow to the Chinese leadership, including the mogadonisation of the South China Evening Post. We have seen business men one after another making accommodations with the Chinese Government. The Chief Justice has stood down from his job and attacked the legislative enactment of rights. It is depressing that the candidates for the position of Chief Executive are all silent on the abolition of the Legislative Council, and are all jostling for indications of support from Beijing rather than for any indication of support from the people of Hong Kong, who, on the evidence of the polls, manifestly prefer Anson Chan to any of those putting themselves forward.
It is depressing to see Members of the Legislative Council having to choose whether to participate in the provisional council. Half of them—the unelected half, as has been pointed out—have said that they will. The democratically elected half are then placed in a very difficult position, because their platform and the basis of their support is democracy. Through the failure of the press to cover the Democratic party and the critics of the regime, those opponents are, bit by bit, losing their contact with the people, which is their lifeline. Non-participation in the arrangements relegates them to a position of impotence that will worsen over the years. All that is disastrous.
All those wide-ranging consequences stem from our failure to contest by every means at our disposal and in every world forum the abolition of the Legislative Council and the derailing of the through train. Democracy must be the basis of the legitimacy, the independence, the effectiveness and the strength of the system, because it involves the people—it is their system.
We are witnessing the effective abolition of democracy. The system may have been somewhat inadequate, but it was the beginning of democracy, and it would have been widened over time. That democracy needs to be expanded, improved and made more widespread, to preserve the basis of Hong Kong's strength—its uniqueness and its attachment to the rule of law, based on the legitimacy conferred by democratic elections.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) referred to the old expression, "one nation, two systems". Having seen Hong Kong and China, I think that Hong Kong has the socialist system. I have been fortunate in being able to visit Hong Kong twice in the past three years. It is a truly remarkable place, as all those who have been there say.
A number of thoughts occur to me when I return to my own city. After coming back from New York, London's buildings always seem small. When I come back from Hong Kong, London seems deserted of people.
No one can fail to admire the achievements of the people of Hong Kong, but, as we have already heard, those achievements have not come about through unregulated, rapacious capitalism, as those who have never been there often claim. I was very impressed with the social housing provision and with the education and health provision, all of which are extensive and of a high standard. I saw far fewer beggars on the streets and far fewer people huddling in doorways in Hong Kong than I see in London, not many yards from the Palace of Westminster. Let us be clear—Hong Kong is not a triumph of monetarism and rapacious capitalism; it is a triumph of planning and regulation, as well as of energy on the part of the people.
Hong Kong may still be a Crown colony, but it is far more prosperous than the so-called sovereign power of the United Kingdom. Its GDP per head is $23,210. Hong Kong is well ahead of the United Kingdom, and there is much that we could learn from it. I find it fascinating that we could be the ringmasters while all that has been going on in Hong Kong, yet we cannot achieve that level of success over here. That is one of the great problems of politics which will no doubt for ever defeat me.
When I was in Hong Kong, I met a wide cross-section of politicians, business people and civil servants. I kept extensive notebooks, which have been useful for cross-checking for this debate. Not surprisingly, the views of the people I met on the possibilities for the future of Hong Kong after 30 June 1997 varied considerably. Obviously, pro-Beijing politicians were utterly convinced that everything would be fine and dandy after 30 June. They would, wouldn't they?
What particularly appalled me was the significant body of opinion among business leaders in Hong Kong, who openly said that they positively detested Governor Patten and his 1992 democratic package. We all know why—they felt that it disturbed relations with China. They were absolutely right. Beijing is not keen on pluralist democracy. They also said—I made a careful note of the names of these business leaders—that most people in Hong Kong were not interested in democracy. That is often the view of people who are interested only in making money—they are not interested in political structures.
This was the authentic manifesto of so much of big business throughout the world. For these captains of industry, these aggressive tigers of capitalism, democracy is a bore. Most of them do not give a damn about it. What is more, they think that dissidents and radical individuals and groups are an embarrassment—an impediment to business. Thirdly, they themselves will do business with anyone, however murderous or authoritarian. Unfortunately, I found those to be the views of a significant element of the business community in Hong Kong.
The trouble with such a philosophy is that it is doomed in the long term. Corrupt political systems inevitably produce corrupt economic systems. Honest business—if that is not an oxymoron—cannot long survive with a crooked Government. It is just possible for crooked business to try to survive under an honest Government, but if that Government are honest they will, of course, move rapidly to deal with crooked business men.
The general absence of corruption in Hong Kong has been admired by all in this House tonight and in previous debates, but it is based on the rule of law, an independent judiciary, human rights and press freedoms. No one who has observed the events of recent years in China can have any confidence that such a climate of political freedom and human rights as is currently enjoyed in Hong Kong will endure after June 1997. I wish I could say otherwise, but that is how I feel. When we come to read these debates in future, we shall see who was right, the pessimists or the optimists.
The House does not need to take my word for China's attitude to press freedom and human rights. The Governor himself has expressed fears about press freedom, and China's Foreign Secretary said in an interview given to The Asian Wall Street Journal on 16 October of this year that the media in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
can put forward criticism, but not rumours or lies. Nor can they put forward personal attacks on the Chinese leaders.
He also argued:
in future, Hong Kong should not hold those political activities which directly interfere in the affairs of the mainland of China.
That was taken as a reference to the annual commemoration ceremonies in Hong Kong for those who died in Tiananmen square in 1989, and to the protests held in support of dissidents in China.
Naturally enough, there was a strong reaction to this interview. Amnesty International complained:
by giving their clearest warning to date that they will not tolerate commemorations in Hong Kong of the Beijing massacre, the Chinese authorities appear to be playing a game of intimidation.
These comments appear to reflect a decision in Beijing to raise the political stakes in relation to human rights issues and tighten the limits of Hong Kong's autonomy in this area.
We have heard that China will want to ensure that the Hong Kong goose continues to lay the golden eggs; but I am equally convinced that Beijing thinks that Hong Kong's position as an economic powerhouse can be maintained without the political freedoms that it currently enjoys.
During the Secretary of State's speech, we heard a lot of wishful thinking. I do not share his trust in pieces of paper when the signatures on them are those of Chinese politicians. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) takes a completely different view; he certainly has a way with words. I am quite content to wait and let time be the judge. My hon. Friend will not be a member of this place by then, but I shall make the odyssey to Warley, East to tell him who was right—I suppose the eastern part of Warley is the bit nearest China. Then we will revisit this evening's debate, and see who was right.
Hoping that China will not go back on the joint declaration is rather like hoping that it will not snow in Siberia this winter.
We shall have to wait and see. The Beijing Government have already made their intentions quite clear, and we should take the warnings seriously. In a debate in this House in 1984, Geoffrey Howe, the then Foreign Secretary, said:
First, the joint declaration and its annexes constitute a legally binding international agreement … the joint declaration is a form of international treaty; it has the same force in international law and is legally binding … It provides for the administration of Hong Kong to be in local hands and for the Executive to be accountable to an elected legislature. It provides for judicial power to be exercised independently and for a public service in which appointment and promotion will depend on qualifications, experience and ability."—[Official Report, 5 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 391-92.]
The Chinese premier has reiterated China's determination to sweep away Hong Kong's elected legislature and replace it with one appointed by Beijing. Indeed, its members—400 of them—are already in place on Beijing's selection committee. On 11 December, that committee will choose a new Chief Executive, and towards the end of December it will select an appointed provisional legislature to operate simultaneously with the elected Legislative Council, which, as we know, was elected in 1994 for a four-year period. That is a clear breach of the joint declaration, so we want to know what the British Government intend to do about it.
The Foreign Secretary says that we must wait and see—but we already know what will happen; the timetable is as good as written. It is too late to wait until everything is in place and then start protesting. Time is of the essence. What authority will LegCo be able to exercise in the shadow of a puppet legislature set up by China? What will the British Government do about the situation due to emerge in December? The joint declaration is an international agreement. The elected legislature is crucial to that declaration, and it has certainly been breached and will continue to be breached. The British Government must therefore act.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby said that we should involve the international community in condemning China's breach of the joint declaration. We should also refer it to the International Court of Justice. China, of course, will not submit to that court, but at least we can embarrass the Chinese Government. Or perhaps we could refer the whole matter to the Hong Kong High Court, while it still enjoys its current powers.
I have a direct question for the Minister: will the Government do this? Do they intend to wait for the appointed legislature to be set up next month and then deliver a mild protest to Beijing? Merely ignoring the situation would be a betrayal of Hong Kong's people and a sell-out to China. It would render worthless all the guarantees we have heard about tonight.
After June 1997, it is also clear that Beijing intends to emasculate Hong Kong's Bill of Rights, the fundamental guarantee of what we have all been praising—Hong Kong's human rights and political and press freedoms. They are all enshrined in the Bill. Once it goes, Hong Kong's courts, however independent, will lose their powers to strike down laws that conflict with the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That, too, will be a clear breach by China of guarantees given.
There is one point on which I will join hands with my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East—
My hon. Friend tempts me down paths of lasciviousness that I do not want to explore just now. Perhaps he could see me later.
The British should have discovered the joys of democracy in Hong Kong a long time before they did. That is why I can understand China's suspicions about what appears to be a deathbed conversion. I feel some sympathy for her on that. It is never too late for democracy. That being so, we must be prepared to defend it vigorously in the months left to us before 30 June.
I should like to say a word about Martin Lee, chairman of the Democratic party of Hong Kong, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East abused most unfairly. The Democratic party of Hong Kong won 19 of the 20 seats for independent candidates. I looked at my notes of my conversation with Martin Lee in 1993. He referred to the OBE clause, which will allow a number of politicians to get the hell out, with guaranteed entry into this country. He is not one of those who will use it. He has made it clear, and reiterated it when I met him yesterday and the day before, that he intends to stay in Hong Kong after 30 June 1997. I say to my hon. Friend that Mr. Lee could find himself in gaol. Such things must be remembered.
There are a number of very brave politicians. It is easy to be critical and stand up and slag off the Government in this country. Opposition Members make a profession of it, because we do not have to fear the knock at the door at night or be worried about being dragged off and put away for years without trial. Hong Kong is currently able to enjoy such freedoms, as we are, but I am worried that it will not be able to do so after 30 June 1997. Let us praise brave politicians like Martin Lee and Christine Loh.
When the Government are considering the final wrap-up ceremonies and travel arrangements for June 1997, will they ensure that they book fully refundable, and certainly fully transferable, air tickets? I know that a Labour, not a Conservative, Foreign Secretary will be representing the British Government and the British people at that ceremony. I only hope that a Labour Government will be far more robust in looking critically at what happens after June 1997 than the Conservative Government have been in the run-up to it.
I should like to begin by offering the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), the shadow Foreign Secretary, who has had to leave the House this evening because of another commitment. He has already given his apologies to the Government Front-Bench team and would like them to be conveyed to the rest of the House. He has gone to Paris with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to meet President Chirac. For the sake of the French Government, I hope that the visit is more fruitful than the one that my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston made last week, when he arrived in Pakistan and immediately the Government fell. I hope that he does not have quite the same impact during other visits throughout Europe and the world.
I suspect that the House of Commons will be able to hold up this debate with some pride and self-satisfaction. Over the next few months, we shall all be criticised for going in for cheap soundbites and cheap politics, and perhaps, occasionally, we shall be accused of boring the electorate, although I am sure that that will never be our intention. The debate has been serious and important and has shown the House of Commons performing a task that does not often grab the public limelight, but which is crucial to our democracy and to the notion of accountability in that democracy.
It has been a good night for Parliament and, to make what may be one of my few non-consensual points, if I may say so, it has also been a good night for the Labour party. Labour Members have kept the debate going and shown a greater interest in the Government's handling of Hong Kong than Government Back Benchers. That may well be the point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) concluded.
We recognise that two crucial events will take place next year. One is already preordained for 1 July and the other is more or less certain to happen on I May. A Labour Government will be responsible for the United Kingdom's foreign policy when Hong Kong returns to China. It was good to see the extent of Labour interest, which I have no doubt will continue to be shown by my hon. Friends in future. Even if my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) is not with us in future deliberations on Hong Kong, I have no doubt that his presence will be felt and perhaps his voice heard. [Interruption.] It is always a great pleasure to witness the degree of unanimity on the Benches behind me and the warm, comradely gestures and comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Warley, East and for Newham, North-West.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) said that he hoped—quite rightly—that this would not be the last debate on Hong Kong in this Parliament. It clearly will not. We have a continuing role, which may even assume greater importance after 1 July. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that it might be sensible to give a Select Committee the responsibility of looking at future events in Hong Kong. I would be a little reluctant about the detail of that proposal, but I wholly go along with his suggestion that we need to ensure that whatever happens is regularly reported to the House and debated on the Floor.
Perhaps I should defend the interests of the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, by saying that it shows constant interest in Hong Kong. As well as the reports that it produces, it holds hearings and a series of very interesting informal meetings fairly constantly. I assure my hon. Friend that the Committee would be a watchful watchdog.
My hon. Friend makes a very good argument for there being no need for an additional Select Committee. We already have the structures in place, and the Foreign Affairs Committee already does a very good job.
What emerged from the debate was quite interesting. The debate could have taken a particular form; it could have included an element of justifiable British pride in the success story of Hong Kong. The right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) said that we have been the lessees of Hong Kong. During the period that we have been the lessees, we have had a tremendous record of success. It is worth reminding ourselves, as so many have in the debate, of the nature of that success.
Several hon. Members commented on the thriving nature of the Hong Kong economy. but there are different interpretations of and arguments about how that success has been achieved. One thing is clear: there has been success for the Hong Kong economy. Four elements have been important in that success, to which each Back Bencher and both Front-Bench spokesmen referred. They are: respect for the rule of law, an impartial civil service, a free and vibrant press and the freedom of speech and of assembly. Those four characteristics are important to the creation of a way of life in Hong Kong that has been supportive of its economic success.
It would be remiss of us not to take the final opportunity in this debate to thank some of those who have served in the Hong Kong civil service and who have ensured that it has operated impartially and without corruption. In particular, it is most appropriate to put on record our thanks to and appreciation of the work of Anson Chan as the chief executive in Hong Kong. Her work as head of the civil service has been especially important for the success of Hong Kong.
The vibrant elements of Hong Kong's way of life have been emphasised in all the speeches that have been made today. In the debate, hon. Members not only have said that we have succeeded, but have asked an important question. They have asked not what we shall leave on 30 June 1997, but what will remain of that on 30 June 2007. The real British contribution to Hong Kong will be our ability to ensure that the institutions that we have built and the successes that we have achieved remain in 10 years' time and beyond. That is the test for us as the House of Commons and it is, above all, a test for the Government.
Two items of unfinished business came through from all the contributions. First, concern was expressed on both sides about the future of the ethnic minority communities. Indeed, so great was the consensus that so far there has been only one contribution outside the consensus—that of the Foreign Secretary. Everybody else has argued that there is a need to give passports and British citizenship to the ethnic minority communities.
The Government's argument is that the Prime Minister has made a promise that, in exceptional circumstances, members of the ethnic minority communities will be given the right of abode in the United Kingdom and the right to come to the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, that promise of exceptional circumstances is not a subjective test: it is an objective test when the individual makes an application in Hong Kong to come to the United Kingdom. That is a crucial point, because those of us who have had considerable constituency experience of dealing with entry clearance matters know that sometimes what we would consider to be a good case for political asylum, with a strong and exceptional set of circumstances, is turned down by entry clearance officials. When that happens in the context of Hong Kong, the individual will face a double jeopardy in the circumstances of the Prime Minister's promise.
The individual will have exposed himself by saying that he wants to leave Hong Kong to come to the United Kingdom, because in so doing he will have said that he is faced with exceptional problems. If that objective test is not met and the officials say that the circumstances are not exceptional, the individual will face the double jeopardy of having to stay in Hong Kong, having said that it is difficult for him to live there. I do not think that anybody in the House would want to find himself or herself in those circumstances, and that is why I simply cannot understand the Government's position.
If the promise of exceptional circumstances is an absolute guarantee—as the Foreign Secretary tried to say earlier—that guarantee can be given only if the definition of exceptional circumstances is subjective, that is, the circumstances are exceptional as perceived by the individual making the application. If that is so, there is no reason why the Government cannot go a stage further and make passports and citizenship available to the individual, because that also is a subjective and not an objective test. While the Government put hurdles in the way of individual applicants, there is a danger that some individuals will find themselves in even more difficult circumstances.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston made an offer to the Government. I hope that the Minister of State, when he comes to reply, will see that that offer was not only made in sincerity but reflects a consensus in this debate and of informed opinion outside the House. I hope that the Government and the Minister will respond tonight by saying that they will bring forward the necessary legislation and, if not, that they will give a promise to an incoming Labour Government that they will not jeopardise any future legislation to carry out our promise.
The second item of unfinished business was the concern expressed by all right hon. and hon. Members about the arrangements for representative democracy and the protection of human rights in Hong Kong. Those are the very elements that I have just mentioned—the elements that everybody accepts are crucial to Hong Kong's way of life.
Every hon. Member who has spoken has taken the opportunity to praise the courage, integrity and commitment of LegCo Members. The crucial factor that has emerged is not simply singing the praises of the individuals and of the institutions that have been created, nor is it damning the provisional council and saying that it has no basis in law or in the joint declaration. We can say those things; they are important, but self-evident. But the crucial question is: what is the Government's intention for the future, including the next few months?
It is ridiculous for the Foreign Secretary to pretend, as he did in his opening speech, that what is to happen in fewer than 30 days' time—the creation of the provisional council in Hong Kong—somehow will not happen. He implied that somewhere in his bag, or up the Minister of State's sleeve, is a trick that will persuade the Chinese Government not to go ahead with the plans that they have talked about for some time. In the context of our relationship with China, it is living in cloud cuckoo land to believe that.
It is important for the Government to come clean and be honest about what may happen. Surely they must know, and they must tell the House, that the circumstances in which the Patten reforms became unacceptable to the Chinese Government were predictable. If those circumstances were predicted by others, why have the Government not come forward with contingency plans and told us what they intend to do?
The key point for the Minister of State when he winds up will be not simply to tell us again what everybody knows and has already said—that LegCo has done a good job and that we are fearful about the future—but to tell us what the Government intend to do. The situation in which we now find ourselves is not of the making of LegCo Members or of Members of the House of Commons in general; it is of the Government's making. It is their responsibility, and we need to know what they intend to do about the future.
Those are the two items of unfinished business that I hope the Minister will deal with when he replies to the debate.
I believe that it was the right hon. Member for Mid—Sussex who said that the 21st century may be the century of the Chinese nation, which will then be the most important single nation. That is a matter for debate and for academic speculation. None of us will be around to make a judgment about whether the forecast proves true.
However, one thing that we already know about China is that its economic reforms have been remarkably successful. The compound growth figures from 1988 to the forecast for 1997 show China's annual growth rate to be 9.9 per cent., which makes it the fastest growing economy in the Asian region. So there is economic success, and that has brought with it consumer choice. For the new consumers under the new economic liberalisation in China, there is a new life style with new opportunities.
However, we would be foolish not to recognise that that economic success does not come without difficulties for China. Certain aspects must be managed. The gross regional disparities within China are a cause of potential political instability. So is the obvious inconsistency between greater economic freedom and political centralism. The tension in that relationship will have an important effect on the future direction of China and on the role that it plays in the world.
Whether or not the right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex is correct about the 21st century belonging to China, one thing is abundantly clear—that the United Kingdom and China have a unique relationship for the future. That relationship is figured around the triangle of China, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. That relationship will change, but it gives Britain a specific and important relationship with China for decades to come.
A key question emerges from the debate: how will we make that relationship work? My right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston rightly said that we cannot do so by isolating China culturally and economically. We need to talk to China, to work with China and to build up trade and cultural relationships. There is much more that we can do in that regard: much more that could be contributed by British cities twinning with cities in China and understanding one other's way of life, and much more that could be done, as the right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said, by building on the work of the British Council so that it can make the type of contribution that it uniquely makes in many parts of the world.
We cannot develop a relationship with China by believing that we can isolate China. We must work constructively, but it is crucial for us to recognise and respect the fact that there is concern throughout the world about China's record on human rights. We have a moral obligation to draw attention to that record. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston said, he and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition have taken every available opportunity to raise individual cases. I know that the Minister of State has done so, as have the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. It was sad that, when the Deputy Prime Minister visited China, he felt that trade was more important than raising individual cases of human rights.
We should never miss the opportunity to draw attention to human rights issues, because in so doing we convey an important message to China—not that we believe in isolation, but that China can play its part in the world through its economic strength only by accepting that there are international standards of behaviour and that a crucial standard is that a country's internal democracy should respect human rights.
We have a common interest with China in the future of Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Britain has £80 billion of assets, and China has 20 per cent. of its future gross domestic product. It would be foolish and incorrect of us to believe that it is not in China's interest to make a success of Hong Kong. It was said many times in the debate that, for China, the principle of "one country, two systems" is important, not only because of Hong Kong but because of Taiwan. China can achieve its second national objective, to reintegrate Taiwan—the first being to reintegrate Hong Kong—only if it succeeds in managing Hong Kong, and success in managing Hong Kong is success in preserving not only Hong Kong's economic success, but the aspects of the way of life that were mentioned often in the debate.
China has a clear interest, and so does Britain. The House of Commons' interest in Hong Kong does not finish with tonight's debate or at any time in the run-up to 30 June 1997. We have an on-going interest in carrying out the commitments that we agreed under the joint declaration. Moreover, what Britain does in Hong Kong and for the people of Hong Kong after 1 July 1997 may be more important to the way in which people perceive Britain than what we have done in the preceding years. We must fulfil a set of obligations. That set of obligations will say much about this country and our willingness to fight for principles and values that we consider important. It will not always be an easy relationship. It will not be easy to develop the tactics and strategy that we must adopt, and it will not be easy in terms of our relations with China. But the values that we consider important and the values that we have given to Hong Kong are the very values that we should fight and work for in the future.
This has been an important debate, and it has shown that we all have a long-term interest in Hong Kong. One thing that has come out of the debate is a message to the people of Hong Kong that, regardless of which party is in government in this country, Hong Kong will remain a British interest and priority. We shall continue to ensure that we do our best by the people of Hong Kong. When we have achieved so much so far, it would be wrong and foolish to throw it away. Our belief in economic and democratic freedom should be the belief that we take forward in managing our relations with China after 1 July 1997.
The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) said that this has been an important debate, and it has been important not only for the occasion—I still hope that this will not be the last debate on Hong Kong before 30 June, but time will tell—but for the diversity of wisdom and experience from hon. Members from all parties. It has been important also as it has shown the absolute firmness and unity of purpose of the House in its commitment to Hong Kong and its peoples as they approach the momentous changes of the year ahead.
The only dissenting voice—as the hon. Member for Leeds, Central pointed out—was the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), who voiced his uncritical support for the Chinese, but even he joined the House in its unwavering support for Hong Kong. That support—much in evidence this evening—has been one of the great strengths of our policy ever since the joint declaration was signed. It is a source of comfort to the people of Hong Kong, who are dealing with the anxieties and uncertainties that naturally face them, that this House of Commons regards Hong Kong in a special way and will continue to do so.
I regret that the House is not more full this evening, and I would not like people watching from near or far to think that the House does not have a commitment to Hong Kong because of the numbers present. There are many and different pressures upon each hon. Member, particularly as our own general election is not far away. Therefore, I believe that there is a deep interest in Hong Kong in the House, and that it is shared in another place and in the country as a whole. Hong Kong is not just a part of our history, it is a part of our present and our future.
There has been co-operation with China on many recent transitional issues, and that co-operation has improved in recent months. Economic and social fundamentals in Hong Kong are sound, as has been said in the debate. In addition, there are inevitable anxieties about whether China can deliver fully on the "one country, two systems" principle, and about China's plans for the provisional legislature to which I shall refer later. The key decisions on the future Chief Executive and his team have been mentioned, and it is vital that nothing is done during this crucial period to undermine Hong Kong's stability or prosperity.
The overall message on the handover is that there are grounds for cautious optimism, provided that all parties—but especially the incoming sovereign power—are willing to continue to work for a successful transition on the basis of a full implementation of the letter and the spirit of the joint declaration.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear during his visit to Hong Kong in March this year, Britain will continue to have a strong commitment to Hong Kong well beyond 1997. The joint liaison group will continue to operate, as has been said, until 1 January 2000, and undertakings in the joint declaration will last for 50 years, until 2047, and even then I doubt whether there will be any diminution of interest in Hong Kong in the House. There will still be more than 3 million British passport holders in the territory, 1,000 British firms operating and tens of billions of pounds of investments; it is our second largest Asian export market.
I have heard, as we all have, some sad comments about the Governor. I do not believe that his policies have prevented greater progress on Hong Kong issues; I believe that we have made substantial advances with the Chinese over the past two years on a wide range of transitional issues, against a background of generally improving Sino-British relationships and intensified ministerial contacts. The Governor has been a key player in formulating our policy and he continues to enjoy the Government's full support; he is an excellent advocate for the territory's interests, and he and we have made it clear that he will remain firmly in charge until the handover.
The Government are committed to moving ahead on Hong Kong issues in co-operation with the Chinese, whenever possible, but that does not mean co-operation simply for its own sake: there is no prospect of Britain changing its fundamental policies towards Hong Kong merely in order to make life with the Chinese easier.
We have a strong political and moral obligation to the people of Hong Kong. to govern the territory effectively until the transfer of sovereignty, and to work for full implementation of the joint declaration. We shall not hesitate to stand up for Hong Kong when we believe that it is right to do so; the people of Hong Kong would not forgive us, nor would it be to our commercial or any other advantage, if we did.
Earlier, I found myself in the unusual position of endorsing much of what was said by the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in a speech that was notable for its measured and welcome statesmanship. I find myself agreeing with him rather more often than I expected, because the foreign policies of both Front Benches are often in parallel. Of course, there were points with which I disagreed fundamentally, and I shall be glad to answer the detailed points raised by him and by the hon. Member for Leeds, Central in his excellent closing speech.
Many hon. Members have referred to the fears of the non-Chinese ethnic minorities in Hong Kong that they will be left stateless after the handover. The Government are aware of those fears, but we have taken steps to provide them with the assurances to which they are entitled; that is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister promised them in March that they had an absolute, cast-iron guarantee of admission to, and settlement in, the United Kingdom if ever they came under pressure to leave Hong Kong.
We have made it clear that "pressure to leave" is intended to be a flexible term and I am convinced that future Ministers would not interpret it narrowly. We have also made it clear that evidence of discrimination would be relevant in determining whether an individual had come under pressure to leave, but there is nothing restrictive about the definition.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will accept that nobody is seeking to impugn his, still less the Prime Minister's, good faith, but it is not sufficient merely to give such assurances when we could give to the tiny number of people involved a cast-iron guarantee. That point has been emphasised in speech after speech from both Government and Opposition Members; there have been differences of opinion in the debate, but do not think that there has been a single dissension on that point. Will he please bear that in mind and talk to the Prime Minister about it?
I hear my hon. Friend; if I may, I will continue with my speech and bear what he says in mind.
I want to make two things clear. First, there is no question of those people becoming stateless. They will all have some form of British nationality; of that there is no doubt. Nor is there any doubt that they have an absolute unconditional right of abode in Hong Kong. That is what the Basic Law provides and what China has always promised.
Secondly, reports in the media and on the "Today" programme this morning about Her Majesty the Queen's involvement have been inaccurate and unhelpful. A letter from an official at Buckingham palace made it clear that Her Majesty would not intervene in a matter such as this which was for Ministers, to whom it was referred. No opinion whatsoever on the substance of the issue was offered or implied.
We acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed about the future of the individuals concerned in Hong Kong. However, given the guarantees that have been offered, I honestly do not think that the fears are justified. Again, I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, who cannot be here tonight and has offered his apologies to the right hon. Member for Livingston because he, too, has a diplomatic engagement this evening, made it clear that the guarantees given by the Prime Minister were sufficient for that group. We therefore do not believe that there is a need to go further. I know that people will read the reports of the debate and I shall put them before others. Our policy is clear. We believe that that group of people need not fear. We shall adhere to our promises.
Will the Minister confirm that the British nationality held by the ethnic minority community will not give them the right to enter the United Kingdom for the purposes of settlement and therefore is, in this context, irrelevant? Will he also confirm that the Government are offering an objective test that does not depend on the individual subjectively saying that he or she is subject to exceptional circumstances in the way that the Prime Minister described? If he confirms both those points, the promise that he and his Government have given the ethnic minority communities is not worth the paper that it is written on.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said earlier, to go into any closer or more fine definition would not aid the people concerned but would limit the definition. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has stated that if anyone had reason to feel that they should leave Hong Kong, they would be generously considered. That generosity is a wide generosity. We have said time and again that Ministers will be as generous as the Prime Minister's intention has been. To narrow the definition would not further help that group. We have given an open guarantee that should those people come under pressure to leave Hong Kong—we intend that as a flexible term that should not be interpreted narrowly—they would be allowed to come to this country and would then have right of abode.
I fear that we shall make no progress this side of a general election. I put to the Minister the offer that I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) made that, if there is a change of Government, a Labour Government will introduce legislation. Will he give a commitment that his party will not impede that legislation?
My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary made our position plain. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman really believes that the question of co-operating with a Bill proposed by some future Labour Government is one to which I would respond. I do not believe that it will arise. It is purely hypothetical. There have been cocky assumptions from Opposition Members that there will be a Labour Government next year. It is all good knockabout stuff. One would not expect, however, any Minister to try to answer hypothetical questions that we believe have no basis in reality.
The Foreign Secretary said that he would consider sending a letter, or arranging for a letter to be sent, to each individual in the category. Would that establish that that person was in the category and, if the circumstances arose, that he would then be guaranteed a place?
I heard my right hon. and learned Friend say, and I believe that the record will bear me out, that if anyone wrote to him asking about the Government's policies, he would reply setting them out clearly. That does not mean that an individual would automatically pass through any administrative tests that might be relevant merely by writing a letter and getting a reply. It would not mean that they had been checked or found to qualify. If anyone wishes to write to us to ask about the Government's commitments, we shall reply willingly so that the Prime Minister's promises can be seen for what they are—open and generous ones.
Let me put something to the Minister that is not hypothetical but real. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, on which the Government have a majority, was unanimous in its recommendation. I therefore do not understand how the Government can be stiff-necked about something on which there is broad consensus in the House for a move forward. I ask the Minister again to convey to his ministerial colleagues that the Government would have tremendous support if they brought forward the relevant Bill.
Britain recognises its obligations to the Hong Kong people on immigration and nationality issues. We recognise, too, that reassurance is of huge importance to the millions of Hong Kong people. That is why we have promised visa-free access to Britain for more than 5 million holders of the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport. That is why we have given the non-Chinese ethnic minorities the absolute guarantee of admission to the United Kingdom if ever they come under pressure to leave Hong Kong. That is why Parliament granted British citizenship to 50,000 Hong Kong people and their dependants. That is why we are working so hard to reach an early agreement with China on the detailed implementation of the provisions in the Basic Law on right of abode. There is nothing in that record of achievement of which the Government need be ashamed, and much in which we would take quiet pride.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) referred to granting British citizenship to all 3.5 million British dependent territories citizens. I believe that he was limiting that offer to those citizens in Hong Kong, although I am not sure, because he could have meant a wider category given what he said. That issue was settled by Parliament in 1990 after extensive debate and I do not believe that it is right to reopen that debate now.
We believe that the decision to grant citizenship to 50,000 heads of households and their dependants was the right response. It has helped. as we hoped that it would, to encourage key people to remain in Hong Kong to ensure Hong Kong's continuing success and stability up to and beyond the handover. I do not believe that there is agreement between those on the Labour and Liberal Democrat Front Benches about granting citizenship to the 3.5 million British dependent territories citizens, because I certainly did not hear the hon. Member for Leeds, Central advocate what the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber said. I recognise what the hon. Member for Leeds, Central said about the non-Chinese ethnic minorities, but he did not advocate that the granting of British citizenship and right of abode should be spread further.
First of all, I confirm that I was talking about 3.5 million people. Secondly, the one thing that we could have done to give absolute confidence and assurance to the people of Hong Kong would have been to grant those 3.5 million people citizenship. Simply because the decision was made in 1990 does not mean that it was the right one, nor that the Government should not reconsider it.
In 1982, this country devoted enormous sums, rightly or wrongly, to defending about 1,500 people in the Falkland Islands, so it is rather astonishing that today the Government refuse to stand by a large number of people in Hong Kong who have been very loyal to Britain and to the British Crown for many years and who are in danger. The Minister referred to the events of 1990, but six years later the Chinese regime has not changed its spots—a dissident was recently gaoled for 11 years. Although my Front-Bench team has not suggested it, I have sympathy with views expressed by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston). The Government should consider the matter earnestly before the handover on 1 July.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, whom I know well and respect, has such a low opinion of Hong Kong's prospects. I believe that it has a bright future and the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that its economy remains healthy and that it continues to be a flourishing society in which to live and work. I do not share the hon. Gentleman's doom and gloom.
The issue of representative government occupied a large part of hon. Members' speeches tonight. I relay to the House the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who had to attend another engagement. Many right hon. and hon. Members focused on our efforts to develop representative government in Hong Kong. Mr. Simon Jenkins pointed out in a characteristically perceptive piece in The Times yesterday that it is the centrepiece of the legacy that we shall leave to Hong Kong. Our aim has always been to establish electoral arrangements that are open, fair and, most importantly, acceptable to the Hong Kong people.
We were determined to achieve that structure within the clear parameters set down in the joint declaration and in the Basic Law. We proceeded on that basis to ensure that arrangements for the 1995 elections were wholly consistent with China's prescription for the first legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. That is what we promised, and LegCo agreed in passing our electoral proposals in the spring and summer of 1994.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary suggested, there is no legal or political justification for China to dismantle the legislature chosen on the basis of arrangements that are clearly consistent with all previous agreements on the subject between Britain and China. We devoted most of 1993—through 17 rounds of talks and many hours of patient negotiation—to reaching an agreement with China about the package. It became clear then that China was not prepared to agree to electoral arrangements that we could honestly commend to the House and to the people of Hong Kong.
Regrettably, the alternative to proceeding without Chinese agreement but with the support of the Hong Kong people and their elected representatives was to connive in a flawed legislature. If China proceeds with its plans for a provisional legislature, it will prove both unnecessary and undesirable. However, they are only plans and there is still time for China to consider carefully the consequences of fully implementing those plans.
Our consciences can be clear, as we shall close the last great chapter of Britain's imperial history by leaving in place decent and fair electoral arrangements. We shall have established the habit of representative government, encouraged the growth of accountable government and put in place a benchmark by which our successors will be measured. We can take pride in our legacy to the people of Hong Kong in the field of representative government.
My right hon. and learned Friend said that during his meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, on 26 September. The Prime Minister pressed the Chinese again during a meeting with Vice Premier Li Lanqing on 4 November, as I did the following day. China must show that Hong Kong will be run by Hong Kong people, and that "one country—two systems" can become a reality.
The PL is more than a legal debating point. It raises fundamental questions about China's willingness to follow our principle and its own principle of Hong Kong people running Hong Kong. People have asked whether we would co-operate with a provisional legislature. At present it is hypothetical. We are working hard to try to persuade Chinese officials not to proceed with something damaging to Hong Kong's interests. We do not believe that it is helpful to speculate on what steps may or may not be taken.
Neither the joint declaration nor the Basic Law makes mention of a provisional legislature. The establishment of a provisional legislature would seriously call into question China's commitment to its obligations under the joint declaration, as I said, and it is for China to explain how any such arrangement would be compatible with the joint declaration and the Basic Law. We shall continue to make our views plain to the Chinese whenever we have the opportunity. My right hon. and learned Friend said earlier that much will depend on what the provisional legislature purports to do and when.
In the debate tonight no one else on either side has said what he would do. We do not believe that it is desirable to say what we would do in advance. We have not done so and our position is that we are keeping our defences to ourselves at this stage. We are expending every effort not in threatening, but in trying to persuade the Chinese not to go down that route.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. I put to him once more the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). In replying to my hon. Friend, the Minister said that he thought that establishing the provisional legislature would be wrong and mistaken. The question was whether it would be illegal. Is he prepared to answer that question? Surely the Government have a view on the matter.
I am not prepared to answer the hon. Gentleman directly on that point. As I said, the PL is not consistent with the Basic Law or the joint declaration. It is for the Chinese to say how they think it is. We shall act when the time is right. We hope that that time will not occur.
The hon. Member for Warley, East and the right hon. Member for Livingston mentioned an exchange of letters in 1990. I will address that point. The hon. Member for Warley, East insisted, as have Chinese officials—but then I would expect the hon. Gentleman to insist as Chinese officials have insisted—that the 1990 exchange of letters added up to an agreement between Britain and China about political developments in Hong Kong.
To set the record straight, we released the texts of the relevant messages, and they show that there was no agreement or understanding between us on the electoral arrangements for 1995 in Hong Kong. At the end of the exchange of messages, the question of electoral arrangements in Hong Kong up to 1997 remained open. Several eminent, independent lawyers confirmed to the Foreign Affairs Committee in 1993 that the seven letters did not constitute an agreement on the 1995 LegCo elections. The arrangements for the 1995 LegCo elections were entirely consistent with the joint declaration and with China's prescription for the first legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, as I said earlier.
I shall just finish the point. As the Governor has said many times in public, including to the Foreign Affairs Committee, his advisers and those who helped him draw up the electoral proposals were fully aware of those exchanges. The Governor saw and was aware of the details of the exchanges before his visit to Peking in October 1992 and before the start of negotiations with China on the electoral arrangements.
The right hon. Gentleman should know by now my personal parliamentary character. I do not take instructions from even my party, and I certainly do not take instructions from any Chinese authorities.
I have followed these proceedings with extreme assiduity and have come to the conclusion that it was our fault that the arrangements broke down—through Patten's misjudgment and probably poor advice from certain sections not very far away—and we have damaged the prospects of a peaceful transition for Hong Kong because we wrecked the through-train arrangement. The question of the validity of the seven letters is entirely a matter of opinion.
In no way did I want to insinuate that the hon. Gentleman had taken instructions; it is merely that his words are totally consistent with those of Chinese officials on almost every occasion on this subject, and particularly as far as the Governor is concerned.
On the subject of press freedom—
I apologise for intervening once again, but it is an important point. My right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and, indeed, my hon. Friends who spoke earlier, were not trying to apportion blame. The issue that was being raised was what the Government's contingency plans would be if anything went wrong with the Patten through train. That is the situation that we now face. What worries me, in the context of the debate, is that the Minister seems to be working on the tactic that if he talks for longer, events will not catch up with us. They will.
I wish that I could talk for longer, but the hon. Gentleman keeps interrupting me. As far as I am concerned, what I have said I have said, clearly and honestly.
I should like to move on to press freedoms if I may, as I believe that we have dealt with the previous issue fully.
The free exchange of knowledge, the free exchange of ideas, is at the heart of Hong Kong's success. Without the freedom to have opinions and to express them, Hong Kong would not just be a less free, less contented and more repressed society. It would also be a less successful economy. For a society whose prosperity depends on knowledge-based industries, on providing financial and other services into China and across the whole Asian region, the guarantee of free expression is a vital component of economic success. These freedoms are guaranteed unambiguously in both the joint declaration and the Basic Law: freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association and of movement. Those freedoms can properly be constrained only by law, and by law duly deliberated on and enacted by the Hong Kong people's elected representatives.
The hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), to whom I can refer because he intervened earlier, gave a very different impression on television last night. I can assure the House that only the law can constrain press freedoms. It is the more disturbing, therefore, that Chinese officials have suggested publicly that those freedoms may be constrained, and not necessarily by law. They have, for example, drawn an extraordinary distinction between freedom to report and freedom to advocate. They have suggested that, in post-handover Hong Kong, it will not be permissible to criticise Chinese leaders or to commemorate those who died in Tiananmen.
The joint declaration and the Basic Law could not be more clear. Those freedoms will be protected by law in the Hong Kong SAR and it will be for Hong Kong's independent judiciary, not Chinese officials, to interpret the law of the Hong Kong SAR Government. We recently took this up with the Chinese leadership at high level, and I urge Chinese leaders again now to give Hong Kong the reassurance that it needs and deserves on this point. I urge them to be reassured that they have nothing to lose, that they have much to gain, from preserving a free and prosperous Hong Kong. The joint declaration and the Basic Law provide that Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration. We were disturbed by recent remarks by the Chinese Foreign Minister that seemed to contradict those guarantees. My right hon. and learned Friend took this up in a message to the Chinese leadership, and the Chinese have since said that Hong Kong people will have full freedom of expression provided that they act within the laws of the Hong Kong SAR, but it is still important for the Chinese to continue to provide assurance on this vital issue, and I urge them, with the full support of the House, to do so rapidly and unequivocally.
China has given an absolute and unambiguous guarantee to protect human rights in Hong Kong after the handover. That guarantee is enshrined in more than one provision of the joint declaration, which is—as hon. Members from both sides of the House have already said—a binding international treaty registered at the United Nations. China has, for example, promised that Hong Kong people's rights and freedoms will be ensured by law. It has further promised that the provisions of the international covenant on civil and political rights and the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, as applied to Hong Kong, shall remain in force. Both covenants include a requirement to report to the UN treaty monitoring bodies. We continue to urge China to accede to the covenants and to ensure that reports on the Hong Kong SAR continue to be submitted after 30 June 1997.
There will be desperate consequences if China continues to undermine human rights safeguards in the Hong Kong SAR, and not only for the people of Hong Kong, whose rights and freedoms will have been compromised. China would have to justify such action not only to the co-signatory of the joint declaration but to the world community.
In March, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the people of Hong Kong that all Hong Kong's friends and partners, in both hemispheres and all five continents, would be watching to see that the joint declaration was honoured up to and beyond the handover. He promised, too, that if there were a breach of the joint declaration, Britain would mobilise the international community and pursue every legal and other avenue open to us. No one should be under any illusion that ignoring the promises in the joint declaration would be a cost-free option.
The protection of human rights in China, including the situation in Tibet, remains a subject of deep concern to the Government. We regularly express our concern to Chinese leaders—most recently, as I said, during the visit of the Chinese Vice Premier, Li Lanqing. We have also taken vigorous action with our partners in the European Union to promote respect for human rights in China. There is a long way to go. But there is also some evidence that international pressure is making an impact on Chinese thinking—for example, through recent legal reforms.
The recent sentencing of Mr. Wang Dan has highlighted the serious problem. We have urged the Chinese authorities to show clemency and to allow Mr. Wang's early release. I mentioned the case with Vice Premier Li, and also mentioned our wider concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression.
As the hon. Member for Newham, North—West (Mr. Banks) mentioned, the Legislative Council enacted Hong Kong's Bill of Rights ordinance in 1991. It enshrines in local law the provisions of the international covenant on civil and political rights and is entirely consistent with the joint declaration and the Basic Law. The joint declaration and the Basic Law promise, of course, that the provisions of the covenant, as applied to Hong Kong, will remain in force. Therefore, there can be no question of conflict with the joint declaration or the Basic Law.
We have, therefore, expressed serious concern about a 1995 proposal—from a now-defunct Chinese advisory body, the preliminary working committee—that the Bill of Rights ordinance should be watered down, and that consequential changes to the six other ordinances should be repealed. We have urged China to leave that for the future Government of the SAR, and there have been encouraging signs that China may be willing to respond to the suggestion.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary mentioned progress on Vietnamese migrants. There has been much progress. Our firm objective remains what it has always been: to complete, before July 1997, the repatriation to Vietnam of all those found to be economic migrants; and, with the help of Hong Kong's partners around the world, to find homes for those identified as genuine refugees. We cannot guarantee that we shall achieve complete success, but as my right hon. and learned Friend made clear, we are doing all that we can to reach that goal. Much still has to be done, but a very great deal has been achieved, especially in the past few months.
Following my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart in Bangkok in March, I visited Vietnam in April. The Prime Minister wrote again a few months later, after substantial progress, and the Foreign Secretary visited Vietnam a couple of weeks ago. The need to solve the outstanding problems is therefore at the top of the agenda during those visits and in our discussions with Vietnamese Ministers.
So far this year, 11,000 Vietnamese migrants have returned from Hong Kong to Vietnam and the rate is rising steadily. Last month alone, 1,800 went home. This month, we hope that the total will be more than 2,000. The Vietnamese Government have pledged full co-operation, for which I pay tribute to them. We have already made great strides forward on, for example, logistics. For the first time, migrants from southern Vietnam will return direct by air to Ho Chi Minh city. On the other difficult cases, most notably the so-called pending cases, the Vietnamese Government are, as a result of our exchanges with them, exploring various ideas for solving the remaining problems.
There are grounds for optimism. It may be cautious optimism, but we are optimistic. For our part, we shall continue to work urgently on these issues. I am personally more confident now that a timely solution to this long-standing problem may be at last within our grasp.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) asked me about monitoring after the handover. I have already answered that query. We shall continue to monitor until 1 January 2000, through the joint liaison group in direct discussion with the Chinese, and for 50 years after 30 June 1997 under legislation. We shall do so through the full range of political and diplomatic contacts and with our friends and partners in the European Union and the United States and across the world. I, too, hope that the House will play its full part in monitoring developments in the SAR as my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford said that the House should. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney mentioned the excellent work of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central endorsed the plan, which shows that we have satisfactory provisions that will enable us to monitor successfully the future of Hong Kong.
I pay tribute to Members of LegCo, especially those who have come here to make their advocacy. I saw them two days ago and had another meeting with Martin Lee. They urged on us many of the steps mentioned in the today's debate. Those people serve not only their electorates but Hong Kong and its interests very well.
I also pay tribute to Anson Chan, to the administration and to Sir David Ford, the commissioner, for their excellent work in keeping the House informed. It is a tribute to Anson Chan, Sir David Ford and the current and previous administration staff that the independent civil service in Hong Kong is now regarded by the Chinese as essential to the future of Hong Kong. The civil service is one of our great establishments.
I also pay a warm tribute to the Governor. He is one of the most intelligent, able and friendly individuals the UK has produced. Hong Kong has been fortunate to have him and Mrs. Patten, who is unstinting in her service to Hong Kong. They have served Hong Kong with great distinction.
In just over 200 days from now the world will witness one of the most extraordinary political transitions in modern history—6.25 million people and 1,000 sq km of territory will pass from British to Chinese sovereignty and Britain will have amply discharged its promise to hand over a stable and prosperous Hong Kong. It will then be for China to show that the promises made to Britain and to the people of Hong Kong in the joint declaration and the Basic Law mean what they say, that Mr. Deng Xiaoping's far-sighted vision of "one country—two systems" is more than that and that the concept of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong will work in practice as well as in theory. The burden will then be on China.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary affirmed with such force and passion, Britain's deep commitment to and interest in Hong Kong will continue. As this debate has clearly shown, that commitment is shared by Government and Opposition—by all right hon. and hon. Members. We are all determined to work with China for the most successful possible transition for the people of Hong Kong.
I love Hong Kong. The House loves Hong Kong. We shall always love Hong Kong and look after its interests.