HC Deb 01 August 1961 vol 645 cc1311-9

12.17 a.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

I want to switch to a very different subject from that which we have just been discussing, but it is a matter on which I should like to get some enlightenment from the Colonial Office. I feel that this is certainly needed, because the first series of Questions which I put down last April on the subject brought the reply that no fewer than 879,000 food parcels were sent in 1959 from Hong Kong to the mainland of China. This figure had jumped to 3,700,000 in 1960, while for the first three months of 1961, there were 2,600,000, which means that if the traffic continued at the same rates, some 10,400,000 parcels would go this year.

I then got into touch with our own Post Office here and found that the figure for parcels of the same size—about 2 lbs. in weight—during the October to December period, that is the Christmas period, in 1960 by both surface and air transport to and from overseas countries, including those parcels passing through the United Kingdom and which were paid for at the minimum rates, was only 939,000. That is against a possible 10,400,000 going from Hong Kong to the mainland of China in this present year.

I concluded that there must be something fantastic about the posting of these particular Hong Kong parcels and also some very definite reason for it. I asked myself whether I should seek to obtain information from the Foreign Office or the Colonial Office. The Foreign Office has responsibility in the sense that it is represented in Pekin, but we also know that its Embassy members are allowed to travel only where the Chinese Government will permit them to go.

In Hong Kong there are about 3 million people who are, to all intents and purposes, Chinese. They all have relations on the mainland, and many go backwards and forwards and are tremendously knowledgeable about what goes on. I asked myself again whether it was just possible that the Colonial Office might not be allowed by the Foreign Office to tell us very much of what was going on.

I felt it to be more than possible in view of the fact that I had myself frequently been in the Far East since the war, and I do know that if the Foreign Office had taken the advice of the Colonial Office in the first few years immediately after the last war we might not be in the present difficult position we are in, in regard to China. Colonial Office advice one saw and heard in Hong Kong was quite different from what one got in Nanking from our embassy there in those days. Another thing which worried one was the lack of contact between the Board of Trade very often and the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office.

I can well remember in the days of the Socialist Government from 1945 to 1950 being myself sent for one day by the then President of the Board of Trade who asked me some questions about something going on in Japan. I said, "Why ask me these questions?" "Oh, well, because you have quite recently come back from Japan and know much more about it than I do,"was the reply. I said, "Why not get in touch with the Ambassador and discuss it with him?" "That," was the reply, "would take so long—to send a lot of telegrams." I said, "What do you mean by that? The Ambassador is here in London. I saw him only yesterday." "Oh," said the President of the Board of Trade, "then he has come over presumably to discuss something with the Foreign Office, but that does not at all mean that he is necessarily going to come to see me, because we are not always informed about what goes on in different Departments".

Therefore, I am a bit worried about whether Colonial Office advice is being taken by the Foreign Office in regard to the difficult conditions in China today and whether, indeed, the Colonial Office is consulted on that subject at all. It is because of that that I want to raise the matter this evening.

We know a certain amount of what is going on in China, about the famine conditions in that country at the present moment. Some of the few figures I have been able to get hold of refer to the agricultural co-operative movement which started in China in 1954. In that year official figures given by the Communist papers show that there were affected by what are called "national calamities" about 260 million mou. A mou is, gather, about 0.16 of an acre. I shall not bother the House by giving it the figures from then on each year, but they gradually increased until in 1958 there were 470 million mou affected, in 1959, 650 million, and in 1960, last year, there were 900 million mou affected by "national calamities." That is a figure admitted by the Communists. That is presumably bad enough, but then one hears of the rumours of what is going on about food rationing in China today. Statements sent out show that: Beginning from December, 1960, a substitute of yam leaves rice husk and yams chopped and mixed together was issued as part of the staple food ration. Shortages even more acute are felt in supplementary foods such as vegetables, meat, edible oil and sugar as well as in fuels. I ask the House to remember those items because there is something I want to say in a minute or two about them. The statement I have quoted goes on: People were forced to fill their stomachs with wild game, wild plants, even earthworms, field mice and frogs. Such long periods of malnutrition have caused widespread tuberculosis, liver diseases, and dropsy, seriously affecting the health of the younger generation. These are conditions which are going on at the moment on the mainland of China. We know that, but it is difficult to get information from there and the Press are not able to find out what they want to know about it, because these things are not mentioned.

Yet when I asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State as far back as 16th March how much rice and other foodstuffs have been imported into or passed through Hong Kong coming from China since the famine conditions started on the Chinese mainland he replied: Imports of rice, frozen meat and poultry, fresh fruit and soya beans in the last four months showed no significant changes from imports in the same period in 1959–60. There has, however, been a noticeable falling off in imports of fresh meat and poultry, eggs, fish and fresh vegetables."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th March, 1961; Vol. 636, c. 1730.] I asked a supplementary question and I want to ask it again. Would it not be the duty of the people in Hong Kong to refuse or to try to refuse to take those exports from the mainland of China in order that it might be possible for the people on the mainland of China to eat them themselves?

If, as I quoted earlier, there is such a terrible shortage of food in China now, it is rather unfair that we should be taking materials out of China into Hong Kong. Is it not the duty of the Hong Kong Government and of the Colonial Office to do something much more useful by way of organising the sending of foodstuffs into China and to make sure that the millions of parcels which are sent there eventually reach their right destination? Do we know anything about their destination once they leave Hong Kong? My hon. Friend, in an Answer, said that negotiations were in progress with the Chinese postal service on the mainland.

Formosans are sending as much food as they possibly can to people on the mainland who are supposed to be their bitterest enemies. They feel that they must help their own fellow-Chinese on the mainland and they send over vast numbers of balloons to which food is attached and which can travel as much as 1,000 miles. The people of Hong Kong are spending vast sums of money on sending parcels, as can be imagined when the cost of 10 million parcels is compared, for example, with the sum spent on the parcel post at Christmas time in this country.

Should not the Hong Kong Government be doing something about this instead of leaving it to private citizens? Should not the Red Cross in Switzerland be approached and some international movement organised to deal with this problem? The House is about to rise for three months. We should not go away leaving the impression among people in the Far East that even if we know something about conditions on the Chinese mainland we could not care less about what is happening there. We should do something to help these 600 million people who presumably are starving.

12.27 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling), with his deep and long knowledge of the Far East, should have raised this question. In a way, much of what he has said has been reminiscent of the duels which he has fought with various Government Departments. Liaison between the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office and the Board of Trade is in these as in other matters a harmonious process which I am sure achieves in nearly every case the desired result.

My hon. Friend has raised various questions and has made statements about the food situation in China. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the extent of the food problem in Communist China. Undoubtedly there has been a series of bad harvests and perhaps there has been mismanagement. There is no question that the Chinese mainland is short of food. Indeed, if the Chinese on the mainland had not been short of food they would not have been spending their money on heavy grain purchases from Canada and Australia. But reports of a state of famine which my hon. Friend suggested are, as far as I am concerned, uncorroborated.

My hon. Friend is suggesting that we should take greater steps as a Government, and that the people and Government of Hong Kong should take greater steps, to offer relief in this undoubted food shortage on the Chinese mainland.

I must point out that various private organisations have made inquiries about sending food, and some have sent food packages, but these have been returned by the Chinese authorities with the clearest indication that they are quite unacceptable. If it is the policy of the Chinese Communist Government to refuse relief supplies, there is nothing that Her Majesty's Government or the Hong Kong Government can do about that.

My hon. Friend made reference to vast supplies which are going from Formosa into the Communist mainland. I understand from him that these are being dispatched by balloon. While there is, of course, a great difference between living in an island like Formosa and living contiguous to the mainland, I think his balloon theory is hardly applicable to the people of Hong Kong.

Mr. Teeling

The balloons, I understand, have been sent from Quemoy, which is much nearer—only three miles off the mainland.

Mr. Fraser

It is not part of the Chinese mainland, whereas a large part of the territory of Hong Kong—the New Territories—is part of the mainland. What is being done, as my hon. Friend has said, and what the people of Hong Kong are doing, is sending in very large quantities of help to their relations and others in China. The number of parcels sent rose to a peak in February this year of 3,700,000, but since then it has declined; in June it was about 1,100,000 and in July just under 1 million.

Apart from this parcels service, there are three other ways of conveying food to people in China. Those who are visiting China can, of course, take food. Shops in Hong Kong make up parcels of food to dispatch to the Chinese mainland. Lastly, there is a system by which a local firm has set up a food depot in Canton where the food is shipped in bulk and from there delivered. I am informed that deliveries are accurate and that deliveries by the Chinese Government or under the auspices of the Chinese Government fulfil all the normal expectations of delivery. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that in all matters connected with trade the Chinese are most punctilious and accurate, whether they be Communist or not.

I should like to say one or two words in conclusion on these very interesting points raised by my hon. Friend—

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of packages of food being seat to the mainland and returned, which one can understand, does he not think that a Government which made representations with the object of relieving some of the hunger and poverty on the mainland might receive a somewhat different reception from that accorded to private donors of packages?

Mr. Fraser

No, Sir. That is an interesting point, but I have tried to demonstrate that the offers of assistance made to China from outside, from Governments and others, have been rejected by the Chinese Government. As I said, the Chinese Government are purchasing large quantities of wheat and other commodities abroad, from Canada and, I think, Australia.

But the help which Hong Kong is giving to China is not by any means limited to this large quantity of parcels sent by people to their relations. As my hon. Friend knows, the population of Hong Kong has risen from a pre-war figure of about 1½ million to well over 3 million in about fifteen years. There is a shortage of land and great problems of water and employment. But Hong Kong has succeeded in absorbing over 1 million refugees from Communist China. Indeed, this is the greatest operation of help by a small community to the refugees of the world—the greatest example there is today.

There is, of course, a more difficult position today. There is a land shortage in Hong Kong. There are employment difficulties and many other problems. Since 1956, we have had to impose some control on immigration. The frontier is over 400 miles long, and there are some 230 islands. Policing of all this territory is difficult. Nevertheless we are trying to control immigration, both in the interests of those already living in Hong Kong and those coming in.

The achievements of the people and Government of Hong Kong are remarkable. As my hon. Friend and other hon. Members know, there is a system by which the Social Welfare Department provides cooked meals for more than 10,000 people every day. There is a policy of absorbing those who come in into the community of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Government have built, since 1954, homes for about 400,000 people at a capital cost of over £10 million. They are at present building accommodation for the resettlement of 80,000 to 100,000 people a year.

The education programme is most impressive. In this comparatively small community over 500,000 people were receiving education last year, ranging from kindergarten to university. If those achievements could have been copied in other areas of the world, it would mean that the largest and most difficult problem of education in the world as a whole would easily and overwhelmingly have been overcome.

Some of my hon. Friends opposite are apt to attack the capitalist system in Hong Kong. I must say, however, that in investment in social welfare the example of Hong Kong is unrivalled throughout the world. In the last ten years, primary school places have been increased by 300,000 and secondary school places by over 50,000. One-sixth of the Government's income is spent on education. There is a mass of figures to show the success of this extraordinary and, in a way, most remarkable of all our Colonies and the contribution it is making to the problem of the refugees from Communist China and to the welfare of the Chinese population of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is an example, and a shining one, to the world of what can be achieved in this day and age.

Mr. Teeling

I never suggested that Hong Kong was not playing its part. I was trying to say that, with this wonderful achievement, would not it be possible for Hong Kong to ask the British Government to do quite a bit more?

Mr. Fraser

The Hong Kong Government are not only able to deal with their own problems of administration but are also extremely well informed in the advice which they tender to this country. They have some of the wisdom of the East, which I am sure I am trying to absorb, and the actions they propose are in the interests of their own people and of their friends in China.

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