HC Deb 01 June 1967 vol 747 cc266-74
The Minister of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mrs. Judith Hart)

I wish to make a statement on the recent disturbances in Hong Kong.

The course of events was as follows. An industrial dispute in two factories producing artificial flowers led to minor disturbances during picketing on 6th May. But what began as a genuine labour dispute then changed its character on 11th May. It was taken up and exploited by local Communists with the aid of hooligan elements, some of whom were paid. Organised demonstrations were mounted as a direct and deliberate challenge to the authority of the Hong Kong Government. In some cases these were orderly, but in others they led to disturbances involving police action. There has been open incitement to violence and to disaffection.

Up to 17th May the demonstrations were confined to parts of Kowloon, but thereafter they spread to Victoria, on Hong Kong Island. Processions, large gatherings of people, and the sticking of posters on public buildings, while unlawful, were tolerated so long as the demonstrators remained fairly orderly, although noisy. On 20th May, disorder and violence became part of the pattern of demonstrations, and it was necessary to disperse further unlawful processions and assemblies, but orderly groups of 20 were able to present petitions at Government House.

Throughout the disturbances the Hong Kong police were able to control the situation with the minimum of force. Firearms were used on only one occasion, when a constable over whom petrol had been thrown fired three revolver shots and wounded one man. The greatest restraint was exercised throughout by the police, despite extreme provocation. The Secretary of State and I have already paid public tribute to them in Hong Kong, and I do so again now. I would like them to know how much we admire their restraint in these very difficult circumstances.

In all, 36 police and 70 demonstrators were reported as injured. Of these, three police and 14 others were admitted to hospital, but have since been discharged. There was one death, that of a bystander who was killed by a stone, and 815 persons were arrested, of whom 65 have been released or acquitted. Of the remainder, 565 have been convicted, and 185 cases are pending. All those arrested are being dealt with by the normal processes of the law. The House may feel that these facts contrast somewhat with other reports which have appeared elsewhere, alleging, for example, that on one day alone … at least 200 compatriots were killed or severely injured". Since 22nd May there have been no demonstrations, but there have been a series of token stoppages. There has been widespread and forthright public support in Hong Kong for the measures taken by the Government to deal with violence, intimidation and hooliganism and to preserve order. The Governor has received messages of support from over 500 representative organisations. My latest information is that work at both the factories involved in the original labour dispute has now been resumed.

The House may wish to know that for some time now improvements in labour conditions have been under consideration in Hong Kong, and that I am in consultation with the Governor about changes in the labour laws, which, I think we all feel, would be timely. They include such matters as hours of work for women and young persons, and conciliation machinery.

For the future, we must hope that good sense will prevail. The Secretary of State and I are, of course, in close and constant touch with the Governor. There have been statements alleging that the Hong Kong Government have been acting out of motives of enmity towards China. I do not need to say that we, like all sections of opinion in Hong Kong, have sought, and will continue to seek, friendly relations with China. But the Government of Hong Kong have the duty to maintain peace, order and good government there, for the benefit of all sections of the community, and we have given them clear assurances of our complete support and determination to fulfil our responsibilities in Hong Kong.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to the calm and courageous leadership during these difficult times of the Governor, Sir David Trench, to the ability and determination shown by the whole Hong Kong Administration, to the spendid behaviour of the police and to the spirit of the people of Hong Kong generally.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Maudling

My hon. Friends and I wish to be associated with the tribute so rightly paid by the hon. Lady to the Governor and others for the remarkable job they have done in difficult times recently in Hong Kong and we would certainly like to echo the hope that good sense will prevail. Will she confirm that the processes of the law in Hong Kong and the proper dealing with these difficult circumstances will not in any way be affected by external pressures?

Mrs. Hart

I think that it will have been clear, from events of the last week or 10 days, that for all those arrested for various offences during the disturbances the perfectly normal processes of the law were followed in reference to the timing of their being brought to court and in every other aspect of the way they were treated. In other words, everything that would normally occur is occurring.

Mr. James Johnson

I thank my hon. Friend for dealing with this matter on a factual basis and I, too, join her in expressing admiration for what the police have done in Hong Kong and all down the line. Is it not a fact that the Government and the Governor have been asked for the last 12 months to do something to alleviate the economic conditions as well as the working conditions of trade unions in Hong Kong? Is it not a fact that if the Chinese people in Hong Kong were given more participation in their affairs, if not in the Executive Council then in other ways, such as the Municipal Council, and were allowed to have some say in what is happening, some of this mischief would be stopped at the source?

Mrs. Hart

As my hon. Friend may know, the aspect which he is raising was very fully covered in the Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) not long before the Whitsun Recess. At the moment a report on local government in Hong Kong is being studied by all sections of opinion in Hong Kong. I expressed my views about that during the Adjournment debate, although I believe that this matter is not directly related to the occurrences of recent weeks.

Mr. A. Royle

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having made her statement. All hon. Members will join her in the tribute she paid to both the police and Government of Hong Kong. Will she give an assurance that she will resist any requests made by hon. Gentlemen seated behind her to involve the United Nations in what is happening in Hong Kong and will continue to give full support in the weeks ahead to the Hong Kong Government in their efforts to deal with hooliganism and demands made by Peking? Can she say what protests have been made to the Portuguese Government regarding the hooliganism against our Consul in Macao which took place last week?

Mrs. Hart

A number of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman are really for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. In so far as he discusses the question of resisting hooliganism in Hong Kong, I have made it clear that it is the intention of the Government here and in Hong Kong to take whatever steps need to be taken to preserve public order in Hong Kong.

Mr. Ogden

Would not my hon. Friend agree that the disturbances in Hong Kong after 11th May were principally politically motivated; that they were closely related to political demonstrations in Peking, Shanghai and Macao? Will she take this opportunity to express the admiration of the House for the servants of Her Majesty's Government in Peking, Shanghai and Macao?

Mrs. Hart

I agree with my hon. Friend that the original labour dispute gave way to something in which there was indeed a great deal of political motivation. We must bear in mind here that there are ideological debates going on about such matters as the cultural revolution among the local Communists in Hong Kong. I have found, as my hon. Friend has obviously found, a number of interpretations here about events in Hong Kong which have been very interesting indeed and I think that many of the interpretations have been considerably relevant to what we know has been happening.

Mr. Thorpe

I agree with what the hon. Lady has said about the police in Hong Kong, but would she not agree that whatever may have been the external political influences that arose, there are two causes of the frustration? First, there are appalling housing conditions in places like Lion Rock town, the Walled City and Aberdeen, whatever may have been the housing achievements of the past?

Secondly, there is the fact that in a British Colony of 4 million, not a single, solitary soul has a vote, save for 10 members of the town council. If direct elections, for cold war reasons, are impracticable, could we not move toward some form of indirect elections?

Mrs. Hart

This is where it is of the utmost relevance that we get the opinions of representative organisations and individuals in Hong Kong on proposals now under consideration for changes in local government. This would introduce much of the kind of thing which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.

May I make one thing quite clear. There is no indication, paradoxical though it may seem, that either concern about the degee of democratic representation in Hong Kong or about the working conditions have been among the motivations at this time. They may be a part of the deep background, but there is no indication that it has been at this time anything other than what my hon. Friend has said, a degree of political motivation, arising mainly from the ferment of ideas that is taking place in that part of the world.

Mr. Sandys

Will the Minister tell us to what extent available information suggests that any of this trouble was instigated by the Government in Peking or other authorities in Communist China?

Mrs. Hart

All of our indications are that the origins were in Hong Kong. Local Communists in Hong Kong took opportunities which they saw arising from a genuine labour dispute. Certainly, there was later official Chinese Communist organisational involvement. For example, the Bank of China was one of the headquarters of Chinese propaganda, but in the early stages, as far as we can see, although it is very difficult to know precisely, there is no doubt that the origins were among the local Communists in Hong Kong.

Mr. Maxwell

Would my hon. Friend consider that, whereas the present manifestations and demonstrations were only a try-out, if she and her Department will do nothing to reorganise local government to enable the people, through political expression, to support the Governor and orderly government, we are likely to land ourselves into the kind of trouble which we may not be able to hold without a considerable amount of bloodshed and threat to the peace of the world?

Mrs. Hart

Without discussing the merits of the arguments that my hon. Friend has put forward, I would counsel him to read the Adjournment debate of a month or so ago, because, as he will see there, I said very clearly that we welcomed the publication of the report of the local government inquiry in Hong Kong. We are now waiting to see what the local reactions are, and are very much hoping that something can be done along those lines.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Can the hon. Lady say what steps are being taken to prevent any repetition of the dangerous and improper use of the headquarters of the Communist Bank of China for incitement, following the occasion on which it evidently did much to increase the difficulties of the police and the authorities, to whom I would like to join in paying tribute?

Mrs. Hart

May I say that I know how very much the tributes that have been paid to the police and to the Governor, on both sides of the House, will be appreciated in Hong Kong.

As to the involvement of the Bank of China, the Governor has certain powers to deal as he thinks best with a matter of this kind. One of the most effective things that he did was to counter the propaganda from the Bank of China by what he called "light-hearted Chinese music". We must leave it to the Governor to exercise his discretion, knowing that he has powers to do whatever is necessary to be effective.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Would the hon. Lady, besides stimulating further legislation in the labour field, have a look at the educational and youth services? Is she aware that a great number of the rioters leave school at the age of 12 and that, by existing legislation, they are not allowed to work until they are 16? Therefore, for four years they have nothing to do and nowhere to go. Is she aware that this is an expensive situation which requires attention, perhaps even more so than the labour situation?

Mrs. Hart

This is a very serious problem, as is housing, which the right hon. Member the Leader of the Liberal Party mentioned. We have in Hong Kong the situation of an exploding population, in which tremendous achievements have been made in the last few years, but where, even so, it is difficult to keep up with the needs. Certainly, one of the needs is for more educational opportunities for secondary school children. It is a question of buildings and teachers, as elsewhere.

This is a very general problem in many parts of the world, where one has the effect of a population explosion. The Government in Hong Kong are very much aware of this and are doing their best. I think that they are achieving some remarkable success in trying to minimise this problem.

Sir F. Bennett

While welcoming the Minister's firm adherence to the view that these were politically motivated disturbances, can she give an assurance that this country will not tolerate the kind of humiliating demands and actions earlier forced on the Portuguese in Macow to be perpetrated upon our officials serving abroad, especially when they are only doing their duty?

Mrs. Hart

If the hon. Gentleman reads my statement, he will see that I said very clearly that we intend to fulfil our responsibilities in Hong Kong. I am sure that, as I said, good sense will prevail and that the situation that he has described will not be one of the facts that we have to face.

Mr. Blaker

As regards the increasing population, to which the hon. Lady has rightly referred, would she not confirm that as well as an increasing birth rate the population is going up because of substantial immigration? Does this not suggest that conditions are not too bad?

Mrs. Hart

This is certainly one of the factors in the population growth. Obviously, one can always select those conditions about which more needs to be done faster. Equally, it is fair to point out how well the Hong Kong Government have dealt with the enormous problem. We have to keep a sense of proportion in making our judgment.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.