HC Deb 20 January 1988 vol 125 cc971-1018 3.37 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the White Paper on the Annual Report on Hong Kong 1987 (Cm. 293) and endorses the policies which the Government is pursuing to maintain Hong Kong's future prosperity and stability. Her Majesty's Government and the Opposition both attach great importance to the subject of today's debate. It is both a product and a symbol of Parliament's commitment to Hong Kong. The Government's commit-ment to the publication of annual reports on the territory was itself a response to the wishes expressed in Hong Kong and taken up by hon. Members. The Government and Parliament alike are equally determined to fulfil our responsibilities to Hong Kong. Indeed, this House has already considered Hong Kong on a number of occasions since it endorsed overwhelmingly the signature of the joint declaration on Hong Kong's future. I have always been encouraged by the strength and quality of the interest shown on both sides of the House. We all seek a future for Hong Kong that will be in the best interests of the territory and its people.

Today, I want to concentrate on three separate themes: the implementation of the joint declaration; our consultation with Hong Kong and its people; and the issue of confidence. Britain and China are engaged in Hong Kong in a unique enterprise. We are creating conditions for the transfer of responsibility for an entire community, while preserving its present systems, human rights and lifestyle.

The relationship between the British and Chinese Governments is close and cordial. That is as it should be. It cannot be emphasised too strongly that that relationship is vitally important to the people of Hong Kong; but, at the same time, the success of the Hong Kong enterprise is critical to it. Hong Kong therefore lies at the heart of that relationship.

Throughout the complex process of negotiating the joint declaration, we bent all our energies to securing a good deal for Hong Kong. I believe we succeeded. Now we are working, with the same determination, for the full and faithful implementation of that joint declaration. The Chinese Government, I believe, have an equal commitment.

During the past year I have met my Chinese colleague, Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian, on three occasions and Hong Kong has been a major theme at each of those meetings. I look forward to continuing that discussion—as well as to considering other international and bilateral questions—when I welcome Mr. Wu Xuequian on an official visit to Britain in the spring.

The British and Chinese Governments have developed a pattern of close and pragmatic co-operation over the implementation of the joint declaration. We recognise the need for the utmost sensitivity to the circumstances of Hong Kong and the concerns of its people. Understandably, they look for reassurance. One important element of that reassurance is and will be a high degree of continuity in Hong Kong's institutions and systems of government across the change of sovereignty in 1997.

The watchwords for the future remain "prosperity and stability"; and stability requires institutional continuity. That has been much in the minds of those who are working intensively together, for example, in the Joint Liaison Group and the Land Commission.

During the past year that work has resulted in further solid achievements: a series of agreements on Hong Kong's continued, separate participation in international organisations; agreement on further steps enabling Hong Kong to protect its own commercial interests before and after 1997; further steps in securing continuity over travel and identity documentation; and good progress in discussion on defence and public order.

At the same time, valuable work has been done on the drafting of the Basic Law. It is that Chinese law which will enshrine for post-1997 Hong Kong the constitutional provisions set out in the joint declaration. The drafting of the Basic Law is, of course, a matter for the Chinese Government, but, equally naturally, we are following the process with the greatest interest.

We welcome the extent to which China has sought to involve Hong Kong people in the drafting process. Almost half the members of the Basic Law drafting committee come from Hong Kong. The Basic Law consultative committee in the territory has a vital role in reflecting Hong Kong views. For our part, we have the right to satisfy ourselves that the eventual provisions of the Basic Law fully and accurately reflect the joint declaration.

Without our present constructive relationship with China, we could not have made such progress in implementing the joint declaration. I believe that that fact is widely understood in Hong Kong.

However, there are also certain misconceptions that should not be allowed to persist. One myth is that Britain seeks good relations with China at the expense of the interests of Hong Kong. Nothing could be further from the truth, and anyone who went, as I did, through the lengthy and strenuous negotiations with the Chinese which led to the joint declaration knows that is a grotesque distortion. There is no question of putting Hong Kong second: we have upheld and will uphold Hong Kong's interests to the full, not only because that is right, but because it would be an illusion to suppose that we could create good relations with China at the expense of the interests of Hong Kong.

All the evidence makes it plain that Hong Kong prospers when London and Peking are in harmony. The central fallacy is to suggest that there is a choice between the interests of Hong Kong and good relations between Britain and China. One cannot have one without the other. The single question that needs asking—it is important—is how to secure the firmest possible foundation for the future stability and prosperity of Hong Kong. It certainly cannot be founded on confrontation between Britain and China.

In Hong Kong, a lively and articulate community ensures that its concerns are heard. Successive governors have stood up for Hong Kong's interests most persuasively, both in London and in Peking.

The death of Sir Edward Youde at the end of 1986 was a tragic loss. The whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the wisdom and dedication that he showed in shaping Hong Kong's future, both as administrator and as my adviser during the negotiation of the joint declaration. His successor, Sir David Wilson, has brought to the office unparalleled experience; I am glad to say that that has been widely acknowledged. He is uniquely qualified to administer and champion the interests of Hong Kong. He has my fullest confidence, and he has shown admirable steadiness and clarity of purpose during his first year in office.

The Government attach the highest importance to the process of consulting Hong Kong. There are close and intensive contacts between the British and Hong Kong Governments on all matters related to the implementation of the joint declaration. Officials of the Hong Kong Government play a full part in the work of the Joint Liaison Group.

Where consultation with Hong Kong people is concerned, one of the major events of the past year has been the review of developments in representative government. An earlier review took place in 1984. It resulted in important measures of reorganisation, including the introduction of 24 indirectly elected members into the Legislative Council. A commitment was made then to conduct a further round of public consultation in 1987. That commitment has been carried out in full.

The review is now nearing its end. A wide range of options was put forward for public debate, with none ruled out in advance. It has been scrupulously objective and impartial. Hong Kong people were encouraged to express their views, and their response has been on an unprecedented scale. An independent Survey Office has recorded the submissions made and views expressed by members of the community. Its report is comprehensive: no view, from whatever source, has been excluded. Two individuals of integrity and high standing in the community were appointed as independent monitors to oversee the work of the office. They have testified that the Survey Office recorded public views impartially and accurately.

The outcome of the review will be recorded in a White Paper, to be published by the Hong Kong Government next month. The House will understand that I cannot today anticipate details of the eventual decisions that will be announced. But I should like to explain some of the background.

In the first place, Her Majesty's Government and the Hong Kong Government alike wish to see the development towards more representative government in Hong Kong continue steadily. Neither we nor they would wish to impose any particular form or model. Hong Kong is unique in many ways, and it will need to develop its own system of government suited to its own requirements. Such a system should respect the wishes of the community as a whole and reflect Hong Kong's special circumstances and conditions, in the future as in the past.

We should acknowledge all the relevant factors: the range of views expressed by the community; the relevant provisions of the joint declaration; and the work now in hand to draft the Basic Law for post-1997 Hong Kong. We must ensure that any measures taken are accepted by the community as a whole and are consistent with the maintenance of stability.

Above all, we should remember that what we are building is not merely a temporary structure, but something which can and will endure in the years beyond 1997, and so carry Hong Kong forward into the 21st century. That is why our work must be set in the context of the establishment with China of arrangements for the future, and alongside the drafting of the Basic Law. There is nothing new about this. Throughout Hong Kong's existence, its identity has evolved in light of a clear realisation of its unique historical, geographical and international circumstances. It is against that background that we must work to preserve it.

The Hong Kong Government's Green Paper covered a wide range of issues, but, as the House will of course be aware, the main focus of public debate has been the question whether a directly elected element should be introduced into the Legislative Council, and, if so, when. This issue was the subject of the great majority of submissions to the Survey Office. It also dominated debate in the Legislative Council and other forums.

The Survey Office report shows that the bulk of the views expressed have been in favour of the principle of introducing some directly elected members into the Legislative Council. Of course, many people did not express any view. None the less, I think that it would be accurate to speak of a strong trend in public opinion that supports taking that step well before 1997.

On the question of timing, the report shows opinion to be sharply divided. Some people believe that direct elections should be introduced this year, when elections to the Legislative Council are due. Others have reservations about moving forward so quickly. They argue instead for introduction at a later date, with some suggesting that the subsequent round of elections in 1991 could provide the most appropriate opportunity.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

While I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is reflecting what is common parlance in Hong Kong, is it not correct to say that representations were received from only 137,000 people out of a population of 5.25 million? I hope that the Government will bear in mind that very few Chinese with residential qualifications are used to a democratic Government. That should be taken into account.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That is why the survey report is only one of the factors that have to be taken into account. The report encompasses representations, discussions and debates of many kinds in all the representative bodies. That is why the question is not susceptible of a single, simple analysis. The division about which I have spoken has been reflected in debate, sometimes heated, at every level from the Legislative Council down. The most deftly argued views are not always the most important, and the most strident are not always the most representative, or the most likely to achieve the desired result.

I have spoken of the need for continuity. In the preliminary draft of the Basic Law, recently released by the Basic Law drafting committee, all the options for the composition of the legislature provide for a directly elected element. That is very welcome in Hong Kong and is one of the considerations that should guide us in reaching our conclusions. The views expressed by Hong Kong people help to establish the parameters within which we should plan to move ahead on a steady and prudent course acceptable to the community as a whole. Certainly we have noted the general feeling in Hong Kong that the White Paper should contain a clear statement on when it is intended that direct elections should be introduced. I understand the widely expressed wish that the White Paper should bring an end to uncertainty.

In view of the short time that is available for the debate, I should like to give other hon. Members as much time as possible to speak. However, I cannot exclude from my opening remarks a few words about the position in Hong Kong of the so-called boat people from Vietnam. On that topic as on any other, I shall be ready in winding up to address specific concerns raised by hon. Members.

I am acutely conscious of the concern felt in Hong Kong about the problem of the boat people. We are doing all we possibly can to relieve Hong Kong of this burden. We have accepted a further quota for resettlement in the United Kingdom, and we are urging other countries to follow suit. We are also discussing with all those concerned how those Vietnamese not qualifying as refugees might be returned to Vietnam against suitable assurances about their treatment. None of these matters is easy to discuss or to carry forward. It will be a long haul, but I assure the House and the people in Hong Kong that we shall persist in trying to find a way forward to solve this problem. In all that we do for Hong Kong, our overriding concern is to sustain confidence in the future.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Would it not be advisable to make a very strong reservation in terms of the comments that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was making a moment or two ago, that there will of course be no compulsory repatriation to Vietnam while the unhappy circumstances in Vietnam still prevail?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I understand the force of the hon. Gentleman's point. That is why I said that, when we were making representations and inquiries, suitable assurances about the treatment of anyone who might return to Vietnam were absolutely essential.

We are trying to reconcile two or three almost irreconcilable factors. It is plainly necessary to reduce the numbers in camps in Hong Kong; but there is clearly a limit to the places that can be found for them elsewhere. The third channel must certainly be sought: an acceptable way of returning them to their land. The hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House of the difficulties.

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that during the past five years, while there have been closed camps in Hong Kong and on the islands, not one of the refugees — not a single family, although some have been behind barbed wire for more than five years —has asked to be repatriated to Vietnam? Will he take that into account? Furthermore, will Her Majesty's Government redouble their efforts to persuade other Governments to accept refugees for resettlement?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend is right: he directs his focus to the other components. I have taken up that point in virtually every meeting that I have had with any other Government who could possibly be a candidate to receive refugees. I do not think that my hon. Friend is right to say that not one refugee has sought repatriation; I am sure that some have tried to return to Vietnam. He is, however, right to say that the numbers have been very small. —[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) says, an underlying feature is the achievement of more balanced policies in Vietnam. That would make it a more acceptable home to return to.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Where was the right hon. and learned Gentleman when the Americans bombed Vietnam?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall halt my digression rather than be distracted by that sedentary intervention.

Let me reiterate that our overriding concern is to sustain confidence in the future, both in the territory of Hong Kong and in the wider internal community. Of course there are uncertainties, but I believe that they should be seen in perspective.

Hong Kong people have always been highly mobile: there is a strong tradition of travel overseas for education or training. Recently there has been some increase in emigration. Uncertainty about the future may well be a factor in that, although it is by no means the only one. Moreover, many Hong Kong people, having acquired a foreign nationality or residence qualification, choose to return to Hong Kong. They are attracted back by the lifestyle, the rewards and the sense of identification with the community there. We and the Hong Kong Government will do our utmost to ensure that all those attractions remain.

The House is, of course, well aware of the problems recently connected with the Hong Kong stock and futures exchange. Hong Kong exchanges were not spared the effects of the worldwide downturn in stock markets. But the Hong Kong Government moved decisively to coordinate financial support—to which, I am pleased to note, the Chinese authorities made a significant contribution. They have also set in hand action to tackle the longer-term problems connected with supervision and operation of the exchanges.

Equally firm action has been taken more recently to ensure that allegations about the conduct of certain individual office-holders of the stock exchange can be pursued, without affecting the smooth operation of the exchange. The Hong Kong Government are determined that the territory's position and reputation as a major international financial centre should be safeguarded.

The problems that emerge are being tackled decisively. On the credit side, we have much cause for encouragement. There is the joint declaration itself, and the detail and certainty embodied in that legally binding international treaty; there is China's commitment to work closely with us over the implementation of the joint declaration; and there is the efficiency and drive of the local administration, creating conditions in which enterprise can flourish.

We are encouraged, finally, by the exceptionally strong performance of the local economy: a growth rate for 1987 of over 12 per cent., bringing the 20-year average to almost 8 per cent. per annum; an increase in domestic exports of 26 per cent. over the year; virtually full employment; and a strong property market and high levels of investment. Few economies in the world could match that record. None of it suggests a lack of confidence in Hong Kong's prospects on the part of those who trade and invest there.

The Hong Kong Government are planning purposefully for the territory's future. Ambitious projects are in hand to take the territory into the next century. The quality of life is being steadily improved. Opportunities for the next generation are being opened up.

The transitional years up to the change of sovereignty in 1997 are bound to bring uncertainties, but Hong Kong has shown an admirable ability to adapt to change. It is sustained by the resilience and dynamism of its people. It is sustained, too, by the good will of the British and Chinese Governments and their joint commitment to the successful implementation of the joint declaration. I am confident that all these advantages will keep Hong Kong steady on its course.

It is the solemn responsibility of the British Government to administer Hong Kong up to 30 June 1997 in the best interests of its people. We shall discharge that responsibility to the utmost of our abilities.

4.4 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the late Sir Edward Youde. I knew Sir Edward well and worked closely with him for a time. I was well aware of his many qualities and, of course, of his heroic past. It is right that we should remember him now.

The Opposition are grateful to the Government for agreeing to the Labour party's request for a debate on the annual report. We are grateful for the annual report itself. The useful availability of these reports seems somewhat at odds with the adamant rejection by the Foreign Secretary almost three years ago today—it was 21 January 1985—of requests by my right hon. and hon. Friends for annual reports on progress in Hong Kong following the agreement of 1984.

Hansard for 21 January 1985 is littered with categorical rejections of the need and scope for such reports and the damage that they might inflict. The Foreign Secretary said: Such reports tend to be a repetition of previous reports in form … Although designed with the best intentions, they often have the opposite effect of that intended … My, instinctive reaction to the annualisation of reports is to regard that practice as often diminishing the importance and value of the reports. He said with enormous vehemence: one can become depressed by the wearisome familiarity of the structure of annual reports. They can fall into an annual rhythm, even when the scene is changing as rapidly as it is in Hong Kong. I am anxious not to condemn the reality of the subject to being encapsulated in a wearisome annual framework."—[Official Report, 21 January 1985; Vol. 71, c. 734 and 745.] I am pleased that the right hon. and learned Gentleman repented of that view, because I think that the whole House will agree that the series of annual reports is of great value to the House and the people of Hong Kong. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's change of mind is a forerunner of even more valuable mind changes on this and other matters.

The report contains much encouraging information. We congratulate the Joint Liaison Group on the agreed involvement of the Hong Kong special administrative region, as it will become in 1997, in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade the multi-fibre arrangement, the Customs Co-operation Council and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. We are sure that, as a member of the International Labour Organisation, Hong Kong China will pursue more enlightened employment policies than do the present British Government.

We are pleased to learn of the air service agreement with the Netherlands and of the anticipated air service agreement with Switzerland. All this makes encouraging progress in the evolution of the unique experiment on which the Chinese People's Republic has agreed to embark with such breadth of mind and vision.

We greatly applaud other aspects of the report. In particular, we congratulate the Hong Kong housing authority on its plans in the coming financial year to complete a record 52,000 public housing units. That 52,000 in Hong Kong contrasts with an estimated 24,000 to 25,000 public sector completions in this country next year. Hong Kong, with one tenth of Britain's population, is building twice as many public sector homes as the Government are permitting.

This remarkable achievement would be matched in Britain by 500,000 new council houses which, heaven knows, we badly need. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary could persuade the Secretary of State for the Environment to take a trip to Hong Kong and, no, not to stay there — that would be most unfair on our friends in Hong Kong; warlords are completely out of fashion in China — but to learn much-needed lessons about public provision for public need.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Surely the right hon. Gentleman is far too sophisticated to put such an argument to the House. Does he not realise that Hong Kong has absorbed a very large number of refugees from mainland China who are utterly homeless? Conditions in Hong Kong are entirely different from those in Great Britain.

Mr. Kaufman

I accept that absolutely. I believe that Hong Kong has serious difficulties which I would not dismiss or underestimate for a moment, but we have serious difficulties, too. We also have a large number of homeless people who would benefit from such an admirable public sector housing programme as that in which Hong Kong is participating.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he has said about the boat people. I acknowledge, as he did, the great difficulty of the problem. It is far from straightforward and a solution is not easy to find. We are ready to meet the Foreign Secretary and discuss with him, in a non-partisan way, potential ways in which the problem can be dealt with in an attempt to find a satisfactory outcome for those unhappy people.

As the Foreign Secretary has acknowledged, the debate is especially important as it comes just in advance of the White Paper which is due for publication next month. I very much hope that it is not a cut and dried document that is ready for the printer. I hope that what is being said today will have an effect on its content. If not, the debate is an empty charade and goes against the spirit in which the Government and the Opposition have approached this important issue.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary still has an open mind about direct elections. I thought that the intervention of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) was curious. He drew attention to what he claimed was a small number of submissions by the people of Hong Kong on this issue. There were 125,833 submissions. I should have thought that if the Government, who preside over a country with 10 times the population of Hong Kong, had received 125,000 submissions on one item of policy, they would acknowledge that there was serious concern in the country about it. I cannot understand how such a remarkable manifestation of concern can be dismissed, apparently, as trivial.

As the Foreign Secretary has said, it is not in doubt that elections will play a part in the composition of the Legislative Council after 1 July 1997. Annex 1 of the 1984 agreement — the elaboration, as it is called, by the Government of the People's Republic of China on its basic policies regarding Hong Kong—states unequivocally: The Legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be constituted by elections. We welcome the clarity and forthrightness of that pledge. In his statement of 25 October 1984, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that commitment when he said: The agreement provides for the Legislature of Hong Kong in the future to he on an elective basis". In response to questions, he said: the legislature … must be developed and established, after proper consideration, on a due time scale." —[Official Report, 25 October 1984; Vol. 65, c. 822 and 826.] I must confess that it is not immediately apparent to me what those words are supposed to mean. That phraseology may be a characteristic example of the Foreign Secretary's occidental inscrutability. However, I take it that that was a circumlocutory way of saying that the Foreign Secretary was keeping his options open. I say "his options" because, as he properly said this afternoon, although the Chinese Government naturally have a legitimate and important interest in that fundamental decision, it is a decision for Her Majesty's Government alone as they have sole responsibility for the administration of Hong Kong until 30 June 1997.

The question therefore is not whether there should be direct elections for the Hong Kong Legislative Council, but when and for what proportion of those seats the election should take place. The Chinese make no bones about that. A most formidable and brilliant representative of the Chinese embassy addressed a meeting of my right hon. and hon. Friends earlier this week. She categorically committed the People's Republic of China to direct elections for Hong Kong. She acknowledged that an overwhelming majority of the people in Hong Kong are in favour of direct elections. Those of us who listened to her welcomed the sincerity of that statement as well as the consummate skill with which the Chinese approach was described. We were also told that, while naturally China had the right to its own point of view about timing and proportions, the People's Republic of China is not opposed to direct elections before 1997.

I acknowledge immediately that the question of when direct elections should start is not straightforward or simple. One argument is that no action should be taken that would pre-empt the Basic Law for Hong Kong which, as the Foreign Secretary said, is now in preparation by the Chinese Government. The first draft of that Basic Law will be made public in April. It will be subject to five months of consultation and revised in the light of that consultation. It will then be made available in its revised form for additional calculation. It is due to be ratified by the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China for publication in 1990. That is a powerful argument and it could weight the balance against action in direct elections in advance of 1997 which would pre-empt the contents of the Basic Law, which is solely a matter for China.

I could have been strongly influenced in favour of a delay in holding direct elections until 1991 after the Basic Law has been passed were it not for the clear statement from the Chinese that they are in favour of direct elections. In those circumstances, it is not the principle of direct elections and whether direct elections are acceptable to the People's Republic of China which is in question. The People's Republic of China has clearly accepted the principle. However, the timing and the modalities of such elections are in question. That being so, I believe that the arguments for starting with some proportion of direct elections this year are compelling. I trust that the Foreign Secretary will take those arguments into account when considering the final contents of next month's White Paper.

It is unquestionable that, if direct elections are delayed until after the handover in 1997, they will not come about immediately. Preparations will have to be made and the next scheduled year for a change in the composition of the Legislative Council after 1997 is the year 2000. That would mean that even a start on the basic experience of elections and the practices and conduct of elected members could not be made until into the new century. If a start at that point were to be made with 25 per cent., as seems to he the accepted proportion for a start, progress towards a 100 per cent. elected Legislative Council might not be achieved until well into the 50-year period guaranteed to the Hong Kong special administrative region.

There are no arguments in favour of waiting until the changeover, and the People's Republic of China has never said that it wants to wait until the changeover. The question arises whether the direct elections should start before or after the Basic Law is approved in 1990. One important point is that time is already passing. A quarter of the time between the signing of the agreement in 1984 and the handover in 1997 has already elapsed. If we wait until 1991 for the introduction of some proportion of direct elections, more than half of the time between the signature of the agreement and the handover will have elapsed. There will not be much time for the new system to be assimilated and for experience to be gained of how elections are conducted and how elected members should employ their opportunities and status.

I believe that there is an even more important point. In their great wisdom the Chinese Government are providing two opportunities for public consultation in Hong Kong about the contents and provisions of the Basic Law that is being drafted. It must be said that in present circumstances reactions to that Basic Law will not be available from persons who are clearly seen to be representative of the people of Hong Kong. No doubt distinguished and knowledgeable persons will state their views and those will be important. Possibly efforts will be made to guage the views of the people of Hong Kong as a whole, perhaps through the use of opinion polls, which have already been employed. However, the views of distinguished and knowledgeable people will be individual views and the findings of opinion polls are always open to challenge and interpretation, as indeed have been the findings of the polls seeking the views of the people of Hong Kong on the question of direct elections.

It would be invaluable for the Chinese Government to have people available for consultation who are clearly seen to be the properly elected representatives of the people of Hong Kong. The availability, of such elected representatives would be most helpful in securing clear acceptance of the Basic Law by the people of Hong Kong. I am sure that that is in the interests of the Chinese Government in this remarkable experiment on which they are so courageously embarking.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is correct to be concerned about the development of representative and robust government in Hong Kong, and that concern is shared by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and the Beijing Government. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a danger in putting too much weight on 1988 as the starting point because, if that weight is too great, it will create undue anxieties in Hong Kong that will undermine all the work that lies ahead and the progress that has already been achieved? Will the right hon. Gentleman use his considerable influence to try to allay some of those fears?

Mr. Kaufman

That is the last thing that I want to see. The problem is that there is already a great deal of concern. It is impossible to say how representative is that concern, but there is no doubt that it exists. I have tried to balance the arguments for a start on direct elections before the drafting of the Basic Law and after its passage. After careful consideration, my conclusion is that the arguments are considerably weighted towards a start before the Basic Law is agreed. I will consider other arguments in a moment in response to the important point raised by the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell). However, I have long been wary of the arguments in favour of what the late Hugh Dalton used to call the doctrine of unripe time. Arguments can always be advanced to state that some proposed change or advance is desirable, but the time is not ripe.

The problem is that we are under two time limits. First, we are under the time limit of the handover. Although the period of guarantee of the special administrative region is lengthy, it is clearly a limited period. Secondly, it is necessary for Hong Kong to have experience of a 25 per cent. elected Legislative Council and of a 100 per cent. elected Legislative Council early in that period.

The sooner that direct election begins, the earlier will be the experience of working representative structures and the greater the chances of sorting out any problems which may arise in direct election and direct representation, to which the people of Hong Kong are not used on a territory-wide scale. A start in direct elections this year would of course place a great responsibility on the people of Hong Kong to demonstrate their capability to conduct free elections in a responsible manner.

I am confident that the sophisticated people of that territory are more than equal to that challenge, and that their ability to meet it will be of assistance in the growth of their relationship with the country of which they will soon become an autonomous region. I believe that they will seize the opportunity to prove to China that the system can work. I am sure that the people of Hong Kong want the system to work — their whole future depends upon it — and the major change that the Chinese are proposing to be of benefit to them so that it can continue beyond the 50-year period.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kaufman

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House will accept that this must be the last intervention that I will take, as so many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak in a short debate.

Mr. Adley

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Labour party had received a representative from the Chinese embassy. We all know that the Chinese are in favour of direct elections, but was she in favour of them before 1991? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it will not help the people of Hong Kong if they are encouraged to take decisions which are clearly contrary to the views of the Chinese Government?

Mr. Kaufman

That formidable and remarkable lady was careful to express no view on that matter. In my view, she was sensible not to do so. Clearly, it is not in the interests of the people of Hong Kong for action to be taken during the remaining period of British administration that will be unwelcome to the People's Republic of China. At the same time, with all respect to the People's Republic of China, Britain and the House are administering Hong Kong and will administer it until 30 June 1997. It is our responsibility to take decisions which we regard as proper for Hong Kong, of course taking into account the important considerations mentioned by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley).

The issue will not go away. There is an appetite for direct elections in Hong Kong that is acknowledged in every statement made on the subject, including those statements made by the Chinese Government. Reluctant though I am to say it, I have to say that until a specific commitment as to date and proportion of those to be elected is given, it is a question that will bedevil the preparations for the handover and could overshadow the important discussion that China is laudably seeking over the contents of the draft Basic Law.

I do not believe that direct elections are the only important issue at stake in the next few years for Hong Kong. It would be a pity if preoccupation with direct elections were to dominate and distort discussion of all the other issues which need to be considered and settled.

Therefore, I put it to the Foreign Secretary that the arguments strongly predominate in favour of an announcement in the White Paper next month that direct elections for some of the Legislative Council seats should take place later this year. Indeed, faced with a choice between 25 per cent. in 1991 and 12.5 per cent. this year, I would strongly recommend 12.5 per cent. this year, even though my own preference, like that of many in Hong Kong, would be for 25 per cent. this year.

My discussions with people from Hong Kong show that there is a great readiness there to co-operate with China in the fundamental changes that are to come, and to demonstrate that readiness to China. Direct elections this year would assist in that co-operation and that demonstration. The Foreign Secretary said on 21 January 1985: The process of consultation …will be further assisted by the progressive strengthening of representative Government in Hong Kong over the next 10 years." —[Official Report, 21 January 1985; Vol. 71, c. 741.] Consultation on the basic law starts in April. Strengthening of representative government should start in this year, too.

There is intense interest in this debate in Hong Kong. Although it is now after midnight there, this debate is being broadcast live in the territory, and is being listened to by a large number of concerned people. Let the Government give them the commitment that so many are looking for.

In its decision to set up a special administrative region in Hong Kong, the People's Republic of China has taken one of the most visionary steps that any Government have ever taken. It deserves credit and admiration for its openness of mind and its readiness to innovate. The House has a duty to assist the People's Republic of China in that great enterprise, and to maintain its proper vigilance on behalf of the people of Hong Kong for whom we remain responsible. It is in that spirit that the Opposition approach the debate.

4.25 pm
Mr. Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to intervene in this important debate. Unfortunately, I was unavoidably prevented from hearing the first part of the Foreign Secretary's speech in which he paid tribute to Sir Edward Youde. I join him in that, as I knew Sir Edward Youde when he was ambassador in Beijing. He was our second ambassador there after we assumed complete diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, and he carried out an expert job in having working relationships with Mao Tse-Tung, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

When Sir Edward came to Hong Kong, he had a formidable task in following Lord MacLehose who had been governor there for 11 years and was immensely admired and respected, and had performed remarkable feats as governor of Hong Kong. However, Sir Edward assumed that task willingly and with great skill, in his own style, which was different from that of Lord MacLehose. His death was a tragedy and we should pay tribute to him for his achievements in Beijing and Hong Kong.

Before I come to the main question about elections, I wish to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary in saying a few words about the boat people. We must face the fact that that situation cannot continue. Those of us who have seen the camps are convinced that the Government of Hong Kong are doing absolutely everything possible to make them tolerable, but year after year children are growing up confined to those camps. That situation cannot be maintained. As we shall be responsible for Hong Kong for another nine years, we cannot allow a situation to continue in which so many young lives—they will soon become youths capable of work — are confined in camps. We cannot respectably hand over Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China with people kept in such conditions.

I do not believe that the People's Republic of China would allow such a situation to continue. Therefore, I urge my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, who has a compassionate nature, to recognise that year after year human lives are continuing, and young people are growing up in a situation which—however much the Hong Kong Government do—is intolerable.

I do not believe that it is impossible for Hong Kong to assimilate the numbers that are involved. A colony of 5 million people could absorb such a number; it is perfectly possible if it is handled properly. Britain certainly could take more people than it has already taken. Voices will always shout against that, but a country of 50 million people must be able to absorb more than we have been prepared to accept so far.

After all, when my Government — of which the Foreign Secretary was a member—faced problems with Uganda, we were able to absorb 25,000 Ugandan Asians in 10 days. They have proved themselves to be admirable working people. They have created their own private enterprises and have been immensely successful. I am not in a position to make a comparison between those people and the Vietnamese, but I am quite convinced that Hong Kong could handle the problem once the Governments of this country and Hong Kong made up their minds to do so.

The major point of the discussion today is elections. When we debated this matter on 5 December 1984, 1 congratulated my right hon. and learned Friend on the agreement that had been reached. I summed up my position by saying: Far greater than any danger of haste is the danger of not having fully representative working government with experience by the time the handover takes place." —[Official Report, 5 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 405.] That is still my view. There is a much greater danger of our dragging our feet than of being over-hasty.

For the remaining period before the handover, the all-important thing for Her Majesty's Government to consider is that we are still the Government of Hong Kong and that we have accepted our full responsibilities, placed upon us, with the full agreement of the People's Republic of China, for all the activities and particularly for the government of Hong Kong, until 1997. If we are to do that, we must show all the time that we are not only managing the affairs properly, but dealing with the problems that arise. There is no point in trying to hide the problems of Hong Kong, because everybody there knows about them only too well. There are problems with the stock exchange and scandals that have taken place in industry, commerce and within other activities in Hong Kong. They must be dealt with quickly and firmly if we are to demonstrate that we are still carrying out our responsibilities.

If we are to maintain the confidence of the people of Hong Kong we must show that we are still running the show properly. We cannot afford to let it gradually slip. If we do so—there is some evidence to suggest that people believe that that is already happening — the financial, commercial and industrial interests of Hong Kong will rapidly reach the conclusion that we will not carry out our part of the agreement reached between ourselves and the People's Republic of China. If they reach that conclusion, the prosperity of Hong Kong will fade away. That will be the test of whether we properly carry out our responsibilities under the agreement.

One of the questions open to discussion is that of elections. We should be able to hand over Hong Kong with a system of representative government. My right hon. and learned Friend has said that Hong Kong should develop its own system, and I entirely agree. However, it must be a system of representative government, and unless action is taken quickly now we shall be unable to hand over any form of experienced, representative government. I made that observation three years ago and now we have less than nine years left. As Members of this House, we know how long it takes to acquire the experience within the House to enable us to achieve anything individually within our parties or in government.

In Hong Kong the operation of a full system of government must be achieved in a short period of time and it is rapidly getting shorter and shorter. When my right hon. and learned Friend is considering the White Paper he must take that fact into account. The People's Republic of China accepted that a system of representative government would be established and it is committed to the continuation of that system for 50 years after the handover. Therefore, what we hand over is of vital importance. That lends emphasis to the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend should be prepared to take action, but in what direction?

Obviously, when a new constitution is being devised it would be wise to ensure that any action taken now should not be in conflict with it. I fully accept that. However, do we need to do anything that is in conflict with that constitution? I believe that the answer to that question is no.

The first option for consideration is extending the functional system of government in Hong Kong with internal elections, and that is fully acceptable to the People's Republic of China. Those who are considering constitutional developments within the People's Republic of China at the moment are undoubtedly thinking along those lines. However, they face enormous difficulties. When they talk about opening up China or its liberalisation they are talking about the economic development of the country and they are determined on that. However, when it comes to the liberalisation of political activities the attitude is different.

It is genuinely believed that, with more than 1 billion people, the country is not sufficiently developed or experienced to carry on an effective system of government. One can understand that. A crucial point will be reached — as we have seen in other countries — because with economic development and liberalisation there inevitably follows a demand for political liberalisation. That always represents the crux for any country that is trying to develop its economy and political institutions.

We could increase what I term the functional representation in Hong Kong at this moment and that would be carrying the territory in the direction that would be followed by the People's Republic of China. Secondly, I understand that there are options contained in the basic constitution, as presently shaped, that concern 25 per cent., 30 per cent. and 50 per cent. of the Legislative Council seats for election. If those options are already within the proposed Basic Law and are accepted by the People's Republic of China, I do not believe that we would be in conflict with the constitution if we moved on that path between now and when the Basic Law is accepted. If we were certain that the Basic Law would be effected in a year's time all would be well, but, as we know, such matters tend to drag on and on. It may well be 1991 or 1992 before the matter is settled. In that case, the time left before the handover would be even shorter—one could count the years on the fingers of one hand.

If such options were taken up, I do not believe that we would be pursuing a path that would be in conflict with the forthcoming constitution to be agreed between the People's Republic of China and Her Majesty's Government. If I am wrong, no doubt my right hon. and learned Friend will correct me in due course. If we are not in conflict, I believe that it is possible to advance. Therefore, there are two options available to us by which we can help to develop representative government in Hong Kong. We would then be able to hand the territory over in 1997 with a system that could continue, without further controversy, for the remaining 50 years to which the People's Republic of China will be committed.

When my right hon. and learned Friend is considering the White Paper, which is the importance of today's debate, he should recognise that, from the point of view of governmental experience, it is urgently necessary to develop a system of representative government in Hong Kong. Such a development would not be in conflict with the new constitution.

Therefore, it should be possible for us to advance along such a path without the People's Republic of China claiming that we are in any way infringing the undertakings that we have given. If we follow that path it will not be possible for the people of Hong Kong or any of our other friends to say that we are not carrying out the responsibilities that we have undertaken. If we do not infringe our undertakings or fail our responsibilities, it will be the best position for our Government.

The practical way in which the people of Hong Kong will respond to elections is a matter to be considered. I was not quite certain whether my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) was saying that 135,000 people represented a small or large number or whether it meant that people wanted elections or not. I do not mind which way my hon. Friend interprets it, because, when it comes to the point, it is up to the people to decide whether they wish to vote in elections. My own judgment is that the people of Hong Kong—the greater part of the 5 million inhabitants—are mainly concerned with getting on with their own business, which they do extremely well. That does not mean to say that they should not have representative government, especially when we have given such an undertaking.

My hon. Friend and I may agree—probably for the first time, but I hope not for the last—that the people of Hong Kong can carry on doing their own business and continue to be successful. However, progressively, there will be opportunities for those who want to vote in elections and form their own Government. We shall then hand over in 1997 not only a very successful Hong Kong, commercially and industrially, but one which is satisfied with its form of representative government which can then continue for 50 years until further changes come under the People's Republic of China.

4.39 pm
Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

The whole House will have listened closely to the words of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), drawing on his long experience. They were wise words on the need for direct elections and the fact that that would not be incompatible, as he understands it, with the Basic Law so far proposed.

On my last visit to Hong Kong as shadow Attorney-General, in the course of discussions with the legal community I gave an assurance that whenever an issue arose regarding freedom, the law or the constitution, I would be prepared to act as a conduit pipe if they had exhausted all the existing machinery. Over the years there have been occasions when one has had to go to Ministers because of anxieties expressed in Hong Kong.

Let me give one example — the public outcry regarding section 27 of the Public Order Ordinance enacted last March, which makes it a crime to publish false news. If that were a crime in the United Kingdom, the Home Secretary would have to build prisons for editors, sub-editors and the like. That law has caused great anxiety, especially as regards the freedom of the press and free speech.

I understand that there is now a film censorship Bill, for political reasons, mainly the likelihood of seriously damaging good relations with other territories. Freedom and censorship, particularly political censorship, are never compatible — a lesson forgotten perhaps by Her Majesty's Government in their litigious rampage through the courts of the world.

Whenever one goes to Ministers the answer is always the same—this is a matter for Hong Kong. If Hong Kong had a democratically elected Government that would be right, but when one hears of these aberrations which are contrary to our understanding of freedom, we cannot, like Pontius Pilate, wash our hands of what is going on there.

I come immediately to the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup. I believe, from the representations that we have had, that there is more than the beginning of a crisis of confidence in Hong Kong regarding progress on the road to direct elections. Informed opinion in Hong Kong, if we are to judge by the representations that we have had, is that they have been shaken by the timidity of the Government in grasping the nettle on how far and how quickly representative government is to be achieved.

The Foreign Secretary has not carried the matter one iota further. We do not know in what way Her Majesty's Government will encourage speed in moving towards a democratically elected government. Sophisticated Hong Kong, with a long tradition in the business world, perhaps will be unique as the only colony where we have not begun to move towards a democratically elected government when we hand it over. That is an odd reflection on the people of Hong Kong.

Mr. Adley

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman not slightly misunderstood the history of Hong Kong? Is not the real reason why we never introduced any fundamentally democratic institutions in Hong Kong that, whatever the paper reality, the political reality was that no governor of Hong Kong for the last 150 years dared do anything along those lines that would fly in the face of the wishes of whoever happened to be governing China at the time? Is that not the reason why nothing was done?

Mr. Morris

Let us get away from the past. What is important now is the sophistication of business leadership and many other forms of leadership in Hong Kong. There are two great universities, with a third planned. It is unique that we have hardly moved along the road to democratic government. It is the only one of our colonies where we have not done so. The Government may assert on a technicality that there has been no breach of promise in not having direct elections in 1988, but it is only a technical defence and, like most technical defences, it lacks all merit.

Anyone who has read the excellent memorandum prepared by Mr. Martin Lee and his colleagues cannot fail to be impressed by the case that they have presented. Their analysis of the expectation in Hong Kong provides a sound prima facie case for elections now. It was Jim Griffiths, a distinguished Colonial Secretary and a compatriot of mine, who said on more than one occasion that half the battle was to begin. He had long experience of administering our colonies.

The expectation is based on the repeated promises of the Government, culminating in the Prime Minister's own words in December 1984: We shall honour our obligations to the full … Long before 1997 we will have steadily and securely moved to increase the amount of representation of local people in the Government of Hong Kong. Earlier, both the Foreign Secretary and the governor had said that representative government would be developed in the years immediately ahead". I emphasise the word "immediately".

As that was promised in 1984, how can there have been no progress by 1988? The sands of time are running out. Hong Kong needs experienced leaders to play their full part in the colony's affairs. Since the term of office of the Legislative Council is three years, it is difficult to see how a representative legislature can be established well before 1997 if a start is not made in 1988 on at least a small number of seats. If this opportunity is missed we shall chearly be in 1991 before a start can be made, and there will be only six years left.

May I ask three questions of the Foreign Secretary? First, are the Government aware of the extent of the anxiety of informed opinion in Hong Kong? Secondly—perhaps the Foreign Secretary will draw back the veil on the White Paper — how do the Government see representative government developing between now and 1997? Thirdly, will the Foreign Secretary endorse the assertion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that there is no tardiness on the part of the Chinese in going along with a start being made in 1988?

China has said that the Basic Law would represent the wishes of the people of Hong Kong. The letter and spirit of the agreement provide that the legislature of the Hong Kong special administrative region shall be constitutionally elected. The first step should be taken now. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup is right. It takes years for people to acquire the know-how to work the machinery of government and, indeed, the machinery of this House. Time is running out. If nothing is done by 1991 we shall have lost the advantage of seven years. They will have been seven very lean years indeed in making progress on the matter.

I quote the words of Sir Jack Cater, the chief secretary of Hong Kong until 1981, reported in The Independent this morning. He said: Too little is made of the fact that we have so very little time. All that would be achieved by not introducing direct elections now would be to make [1997] that much more difficult. Hong Kong would not be getting the experience which it obviously needs. We should be treated as an adult society. If this is what we want, there has to he an extraordinarily good reason for not giving it to us. Those are the words of a very experienced administrator in Hong Kong. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will tell us why a start cannot be made in 1988, or must three more years be lost before 1991?

4.50 pm
Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I and two of my hon. Friends had the good fortune to be invited by the Hong Kong Government to spend 10 days in the territory in September. We had a most interesting time, met very many people and were looked after most hospitably. At the time, the leading subject was the Green Paper and the survey was being assessed.

I intervened in the Foreign Secretary's speech and both the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) questioned the point that I was trying to make. It is a very simple point: the survey, although producing the views of 135,000 people, did not produce the views of 5.25 million people. From my discussions with very many people, I am certain that there is a substantial body of opinion that says either, "I do not know," or, "I do not care," or simply prefers a system in which elected government plays a very small part. I was delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary responded to my intervention by saying that those who make the most noise on this subject by no means necessarily have the most influence or carry the greatest weight of support in the territory.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

The hon. Gentleman referred to a survey. There have been several surveys and opinion polls to measure public opinion in Hong Kong on this matter. Recent surveys show that the majority of people favour direct elections. There may be a division of opinion about the timing of elections, but the most popular date for the introduction of direct elections in all the recent surveys is 1988.

Mr. Wiggin

I disagree with that. The survey to which I referred is the public response to the Green Paper, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has read. With all statistics, it is possible to come to whatever conclusion one might choose. Mr. Martin Lee comes to a very different view.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

My hon. Friend sets much store by that survey, but will he confirm that the key question about the 1988 direct elections was muddled and has been widely discredited by people who know about surveys? Will he also confirm that the reason why so many people expressed no view is that 40 per cent. of the people asked could not understand the question? Does he agree that, if he were asked that question before or after breakfast, he would not understand it any more than I would?

Mr. Wiggin

I shall not dispute with my hon. Friend what is the best time of day to ask me intellectual questions.

This debate has been raging in the territory and it is natural that it should be reflected in our debate. I do not share my hon. Friend's view on this matter. The vast majority of people are far less interested in voting for their representatives than we might like to think. We have made the mistake in many countries of imagining that the Westminster system, and all that goes with it, transfers easily and that it is for the benefit of the people concerned. I question that, and believe that history would be on my side.

I intend to speak only for a few moments, but there is one point that deeply impressed me during my visit and has not been mentioned in the debate. It concerns the general state of law and order in the territory. It is immensely refreshing to walk the streets of Hong Kong, which are litter-free and well policed. According to the police commissioner, the crime figures are amazingly low—there are 13 street crimes and 30 burglaries a day in a community of 5.5 million people. They are quite exceptional figures.

I asked the police commissioner on what he based this performance and he said that he had, quite simply, twice the number of policemen in Hong Kong per head of population as he did as an assistant commissioner of police in London. The right hon. Member for Gorton suggested that a housing Minister should visit Hong Kong to learn their ways. I hope that the Home Secretary will take a note of that vital point.

While in Beijing, I had the privilege of meeting the Vice-Minister in charge of Hong Kong affairs. The word that is in everybody's mind is confidence. I am convinced that the Government of the People's Republic of China fully understand that fact and, in the action of supporting the futures market, demonstrated their desire to put their money where their mouth is. That was one of the most dramatic exhibitions of their intention to honour their commitments. It is vital that our Government do the same, because confidence is fragile and could so easily be disturbed. I left after a very happy visit with the firm view that we were set on a road to a successful transition and I congratulate Ministers on keeping up that momentum.

4.56 pm
Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

I wish to associate myself with the tribute to Sir Edward Youde. The few remarks that I wish to make are very much in tune with the typically sane and constructive comments of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath).

I remember the debates in 1984 and 1985 very well. There was no sense of complacency, but there was a feeling that the Government had achieved a very good agreement with the People's Republic of China, given that they had no alternative under international law than to negotiate the best outcome from a position of weakness. The solution of two systems in one country, reserved for half a century, earned for the Foreign Secretary and the present Governor, Sir David Wilson, in particular, justifiable and considerable praise.

On Third Reading of the Hong Kong Bill on 6 February 1985, I regretted that the self-determination route could not have been followed, because that was the genuine democratic response and I had no doubt then—nor do I have any doubt now—that, given that option, the overwhelming majority of the people of Hong Kong would have chosen to follow the example of their mirror city, Singapore.

That would have required an act of unique magnanimity by the People's Republic of China. In any case, the republic came a long way and the agreement was hailed as an ingenious, flexible and enlightened document. However, the way in which the agreement will be implemented depends on the framing of the Basic Law, which lies with Peking. The first draft is due in April, the second draft next year and the final draft in 1990.

The impetus for our debate stems from the confluence of two things. First, it stems from the first draft of the Basic Law. We all know that first drafts are very important. Sometimes they are more important than at other times. Secondly, it stems from the approach of a new term for the Legislative Council which will overlap the final production of the Basic Law.

The view expressed by the Hong Kong Delegation for Democracy, led by Martin Lee — which many hon. Members, including the Foreign Secretary, have seen—is that the new Legislative Council must have a significant directly elected element. The proposal of 25 per cent. is I think prudent, restrained and sensible. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, this is the central issue of the debate. Page 5 of the delegation's position paper quotes an exchange between the Foreign Secretary and myself on 25 October 1984. It states: In answer to Mr. Russel Johnston's question whether he had 'encountered any objection from the People's Republic to the development by the United Kingdom over the next 13 years of directly elected institutions in Hong Kong', Sir Geoffrey dovetailed the Green Paper proposals with those made in the draft Agreement by saying: `The agreement provides for the Legislature of Hong Kong in the future to be on an elective basis and for the Executive to be accountable to that legislature.'. It is central to the realisation of the concept of one country and two systems that democratic institutions are evolved and, as hon. Members have said, given time to bed down. Therefore, a beginning should be made now. If it is not, the hope and trust that certainly characterised the response to the joint declaration in 1985 will be gravely damaged, and that, in time, will have an economic effect.

The absence so far of specific proposals for a directly elected element for the new legislature is seen by many, rightly or wrongly, as stemming, first, from the Foreign Office—with great respect, I must say that the Foreign Secretary's remarks were opaque; he said quite a lot but we could not see any specific affirmation—and its pressure on the Hong Kong Government, and, secondly, from pressure from the People's Republic on our Government.

That perception exists despite the assurances that we have heard most recently from the Opposition spokesmen, particularly the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) who quoted a lady who had obviously had a profound effect upon him and referred to her remarks to the Labour group from the Chinese embassy.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

No. The lady was from the Chinese embassy, not the Labour group.

Sir Russell Johnston

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I have always thought that some Labour party policies stem from the Chinese embassy.

Mr. Canavan

The hon. Gentleman is thinking of Bob Maclennan again.

Sir Russell Johnston

I seldom think of anything else.

Hardly anyone believes that the delay in making proposals for a democratic element is due to the published results of the two Survey Office soundings of public opinion, which have been quoted. I certainly hope that the Foreign Secretary will say more than he did at the beginning of the debate about the wide discrepancy between the private opinion polls on the subject, which showed between 40 and 60 per cent. of people in favour, and the Survey Office results, which showed a range of 11 to 15 per cent. in favour. That is a significant difference, particularly these days when we are supposed to get much more accurate results.

The Survey Office exercise was so clumsy—the point was well made earlier—as to be seriously flawed. As the right hon. Member for Gorton said, annexe 1 of the joint declaration is relevant. It states that, after 1997, the Hong Kong legislature is to be constituted by election. Unless a start is made now, that will not happen.

Do the Government see 25 per cent. as a start or as an end? It is a good question. We all know that there is a proposal that the end should be 25 per cent. directly elected, 25 per cent. taken from financial institutions, and 50 per cent. taken from the so-called grand electoral college, which is chosen we know not exactly how, but we can guess. It is not just that it makes a nonsense of the possibility of the rejection of the chief executive—something that was spoken about at the time—but ill describes a provincial Hong Kong with its independence of action not only circumscribed but neutered.

Many hon. Members have remarked on the failure of successive British Governments to move Hong Kong in a democratic direction. Successive Governments have defended themselves by saying that they wished to avoid provocation. Of course, they were in an exposed position. In practice, the media—the newspapers—have become a democratic surrogate: the release valve for free expression As we move into a more active dialogue with the People's Republic of China, there are some things from which we cannot shrink. We cannot avoid some direct challenges on future safeguards for the kind of open dispute that is now available in Hong Kong—even without democratic: institutions—but which, despite the notable changes that have taken place within China, are still very limited there.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned human rights. I shall make three short quotations from the document on the People's Republic of China that was published last year by our parliamentary human rights group. The first quotation, which appears on page three, makes a point that I have often noticed. It states: The contrast with the Soviet Union could hardly be more stark. There, irrespective of the economic and political reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, Western leaders have used their leverage to insist on human rights concessions. When Secretary Shultz was in Beijing in March 1987 he never met with Chinese dissidents nor said anything publicly about human rights violations. On visiting Moscow in April, he took reporters and television cameramen with him to meet Soviet refusniks …and used the occasion to declare that 'we never give up, we never stop trying' to advance human rights in the Soviet Union. Some examples of that appear on page 75. It refers to the summary execution of thousands of common criminals, 7,000 to 14,000 persons who were executed without due process of law between 1983 and 1986, the situation in Tibet, and so on. The publication goes on: International human rights efforts in fact have intensified on behalf of groups in South Korea and Taiwan seeking greater political liberty. But China's economic accomplishments have sidetracked observers from pressing for political and legal institutions that could better protect China's citizens and strengthen the underpinnings of its economic modernization. These are sensitive, difficult issues. In raising them, I in no way intend to diminish the significance and worth of what has been accomplished in the Hong Kong agreement. However, we in the United Kingdom, who have made Hong Kong — certainly for reasons which can now clearly be seen to be disreputable — have maintained it and overseen its expansion, which stems from the vigour of its inhabitants who went there of their own choice. We now have a responsibility to do our utmost to fulfil an historic trust.

I described the Hong Kong press as a surrogate democracy. I understand from the right hon. Member for Gorton that what I say now is being broadcast live. It will certainly be reported, but will that be the case after 1997? If the majority of the Legislative Council is democratically elected, I believe that it will be; otherwise, I doubt whether it will be.

I take the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris). We are talking about our honour as a country and the effect on it if we fail to discharge a clear moral debt.

Regrettably, the debate has been a short one. There are other issues that I could have developed that demand attention, such as the status of passports and the boat people. I must say to the Foreign Secretary, in all earnestness, that when he said, almost casually in his offbeat fashion, that we could repatriate the boat people with adequate guarantees, a little shiver ran down my spine. It was not nice to hear such an idea in the middle of a debate.

The election is the immediate issue and it is the touchstone of future confidence in the arrangements for Hong Kong. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will be rather more positive before the debate is over than he was in opening it.

5.10 pm
Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

Like others who have spoken, I favour direct elections. The question is what part of the Legislative Council should be directly elected, and when that should happen.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-superMare (Mr. Wiggin), I do not take it as axiomatic that 100 per cent. of directly elected Members of the Legislative Council, based on the Westminster model, is necessarily right for Hong Kong. A start should be made with 25 per cent. of the Legislative Council being directly elected, to see how that works. It should then move on, the success of that percentage having been demonstrated, to a larger one. Direct elections should start between 1988 and 1991, not at a later date. For part of the Legislative Council, it should be not later than 1991.

I have three points to make in that regard. First, we are still in the lifetime of the first Legislative Council containing indirectly elected Members. Therefore, we have not had a chance to see how the experiment is working. It has certainly transformed debate in Hong Kong. The debate there is more vocal and, on the whole, is well-informed. It is interesting that there is no sign of the people of Hong Kong saying, "The people in the Legislative Council, whether nominated or indirectly elected, lack authority because they are not directly elected by the people." At present it is not losing authority for that reason.

We hear remarks, such as those made by the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), that time is running out. That makes the basic assumption that the clock stops in 1997. Why are we assuming that? I know of no reason why we should assume it. We have not seen the draft Basic Law. We do not know whether there will be provision for further evolution in the special administrative region—SAR—of Hong Kong after 1997.

The most important question is, what do the people of Hong Kong want? I attach importance to the report of the Survey Office. It has done a very thorough job, and it was congratulated by the independent monitors on having properly, accurately and impartially conducted its operations. It is wrong to describe its work as a concoction, as has been alleged, implying that it was some sort of rigged arrangement by the Government of Hong Kong. That is a disgraceful allegation to make.

It is also said that it was wrong for the Survey Office to attribute different weights to different types of submissions, depending on whether they were letters from individuals, petitions or stereotyped letters. As I read it, the Survey Office report does not do that. It reports what happened and leaves the reader to make his own judgment.

With regard to the different opinion polls, A. G. B. McNair is a well-known polling company of international repute. It was selected on the basis of an open tender. The target population that it took was the adult population of Hong Kong. It operated by random sample, chose a group of 3,000 people to test, and conducted a pilot test in advance. Its methods seem to have been thoroughly professional, and it certainly was not doing what it was told by the Hong Kong Government.

Mr. Foulkes

When I was in Hong Kong last week I spoke to the managing director of A. G. B. McNair, who confirmed that the formulation of the questions that were asked in the survey were based on the wording of the Green Paper and that, given a free hand to ask more direct and simple questions, the questions in the survey were not the ones that would have been asked. She felt constrained by the complicated wording of the Green Paper.

Sir Peter Blaker

That is a very interesting remark. It is news to me that the company was instructed to adopt that wording. If it is correct I accept that, but it does not invalidate my argument. A. G. B. McNair used experienced and trained interviewers and it had —perhaps this is the most important point—3,000 face-to-face interviews.

If one looks at some of the other opinion polls that are referred to in the document that has been circulated by the Delegation for Democracy, the organisation led by Mr. Martin Lee, one finds a lesser degree of professionalism. The colonywide polls were largely conducted by telephone. If one conducts a survey by telephone, one automatically limits the people whom one can reach to telephone owners. Therefore, one is excluding more than half the population of Hong Kong. I can see no reason why non-telephone owners would be more likely than others to want direct elections in 1998. It is wrong to imagine that people who are opposed to direct elections in 1988 are representative only of big business.

Other polls were confined to specific population groups; for example, a group of university students. I can imagine what sort of reply I would receive if I polled a group of university students.

If one looks at appendix 7 to the voluminous report by the Survey Office, one gets a better idea of the nature of the other surveys that have been cited by those who are calling for direct elections in 1988. My reading of the Survey Office report is that there is clearly a majority in favour of direct elections, but not in 1988. I believe that the majority are against direct elections in 1988, but in favour of them at a later date.

What is beyond dispute is that there is a serious and large divide in the population. I should like to repeat the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) asked: why should we imagine that people would be less inclined to obtain passports for Canada, Australia or the United States if they had been promised direct elections in 1988? It is possible that there would be more concern if it were announced that there were to be direct elections in 1988 than there is now. It would not be right to move towards direct elections at the present time, given the clear division among the population of Hong Kong, and given also that we are still in the first legislature that has been elected, even partially, by indirect elections.

Secondly, I want to deal with the accusations that have been made against Her Majesty's Government by the Delegation for Democracy. Somebody must mention these allegations, because Her Majesty's Government have been accused, in plain terms, of breaking their promises. That is a serious accusation. and I asked Mr. Lee how he substantiated that accusation. I asked him to quote the words on which he was relying. He was unable to find any words to that effect. The closest that he could get was to refer to undertakings about the development of representative government. That has happened, and Mr. Lee is an example of the development of representative government.

Mr. Lee referred to a 1984 report which said that a substantial section of opinion was in favour of direct elections in 1988, but he could not point to a promise by Her Majesty's Government that there would be direct elections in 1988. I hope that this accusation will not be repeated. It is unjust. It is unwise for the Delegation for Democracy to make that accusation, because it reduces its credibility. The people who know about these matters know that the accusation is not true.

The accusation generates an atmosphere of acrimony, which is highly undesirable. What is more, it is deeply offensive. 1 was born in Hong Kong. I have followed the events there for decades, and have done so especially closely in recent years. I have followed the statements, and I know that there has been no such statement by Her Majesty's Government. I hope that we have heard the last of that accusation.

Thirdly, what should be the attitude of the Hong Kong people towards China? I understand their nervousness. They did not want to be transferred to the sovereignty of China. China is enormous, and Hong Kong is tiny. China has a Communist system which the people of Hong Kong do not want, but I ask the Hong Kong people to look at the pluses.

There is what is generally agreed to be an excellent joint declaration, which was made in 1984 and gives the Hong Kong people all the freedoms that they could possibly want. That international agreement is registered with the United Nations. It gives the Hong Kong people a guarantee of freedom from Socialism for 50 years after 1997—something that I should be happy to see in this country, where we do not enjoy such a guarantee.

We see that China is carrying out its obligations. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary referred to the excellent work of the Sino-British Land Commission, which has been carried out harmoniously. Hong Kong has been independently accepted by various international economic and cultural organisations. Harmonious and constructive work has been carried out by the Joint Liaison Group.

If I had been asked a few years ago whether it was conceivable that there would be a committee drafting the Basic Law of Hong Kong under the aegis of the People's Republic of China, and that virtually half the members of that committee would be from Hong Kong, I should have been astonished, but the Basic Law drafting committee exists. I should have been astonished also at the idea of the Basic Law consultative committee, which consists, I believe, entirely of Hong Kong people and is advising the Basic Law drafting committee.

If I had been told that all the drafting committee's activities would be conducted virtually in public, I should have been amazed. Everyone knows what the committee is talking about. Its discussions are immediately reported in the press. This is one of the most intense, thorough consultations that I have seen in 24 years in politics. It is incredible, and it is conducted under the aegis of the Chinese Government, of whom some hon. Members are so suspicious. That is really what those hon. Members are saying when they call urgently for a move to direct elections this year—that they are suspicious of China.

The attitude adopted by the Delegation for Democracy is mistaken. It is a confrontational posture, which is unwise. I do not think that it will help in the development of true co-operation. Part of the loss of confidence in the future by the people of Hong Kong, which some recent opinion polls say exists, may be due to the activities of the Delegation for Democracy, which is causing fear—

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

This is shameful.

Sir Peter Blaker

1 agree that it is shameful.

Mr. Hughes

No, what my right hon. Friend is saying is shameful.

Sir Peter Blaker

My hon. Friend may have an opportunity to speak later. I hope that he will, and I shall listen with close attention.

The people of Hong Kong face a difficult process of adjustment, but what is the picture from the Chinese side? It is worth while the people of Hong Kong asking themselves that question. China has agreed to the joint declaration. It is an enormous step for China to take to accept the one-country, two-systems concept. Hong Kong will continue to be run by the Hong Kong people in a capitalist manner for 50 years after 1997. China is honouring the agreement. It is continuing to honour the agreement because that is in China's interest. Hong Kong is of immense value to China as it is—a capitalist, thriving, prosperous territory which will bring China great wealth and technology.

Hong Kong is China's open door on the world Therefore, the Chinese are having to make enormous adjustments. They are learning about capitalism. We have seen the assistance that the Bank of China gave a few weeks ago in rescuing the Hong Kong future's market. I remember when Hu Yao Bang was relieved of his post—I think last year. It caused great concern in Hong Kong. China purchased a large share in Cathay Pacific. I do not know whether that was a conicidence, but, if it was not, it was a remarkable step. The negotiation was conducted at great speed and helped to stabilise confidence in Hong Kong. That is in great contrast to 1984, when the Hang Seng index fell dramatically during a difficult phase of the negotiations that we were conducting with China and the Chinese put it down to Britain playing the economic card. Would that one could manage the Hang Seng index as easily as that!

Having learnt a great deal about capitalism, China is learning about representative government—a concept foreign to the Government and people of China. The questions are not simply: what will China do for Hong Kong and what will be the effect of China on Hong Kong? The question is also: what effect will Hong Kong have on China? The question which we should debate is much bigger than the single one of direct elections in 1988 or in 1991. It is a matter of confrontation or co-operation. I opt for co-operation.

5.27 pm
Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I was surprised by the speech of the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker). The House respects his voice on the issue of Hong Kong, but his speech astounded me. I was surprised that he based so much of his case on the Survey Office report. The argument against the report is not that it was rigged. That is a preposterous charge. Clearly, the Hong Kong Government initiated the report in good faith and it would be wrong to accuse them of rigging it. The argument put forward by statisticians and other market researchers against the report is that it was invalid. All the polls to which the right hon. Gentleman referred reached the opposite conclusion. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman based so much of his case on those polls.

I am surprised that the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South attacked the Delegation for Democracy so strongly. I met Mr. Lee only five minutes before the debate. I did not know him before and I do not agree with everything that the Delegation for Democracy says. But why should not that delegation be confrontational? Why should it not fight passionately for its rights? We do not have to agree with all it says, but it is entitled to fight passionately because the livelihood of its members is at stake. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman was so indignant about the delegation's case.

There are reasons why we feel that the people of Hong Kong want immediate direct elections. The movement out of Hong Kong is disturbing. Some people are moving out. Some people do not speak out because they do not want to offend the Chinese, and that is quite understandable. If I was there, I would not want to offend China if I thought that China opposed direct elections—although, in fact, I believe that it favours them. So many want direct elections. For all those reasons, I think that the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South was wrong in his analysis.

The great challenge underlying the debate and facing the Governments of China, Britain and Hong Kong, is how to make a reality of Deng Xiaoping's imaginative concept of one nation, two systems. That was an inspired idea and the Chinese deserve all credit for it. The difficulty is that everyone involved has a different history, a different cultural background and a different way of life, so there is a danger that there will be widely differing interpretations and expectations and that misunderstandings will arise. That is what we must avoid.

In this House, we focus mainly on the interests of Hong Kong, and rightly so, because we are still in charge and we shall remain in charge for the next nine years. I do not think that we fully appreciate the pressures that the new concept puts on China. Although China will eventually benefit from Hong Kong's financial and economic strength, it will have to accept in return a system alien to its own. China is accepting—even welcoming—a system that results in the accrual of great wealth to the Hong Kong people and gives them a higher standard of living than China's own people.

The Chinese Government deserve great credit for their constructive attitude to Hong Kong in recent years. They have shown that they can appreciate the nature of Hong Kong's prosperity and they are responsive to the Hong Kong people, which is very encouraging for the future. However, inevitably, those in Hong Kong are concerned about what lies ahead. It would be surprising if they were not. There is to be a change in sovereignty and a shift to the concept of one nation, two systems. That will create a major economic and political upheaval.

Before that takes place, many vital issues will have to be settled—not just the issue of direct elections. The selection procedure for the civil service will be a very important issue, as will the balance of power and the balance of the assembly to be elected. We all await the publication of the draft Basic Law with interest, because that will affect all these basic issues.

However, the immediate issue that is being tossed back and forth in the debate is that of direct elections. For better or for worse, direct elections have become symbolic of good will and good intentions. Direct elections pose new questions, because, although Britain has outstanding achievements to its credit in Hong Kong, democracy is not one of them. We have nothing to boast about in that respect because we have done very little. Along with our magnificent and historic achievements in Hong Kong, let us recognise our failure to introduce democracy.

Some press reports create the impression that China is unenthusiastic about direct elections in Hong Kong. But, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, China has said specifically that it favours direct elections, although the precise form has yet to be decided. It is therefore a question of timing and extent. Some people think that the issue of direct elections gives rise to a conflict between China's requirement of sovereignty and Hong Kong's desire for autonomy based on democracy. If the critics are to be believed, direct elections could threaten the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong. I believe that those critics are quite wrong. They have misjudged the situation.

China's right to sovereignty in 1997 is indisputable, but it is generally understood—at least we hope that it is—that the Basic Law will include an element to cover direct elections. If so, we should introduce direct elections immediately, in 1988. That convergent development would not threaten China's position in 1997. As a matter of fact, direct elections this year would greatly benefit China because it would then have democratically elected people who could speak knowledgeably to it about the wishes of Hong Kong's people.

It is to cast no aspersions on those in LegCo to say that democratically elected people would have a more valid voice. In the long term those democratically elected people will be of great value to China.

I hope that China will declare that it does not oppose early direct elections. Nothing is worse than a great nation appearing to drag its feet on an important issue and then reluctantly acquiescing. I do not believe for a moment that China is reluctant. But China would benefit by being specific about its acceptance of early direct elections, and the doubt in people's minds would be removed.

There would be an added benefit, because in making such a declaration China would demonstrate to a wide public, including the people of Taiwan, its belief in genuine democracy and its pride in the electoral developments taking place in China. Hong Kong would clearly benefit because elected representatives would be better able to articulate the views of those who live and work in that remarkably prosperous territory. Hong Kong could then have a constructive dialogue and a harmonious relationship with China.

Some people, whose opinions and experience are greatly respected, advocate a pause to allow Hong Kong to absorb the recent electoral developments. I do not agree. Notwithstanding the speech of the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South—a fine speech, but one with which I differ—Hong Kong has no time to pause. There are only nine years left before the transfer of sovereignty and Hong Kong must cope quickly with change. I have no doubt that, because the Hong Kong people are adaptable, they will he able to cope with that change. Direct elections will promote, rather than damage, the stability of Hong Kong. Some very able people recognise that it will be a matter of concern if such elections are not held.

The value of Hong Kong lies in the quality of its active people. They have the money and the passports, and they will literally fly away if they are denied an early democratic voice. An uneasy people is never a stable people. There is nothing to be lost, and everything to be gained, by both Hong Kong and China from having early direct elections.

Of equal, if not more, importance than those people, who are vital to Hong Kong, is the broader-based segment of active young people who will be the future leaders of Hong Kong. The future of Hong Kong lies with them. Their confidence is vital. However, as with a bank or stock exchange, once confidence is shaken or eroded, it can slide away with growing and unstoppable momentum. Lack of confidence could be an avalanche of disaster for Hong Kong.

Therefore, let us have early direct elections. If those young people are given a democratic voice and new hope for the future, they can raise Hong Kong to new heights of prosperity. They can be an asset of incalculable benefit to Hong Kong and to China if the right decisions are made now.

5.41 pm
Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove)

I shall follow the remarks of the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) on one country, two systems, in a moment, but I cannot allow his attack on my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) to pass. I happened to be present at one of his meetings with Mr. Martin Lee. Orator of silken persuasiveness and practised reason, and successful advocate, that he is, he made the stark accusation that the Hong Kong and British Governments had acted in bad faith and had gone back on their words, and he used the phrase, the survey report was a concoction. One monitor of the report was one of my most esteemed colleagues in the Hong Kong Government, so I had better declare an interest. There is no question that Mr. Li FookKow would be party to a "concoction" of the survey report. I find that a damaging and a bitter accusation. I am grateful for the fact that my right hon. Friend rebutted it so forcefully and conclusively.

I find it a little ungenerous that sources are quoted, such as Mr. Martin Lee or the representative of the embassy of the People's Republic of China, but that little reference seems to have been made in the debate to the advice tendered by the Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Councils, and especially to the senior Unofficial Member, Miss Lydia Dunn. I should have thought that some attention might be paid to the views which she and they have expressed, because they carry responsibility in a difficult situation.

As I walked to the Commons this morning there was a light precipitation which, at this time of year—the approach to the Chinese new year—is referred to in Hong Kong as Suet Sui. It is a propitious omen and guarantees prosperity in the forthcoming year.

I return to the joint declaration and the cement between the British and the Chinese Governments that consists of the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong—because that is what this is all about. Direct elections are only part of that declaration.

I regarded as rather remiss the remarks of the right hon . Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), as I did those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old I3exley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). They seemed determined to impose the smack of firm government on Hong Kong., which they were unable to exercise in this country. I cannot imagine anything that would be more likely to shake confidence in Hong Kong than the British Government suddenly starting to impose solutions there, upon which the people had not been consulted and to which they had not given manifest and majority consent. That has never been the way in which Hong Kong has been administered.

I am not going to take lessons in democracy. I was the returning officer at the first elections that were held in Hong Kong, to the urban council, in 1956. All the talk about direct elections ignores the fact that they have been taking place for some time and have been increased since the 1984 White Paper. That was the gravamen of the charge of my right hon. Friend for Old Bexley and Sidcup.

There have been elections to the district boards, and there has been a greater proportion of elected members on the urban council and regional council in the new territories. Therefore, progress is being made, although perhaps not as rapidly as some of us would naturally be disposed to advocate here. However, please let us remember, while we are still responsible for the administration of Hong Kong—until 1997—that that does not give us carte blanche to impose solutions that are injurious to Hong Kong or foreign to its interests.

However much we may regret that it was not possible to move towards a full democratic and independent Hong Kong, that is no reason for us to indulge in a last-minute flurry to salve our conscience by introducing a semblance of that at the last minute which might prove extremely damaging. Nor should we be tempted to try to establish a kind of outpost of a Western-style democracy to stem the advance of an alien creed—of an alien capitalist system—[Interruption]of an alien Communist system.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I liked it the first time.

Mr. Miller

As the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South said, we must put this issue into the context of one country, two systems. It is still one country, not two countries, which is an important difference.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Why would it be damaging if there were direct elections, when the People's Republic of China has said that it is prepared to see direct elections?

Mr. Miller

We are all committed to direct elections. The argument turns on the timing of those direct elections, which is exactly the point to which I was coming. We are committed to direct elections, and I am glad that early in his speech my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State gave the assurance that there would be full and faithful implementation by the British Government of the joint declaration. Nobody should accuse him or us of bad faith. However, we must consider the time scale. It is not 1988, 1991 or 1997. As has been said, it is 1997 plus 50 years.

We have talked loosely about direct elections to the legislature, but it is important to remember that nobody has begun to examine the structure of government that is to ensue. Is a full ministerial system expected, with a Government formed from an elected legislature, or is a separation of powers, on the United States' model, between the Executive and the legislature envisaged? Such things need careful definition before we start talking loosely about a directly elected legislature. It is important to understand what system of government is being envisaged.

Mr. Heath

My hon. Friend has touched on an important point about continuing developments in the 50 years, but Hong Kong understands that the position at the time of handover will be carried on for 50 years under the guarantee of Beijing, which is different. My hon. Friend is arguing that Hong Kong should accept that it should go on developing in the way that it wants during those 50 years, but I do not think that that is justified by the understanding in the agreement.

Mr. Miller

I do not accept that the stage of development reached in 1997 will be frozen in aspic. That presupposes that there will be no development in China, either. The form of government must be thought out before direct elections can be meaningfully held. Although China is committed under the joint declaration to an elected legislature, as far as I know—no one has produced evidence to the contrary so far this evening—there is no document that sets out the Chinese view of the elected legislature.

Mr. Foulkes

Yes, there is.

Mr. Miller

I think I am correct in saying that we do not yet have the first draft of the Basic Law, which will be subject to widespread consultation among the people of Hong Kong—a consultation which, I can well imagine, might exceed that undertaken by the Survey Office. I can see grave difficulties if movement has begun on a directly elected legislature in a direction that is not envisaged in the draft of the Basic Law, which, when it appears, will be subject again to a widespread public consultation exercise, followed by final confirmation and enactment some time in 1990. Those are facts of life, and they must be carefully taken into consideration.

Then there is the comparatively minor matter of getting the sequence of elections as between the district boards, the urban councils and Legislative Council right, but the Basic Law is the thing, and our task this evening is to ram home our commitment to direct elections and to seek to influence the content of the Basic Law. We shall influence its content only if we show a real understanding of the position in China and Hong Kong, reaffirm our commitment to the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and do nothing to undermine them by introducing unknown quantities and possibilities—for example, the formation of political parties and an opposition.

We might have been pleased to see those things were Hong Kong to remain independent, but the thought of such formalised opposition being established before the introduction of the SAR in 1997 would be most damaging to confidence and stability, and would do away with the whole reason for Hong Kong. So let us be clear what we mean when we talk so loosely about direct elections, and let us concentrate on their timing.

We must remember the importance of maintaining the authority of the Government of Hong Kong right up to 1997. The issue of stability has been raised only briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), but we must give it, and the enforcement of law and order, serious attention. I make a plea to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary in the context of the defence costs agreement with the Hong Kong Government. They are having to assume the considerable burden of strengthening the police force to take over that part of the responsibility for internal security that is currently borne by our troops, who are paid for by the defence costs agreement. The Chinese Government have made it plain in the documents that they are not expecting any contribution from Hong Kong towards defence forces, as opposed to internal security forces. I would ask for more generous consideration to be given to Hong Kong in this regard than has thus far been given.

We want the realisation of one country, two systems—of Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong. There is no doubt of our commitment to that, but I warn that it will have to be a Hong Kong system and that that will take some time to evolve.

I end as I began. We may well feel that the people of Hong Kong are in a difficult position between the dragon and the deep blue sea, but I remind the House that, according to the principles of geomancy, a position between the arms of the dragon and the sea is a most desirable place in which to dwell.

5.57 pm
Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller) has long experience of the Foreign Office and of the Government in Hong Kong, and we are always interested in what he has to say, although we need to correct some of the tendencies in his remarks in the light of the background against which he speaks. So it is for all of us.

It is now 25 years since I raised the future of Hong Kong in this House on the Easter Adjournment. That was the first debate on Hong Kong since the war. As a newly elected Member, I was surprised to be summoned to the office of the newly elected leader of the Labour party, Lord Wilson as he now is, and still more surprised to find in his office the Lord Privy Seal, in the person of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The Lord Privy Seal told me that the Foreign Office and the governor were worried about debating the future of Hong Kong publicly, and asked me to call off the debate. Lord Wilson asked me what I was planning to say that could have such a remarkable effect.

I explained that the essential continuity in whatever settlement was reached about 1997 depended on a reasonable continuity of economic development across the border between Hong Kong and its hinterland, and that that would take time to establish. If it grew, there would be a political basis for a settlement that would safeguard the essential future and the interests of the people of Hong Kong. So it has proved. But the sensitivity of the Foreign Office and of Foreign Office Ministers about stability in Hong Kong is not new. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will follow the example of the Lord Privy Seal, who wound up by saying that he did not see anything wrong with my arguing my case, and the debate went ahead.

All hon. Members have placed the greatest emphasis on the need for stability and continuity during the transition. We also need to recognise that China itself is undergoing a remarkable internal transformation, with a pace of change in some places that exceeds even that of Hong Kong. So of course China is highly sensitive about the situation that it will inherit in Hong Kong. Equally, it will be a somewhat different China in 1997 from what it is today. It will be by no means a homogeneous China. Already, the province of Guangdong does not raise taxes at the rates prescribed by Beijing; it negotiates its taxes with the capital. I was told that this year it is paying no taxes at all to Beijing, which seems a satisfactory outcome to its negotiations.

Such skills in the conduct of political life within China are already being learned rapidly in Hong Kong by all sections of opinion. It is against that background that we have been listening to what the people of Hong Kong are saying, and we must reach a judgment about what, in this rapidly developing situation, we should advise from this House.

There is no possibility of maintaining the status quo. The economic and constitutional development of Hong Kong are inextricably linked. Immigration has been referred to as one important indicator of stability, but perhaps an even more dramatic and immediate one is the exchange rate of the currency. For better or for worse, the touchstone of development—in the first place political but closely followed by economic development—has become the issue whether direct elections to the Legislative Council should be held in 1988. Now that that question has been raised and given a high profile, there is no dodging it. It is necessary to get over this step as soon as possible before Hong Kong can go on to the much more difficult stage of producing its own Executive and working out relations between the Executive and the legislature. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove rightly made that point.

When we reflect on this rapidly changing situation, we must ask ourselves whether it is possible to arrive at a pattern of relationship between the Executive and the legislature if the legislature is itself constituted on a pattern that is quickly to be superseded. Will there be a pattern of relationship between the Members of the Legislative Council, the electorate and the Executive that can develop, sustain, advise upon, demonstrate and learn in practice a new system?

Easy comparisons can be made. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove drew attention to the Westminster ministerial pattern and pointed out that is not the only one because there is the United States pattern, the pattern of local government and so on. None of the patterns offers easy, quickly learned or instantly absorbable patterns that would fit naturally into Hong Kong. Hong Kong must have time to learn these very necessary arts of government.

We recently had a good demonstration in Hong Kong of the need to learn following the stock exchange crash. An appeal was made to Beijing for financial support which was quickly given. An appeal was made to London for people and they were quickly forthcoming to help advise in and resolve a rather difficult situation. Such people will not be forthcoming and cannot be summoned in the same way in 1997. Problems will have to be resolved by the people of Hong Kong and they will have to gain experience and establish traditions at breakneck pace over the nine years from now until 1997.

How does the relationship between the Executive and the legislature develop to the point where it can deal with such sensitive issues as the stability of financial markets and the level of the exchange rate? We know from our own experience that we cannot deal with those things in detachment from the facts of our own economy. They affect wages, employment and public expenditure. When Governments are dealing with the instabilities of the world against a background of the support and confidence of their own people, they are in an incomparably better position to defend their people and to stand up for their interests in debates involving different national interests.

The arguments for going ahead with direct elections this year seem quite overwhelming. What are the reasons that have led to any doubt about that in any part of the House, but perhaps more on the Conservative than on the Opposition side? First, we had the survey of the public response to the Green Paper. Seldom can so competent a Government have made such a shambles of a consultative process, especially a Government that are so expert at sussing out public opinion.

To find out about public reaction to a rise in fares on the Star ferry, questions are asked and the Executive Council get the answer within a week. It is a vastly more thorough process of consultation than could take place in Britain. However, against that background there was a great deal of confusion and an inability to ask simple questions and receive simple answers. I do not myself think that the survey was deliberately confusing. It was an accident.

The People's Republic of China has made it clear that the administration of Hong Kong up to 1997 is a matter for the British Government. However, it has expressed through many channels unease about whether the direct elections—which it accepts—should be held this year. Inevitably, there are tremendous and very proper sensitivities in Hong Kong to the wishes of the People's Republic of China. It is natural that there should be a certain hesitation about going ahead with what is within the Hong Kong context a perfectly obvious and mandatory step. This should not be allowed to become a question of face.

The draft Basic Law will be published in April, and the Hong Kong Government are due to make known in February their judgment about direct elections in 1988. That is early in the year and it would not help for me to suggest to the House, still less to the skilled diplomats concerned, that the specific forms for the proper provisions of the draft Basic Law and the necessity to go ahead with direct elections in 1988 must be reconciled in a way that properly recognises the profound interest that everybody has in the continued peaceful, successful development of Hong Kong.

I am confident that the good will of the House for the future of Hong Kong and a firm expression that Hong Kong, being in charge of its own destiny, has every right to have those direct elections as soon as possible—and they can be held in 1988—is the right message to go out from the House.

6.8 pm

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

I am fortunate to follow two speakers who both have long and close connections with Hong Kong. I first went there in 1955, I think, and have gone there regularly ever since.

I agree with most of what has been said by hon. members who say that we cannot possibly speak on the issue sensibly and seriously without putting the discussions in the context of history. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller) said, to do so is a fundamental mistake which could have lasting and damaging effects on the people of Hong Kong. It is the people of Hong Kong whom we should be thinking about and I utterly reject the proposition that their future welfare depends solely and simply on whether there should be direct elections this year. That is so to simplify and trivialise the situation that it is not worthy of serious discussion.

I take issue on one matter raised by the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray). He spoke about the ability of people to assess public opinion in Hong Kong about the Star ferry fares and assumed that one could use the same process to deal with the complex situation surrounding whether, and when, there should be direct elections, to which body, by whom, at what time and with or without parties. That is about as fair a comparison as the one with which I concerned myself recently, when I heard about a public opinion test of people visiting a museum that had been subjected to museum charges. They were asked, "Do you accept these charges or would you rather go into the museum free?" It is not very difficult to assess the answer that is likely to be given to that question.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) that direct elections have been made the issue. They have been made the issue by the media and by people who have an interest in spreading unease in Hong Kong. They have been made the issue by people who have their own purpose and private interests in promoting that proposition. However, I reject the proposition that it is the only question of interest to the people of Hong Kong. I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) is not in the Chamber. I intervened in his speech. For him to start making comparisons in 1988 with what we were able to do or what happened in Singapore or Kenya or Timbuctoo is wholly farcical. Anyone who is aware of the history of Hong Kong would accept that.

I am also sorry that the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, criticised so severely the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker), who was born in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, in many instances for media-driven reasons, we are increasingly being presented with confrontation. It is as though the people of Hong Kong were being forced to make choices this week to determine their future for the next 50 or 60 years. Along with my right hon. Friend, I earnestly believe that the choice that really faces them is between confrontation a la Martin Lee and his friends, and cooperation under changing circumstances and with the Government of the People's Republic of China—with whom they will have to work, and under whose sovereignty they will have to live.

I well remember the speech by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) during the debate to which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred. Let me quote briefly from his wise words: The skill of our diplomatists, combined with the underlying good will of the Beijing Government, has transformed the atmosphere and offered the people of Hong Kong a far more promising future than most people expected when this act of the drama opened in the summer of 1982." —[Official Report, 21 January 1985; Vol. 71, c. 742.]

Mr. Foulkes

Perhaps the hon. Member will recall his own speech on 5 December 1984, when he said: Those who hold power in Hong Kong now like it, and want to hold on to it. They have not been elected to it and have an obvious incentive to resist change." —[Official Report, 5 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 434.] Can he tell us why he has changed his view since then, and where the inspiration has come from?

Mr. Adley

The hon. Gentleman has come to these affairs comparatively recently. He will know, however, that I have not always been the greatest friend of the Hong Kong Government. As I was about to say, I think that the establishment in Hong Kong has had a great deal to answer for over the past few years, and in the recent past the Hong Kong Government have certainly drawn considerable criticism from me.

Without divulging too many secrets which might cause embarrassment, I can say that there were occasions when I had to invoke the assistance of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to deal with some of the dirty tricks practised on me by that Government some years ago, when they deduced that I was a critic of theirs. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to make that point.

Let me return to putting the matter into its historical context. It was not a matter of free and easy choice that we had to make new arrangements for the sovereignty of Hong Kong; it was due to the impending end of the lease on the new territories. It is very dangerous to allow ourselves in the House—or, indeed, for the people of Hong Kong to allow themselves—to forget that we were faced with circumstances that seemed to leave us in a straitjacket. As has been said on many occasions, few of us in those days could have imagined that such an excellent arrangement could be made to secure the future prosperity and stability of the people of Hong Kong.

Either we accept the good will of the British and Chinese Governments to ensure that the agreement is carried out or, if we do not, we should say so. If people believe that there was and is a better deal on offer, critics of the present system should speak up, but I do not believe that a better deal could ever have been envisaged. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove that it is grossly insulting to suggest that the British Government are failing to do their best to carry out their obligations under the agreement.

We all know that the Government of the People's Republic are not opposed in principle to direct elections. I presume that the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes)—I am sure that he will tell me if I am misreading his attempts to paint me a different colour—was trying to imply that I was wearing my hat as chairman of the British-Chinese parliamentary group, and acting as a spokesman for the People's Republic. That charge has been thrown at me on more than one occasion, and I do not think that it is even necessary to rebut it.

We are all concerned to retain the stability and prosperity that Hong Kong has enjoyed for a long time. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove did not put it quite so bluntly, that stability and prosperity are based firmly and simply on autocracy, not on democracy. We owe it to the people of Hong Kong to ensure that, before we chuck out the baby with the bath water, we know clearly what we are putting in its place. Overt and covert pressure has always been brought to bear on Hong Kong by the Chinese Government, not just since 1949. The history books show that much of what was said in 1911 about the British in Hong Kong was far more vigorous and unhelpful than anything said by Beijing since 1949.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South invited the House briefly to consider the position from the point of view of the Chinese Government. Sensible people in Hong Kong know that they must learn to live with China. That is a fact of life, and there is no point in trying to avoid it. Either they must accept the good will of the Chinese Government, or they must believe that that Government are deliberately trying to string them, the House and the British Government along until 1997, when they will suddenly impose some new system. I consider that mischievous, and utterly nonsensical. If, however, we suppose it to be true, what difference would it make which institutions we put in place now? Surely we should advise the people of Hong Kong that co-operation, not confrontation, is essential.

Like most hon. Members, I have received a great deal of paper, and I shall not weary the House with numerous quotations. I am bound to say, however, that it is not only Mr. Martin Lee and his friends who are stirring up mischief. I received a communication from the Hong Kong Social Workers General Union, stating: The people of Hong Kong would not tolerate the decision to postpone the introduction of direct elections by 3 years and it would be folly to assume that they would accept such a decision mildly". That sounds almost like an attempt to generate insurrection, and—at the very least—suspiciously like a threat. I do not think that such wild statements are doing any good to the people of Hong Kong as they struggle, understandably, towards a new future.

If I have any contact with the Chinese Government—which, of course, I have—I may be able to give the House the benefit of some wisdom and understanding. Unfortunately for me, however, that has already been done by the right hon. Member for Gorton, and, indeed, by the Foreign Secretary. They have both said what we know to be true: that the Chinese Government are not opposed to the principle of direct elections. All that we are talking about is timing: the timing of the introduction of direct elections, in relation to the progress of the joint liaison group and the development of the Basic Law.

It seems to me rather unwise to try to rush headlong into direct elections for an assembly none of whose constitutional arrangements have even been discussed, let alone put in place, before that Basic Law is complete. I believe that that would be the view of the Chinese Government. I may be wrong—it may be a changeable position. However, it would seem sensible to put the Basic Law in place first in 1990, and then have the first direct elections. Doing otherwise, and pushing through direct elections for their own sake, would be a recipe for instability. If that were done in the face of opposition from the Government of the People's Republic—I do not know whether they are opposed—it would be flying in the face of sanity and disregarding respect for the sovereignty of the People's Republic, which could not be in the interests of the people of Hong Kong.

I am worried that some people in Hong Kong are allowing themselves to be misled by ambitious local politicians and trouble makers who want to generate unrest and who clearly do not trust the Chinese or British Governments. Perhaps most dangerous of all, some people are allowing themselves to be misled by well - meaning do-gooders.

The reputation of the Chinese Government depends on their ability to maintain the stability of Hong Kong. I should have thought that that was self-evident to everyone. The message to the people of Hong Kong must be that they should not allow themselves to be misled by siren voices.

The stock exchange scandal has been mentioned. I shall mention it only to illustrate a point. The British and Chinese Governments are clearly committed to maintaining stability. If stability is upset, however, it will not be upset in London or Beijing—it is likely to be upset only by what goes on in Hong Kong.

I told the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley that I have not always been the most ardent admirer of the Hong Kong Government. In the person of Sir David Wilson, however, Hong Kong has the finest possible Governor to see it through the next few turbulent years. It would be hard to imagine a more wise or better friend. Hong Kong's gain is our loss and the Government's loss in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is a good man. He will do his best to ensure that the people of Hong Kong are led steadily forward during the next few years.

We all want to do our best for the people of Hong Kong, but it should be steady as she goes. Working constructively with the British and Chinese Governments is far more likely to achieve that than listening to those who appear to have instant solutions to every problem.

6.22 pm
Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

I am glad, at long last, to have an opportunity to intervene somewhat briefly in this very important debate.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) will not be too surprised to find that I endorse utterly every word that he said, as I endorsed the contributions of his right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) and his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller). That is not too surprising in view of the fact that the four of us have always taken a considerable interest in the affairs both of China and of Hong Kong, and, if I may say so with my usual arrogance, we probably know more about it than the great mass of Members in the House of Commons.

The emphasis in the debate today seems to me to have: been primarily on the need for direct elections to the Legislative Council sooner rather than later. It seems to me that the pressures for direct elections in 1988 come from two quarters: first, from the media and from other groups in Hong Kong, some expatriate, whose support for the Sino-British agreement was always somewhat suspect and who really did not—and do not—want the agreement to work out properly.

Newsmen have been perhaps the most malign in this regard, but there are undoubtedly other factions in Hong Kong itself who were unhappy—always unhappy —about the inevitability of China reclaiming its own after 1997. They are usually the well-heeled and, under the admirable capitalist system of Hong Kong, they have not done too badly. They can afford the luxury of a funkhole somewhere else and they have, of course, the requisite passports and tickets ready to hand. If the future turns difficult for them, they can up and go. Their commitment to making the agreement work is somewhat less than wholehearted.

Then there are those in the West, public opinion formers and parliamentarians in particular—we have them here tonight—whose traditions endorse and whose purpose depends on the cross in the ballot box. They disregard or perhaps conveniently forget that in all the years of colonial government, in spite of our commitment to the electoral ballot, we were diligent in denying it to our subjects in Hong Kong. Now the parliamentary majority are loud in their demand for direct elections now, this year.

Most of us forget, too—we are not well enough versed in knowledge of the history of other peoples, one of the unhappy developments of the abandonment of empire—that China and Chinese people everywhere have totally different cultural and social traditions from ours. The concept of democracy is at variance with their political thought over the many centuries of Chinese life. China, both Confucian and Communist, has shown a long respect for authority and social order—not perhaps ideas that we in the individualist West are too committed to or have too much respect for.

I accept the arguments of those of our Hong Kong friends—some of us have a number of friends in Hong Kong—who say there is no need to rush into elections, that gradualism and convergence will work out best for the true interests of the great mass of the Hong Kong populace who do not have a ticket and a passport to get out.

It is quite clear that public opinion in Hong Kong is very sharply divided on the speed of introduction of direct elections and I am sure that the "direct elections this year" factions are largely the westernised people who have very much fallen under the influence of European attitudes. I believe that those who want to hasten slowly are the great bulk of the populace in Hong Kong who still feel the ancient attachment to China and to Chinese values. That is as, I believe, it should be.

The first draft of the Basic Law is to appear, I gather, in April this year. I suspect it would be advantageous to all the parties, if the Chinese were to accept a move to some proportion of direct elections to LegCo.

Dr. Bray

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to do an injustice to the people of China. He must be aware that the people of China have gone through a tremendous trauma recently and that it was that trauma which led most of the population of Hong Kong to go where they went. It is against that background of recent history that the matter is being resolved in Hong Kong and China. I think that my hon. Friend is showing remarkable insensitivity to that fact.

Mr. Faulds

No. I am moderately aware of that, but I think that the longer lesson of history is that, whether we like it or not, and whether the people of Hong Kong like it or not, they will be subsumed by China, and the more gracefully that happens, the happier their lot will be.

I hope that the Chinese will agree to something like a 25 per cent. proportion of direct elections. It would not be a bad figure to settle on. The British Government, as we know, are committed to an element of direct elections, but they did not spell it out in a timetable. I personally consider that it would be wiser to wait for that development till 1991 when the Basic Law, which, after all, is going to be the basic fact of Hong Kong's life and future, has been promulgated.

A proposal of a 25 per cent. introduction of direct elections in 1991 would still give some years of practice of democratic conduct of Hong Kong affairs. I should be very concened indeed for the prospects for the agreement and for our relations with China if there were to be too precipitate a move to a much larger proportion of direct elections.

A Government who have the responsibility in 1997 to take over Hong Kong have a legitimate interest in how things evolve politically—a point made by one of our Hong Kong friends. This is where convergence of developments with the Basic Law is so crucial, indeed critical, to the future of Hong Kong. Nothing could be worse for the future, both politically and economically, than for the introduction of changes before 1997 which the then Chinese Government might have to unscramble—and, of course, they would have to suffer the opprobrium of the international community if that were to happen.

Finally, there is another risk factor in rushing into direct elections. Party politics is all very well in our old democracies, regardless of the damage the swing of the pendulum often does to the real interest of the people concerned. But if direct elections were to lead to party politics in Hong Kong, the damage would be immense. There would be really only two parties involved—in our sense of party politics — and they would be the Communists and the Knomintang. Imagine what turmoil of instability that would lead to.

I believe that by far the most sensible course for us to urge in Hong Kong is to trust the Chinese Government's integrity in their intentions. They have listened to Hong Kong opinion. They were not at first really prepared to do so, but they have done so. They have taken part in very constructive consultations, and they continue to do so. They want a stable and successful Hong Kong for their own national reasons—the continuation of China's reconstruction and her economic progress and, of course, the reclaiming of Taiwan.

We should always remember that China, under a variety of governmental systems, has historically observed its obligations. I believe that all will be well—I am by nature an optimist, but I think that we have good reason in this case—and that unwise pressures from this House or this Government could do nothing but harm to Hong Kong's stability and success, and that is what we must be most concerned about.

6.30 pm
Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

I begin by strongly supporting my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) in his eloquent plea for further urgent action to remedy the problem of Indo-Chinese refugees in Hong Kong. This country has a proud record with regard to the number of Indo-Chinese refugees that it has accepted through Hong Kong and with regard to our efforts in orchestrating their resettlement elsewhere.

As I rehearsed to the House in the Christmas Adjournment debate, the position is becoming markedly worse. The number of refugees arriving for resettlement is increasing and the number accepted for resettlement elsewhere is declining. Since we debated the matter in the Christmas Adjournment debate, the position has become even worse. The number of arrivals in December was 278 and the figures for October, November and December were the highest since 1982. The number of people who have already arrived this month is 164, and that is already the highest January figure since 1983.

When my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State replies, I hope that he will be able to tell us that he has made significant progress in the process of persuading other countries to accept more refugees for resettlement so that this difficult problem may be solved quickly. My right hon. and learned Friend would find that he would have broad support on both sides of the House if this country was to act as a catalyst and offer to take more refugees for settlement than we took in the middle of last year.

I agree broadly with the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller). The views of the people of Hong Kong on direct elections have been canvassed systematically and objectively. It is obviously too early to detect a consensus. Many people did not respond and of those who did, although the majority were in favour, opinion was divided about the type.

It is not surprising that there is no consensus. In this country, democratic institutions have grown up over hundreds of years, but we still try to change and improve their character and workings. Hong Kong has only recently introduced indirect elections and is considering the development of democratic institutions simultaneously with a change in sovereignty to its neighbour, which is not a democratic country in the sense that we use the term.

The motion refers to "stability" and "prosperity". They are both inextricably interlinked in Hong Kong. More than half of those living in Hong Kong previously lived in China. Their perceptions of stability obviously differ from ours. None the less, however they look at it and however we look at it, in an uncertain world the future viability of Hong Kong depends on its stability and on people's perception of its stability. In other words, it depends on confidence.

I believe that a consensus for direct elections will certainly emerge, but people will probably not want to be rushed. It is envisaged that Hong Kong should enjoy a high degree of autonomy after 1997. It follows that there should be as many years as reasonably possible of direct elections and whatever accompanying arrangements emerge for relationships beween the legislature and the Executive. It is equally desirable that the system in place should last beyond 1997. If the draft Basic Law that is expected to emerge in the spring shows a need for further consultation, that should take place before a system is installed.

It is important that the House should be clear about the position of the People's Republic of China. We should not be misled by vague optimism. I want to quote Mr. Li Hou, the deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macao office of the State Council. In the overseas People's Daily on 24 June 1987 he said: Concerning the question of whether or not there should be direct elections in 1988, starting from the point of view of convergence between the Basic Law and current reform of the political system in Hong Kong, … until the Basic Law had been formally approved, the Hong Kong political system should not undergo any great change. If direct elections were hastily introduced in 1988, then a situation of non-convergence with the Basic Law would occur … In the past I have thought and now still think that the future political system in Hong Kong should be stipulated by the Basic Law: the political reform being carried out now in Hong Kong should converge with the Basic Law. Until the Basic Law has been formally approved, there should be no change in the political system in Hong Kong. We do not wish to interfere in the administration of Hong Kong by Britain before 199'7, but if the measures being adopted now will have an influence after 1997, or will influence the smooth transition, then we cannot but express our ideas. We should not be in any doubt about the view of the Government of the People's Republic of China. I believe that there is a strong case for allowing the present arrangements a little time to settle, for experience of democracy to develop, for parties to form and for a confluence of view within Hong Kong with the People's Republic of China about the way in which the way ahead should develop in line with the wishes of the people of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has a unique record in the world in terms of economic and social achievement. One of the reasons for that is that it enjoys a political consensus—seldom upset—based on pragmatism. It is vital that that is not jeopardised and that the political achievements of the past few years are built on at a measured speed with which consensus can keep pace. There can be no absolute certainty in such matters. It is certain that the People's Republic of China wishes to respect Hong Kong public opinion and that the mutuality of interest of the Hong Kong people and their neighbours must be given a chance to assert itself through institutions with which everybody is at ease and at a pace which can reasonably be achieved.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred to the principle of unripe time and he attributed it to the late Hugh Dalton. I think that Hugh Dalton got it from a book by F. P. Cornford written in the 1920s, called "Microcosmographica Academica", which was about university politics. The principle of unripe time is that one can put off indefinitely anything that really ought to be done by saying that the time is unripe and that it would be better to put it off for a little. But it is never done. That does not apply to Hong Kong.

Cornford linked that principle with the practice c f squaring. Squaring was a process carried out in King's parade. It was done by taking those concerned by the elbow, somewhere between the front entrance of King's and The Copper Kettle, and persuading them to accept one's point of view. There was nothing discreditable about that. In all matters where consensus has to be achieved, a period of time for squaring must be allowed.

Hong Kong's only natural resources are her people, and the genius that they have shown. We must be careful not to do anything to prejudice the stability that has allowed such genius to flower. I have every confidence that if things continue at a measured pace, Hong Kong will continue to flower long into the next century.

Mr. Tony Banks

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House wanted to speak in the debate. It is absolutely selfish for hon. Members, who know of the pressure on time, to make very long speeches, thus shutting out other hon. Members who wish to make points.

I wished to make a short, sharp point about the trade in endangered species in Hong Kong. Tigers and leopards are eaten in Hong Kong restaurants. That is a form of gastronomic perversion. We have had to listen to many speeches—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I realise that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and a number of other hon. Members on both sides of the House have not been able to speak so far. The hon. Gentleman cannot make his speech under the guise of a point of order. Perhaps I should tell the House that this debate will be interrupted at 7 o'clock for private business. If the private business were to end before 10 o'clock, it would be possible for the House, if it so wished, to return to this motion until 10 o'clock.

6.42 pm
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

The interest and eloquence shown today and the queue of speakers waiting to participate in the debate justify the Opposition's request for a debate on the report, and confirms once again the House's great interest in Hong Kong. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will take account of the views expressed in the House and ensure that they are taken into account in the drafting of the White Paper to be published on 10 February.

Before coming to the central issue of the timing of direct elections, I wish to mention the Vietnamese refugees—the boat people. The annual report confirms a dramatic increase in their number—a 65 per cent. increase in 1987. The numbers leaving for settlement are declining. By the end of 1987, the number was 9,530. When I was in Hong Kong, I visited Tuen Mun, one of the closed camps. While I was there, another 120 people arrived. I met members of the Legislative Council who argued unanimously and strongly that they are querying the position of Hong Kong as a place of first refuge.

Already, a number of camps are full to capacity, and overflowing. The closed camps resemble prisons —indeed, one of them was built as a prison. While the Hong Kong Government are doing all they can with great humanity, I heard moving appeals from inmates —including women and children—who were anxious that the British Government should take some action to help them. The conditions in the camps are unacceptable and intolerable.

The British Government have reduced the numbers being accepted. We have taken 468 people in two years. That is not the 40 people a month that used to be accepted, and the conditions of acceptance are restricted to those with family links. We have a moral responsibility to give a lead, and I hope that the Secretary of State will make a positive reply.

As for the central issue, I shall concentrate on one of the principles included in the joint declaration, which must be a bible on these issues. The Secretary of State and the Government must ensure that it is taken account of in the drafting of the Basic Law and other matters. One of the agreed processes is that of convergence. The actions of the British and Hong Kong Governments up to 1997 should, as far as possible, fit the plans of the People's Republic of China from 1997 onwards, and vice versa, so that there is no disjunction or disruption between 30 June and 1 July 1997.

As the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) said, there is no conflict between what the right hon. Gentleman and Opposition Members have proposed and what has been proposed by the People's Republic of China. The right hon. Gentleman knows well the People's Republic of China and its Government. He is well respected by that Government—probably more than by ours. The Foreign Secretary and all hon. Members who have spoken have accepted the principle of direct elections. They accept that the People's Republic of China is not opposed to direct elections in principle, although the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller) queried the Basic Law draft.

A substantial collection of draft articles has already been compiled by the secretariat of the drafting committee for the Basic Law published in December last year. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup referred to the three options in which the minimum proportion to be directly elected is 25 per cent. There seems to be no dispute that a percentage of the Legislative Council should be directly elected. The only question is about timing. I agree with the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) that the Opposition have no wish for any confrontation with China, but we sincerely believe that the Government of the People's Republic of China would understand and respect a stand on principle by our Government on that issue.

The views of the people of Hong Kong must be taken into account. So many hon. Members have said that those views are not paramount—as the Government might argue in the case of another dependent territory, but I shall leave that aside—but they must certainly be given a great deal of priority. As several hon. Members have said, the report of the Survey Office on the White Paper is open to serious question. The whole process, from the Green Paper onwards, is in clouded and obscure language, as the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) said in an intervention.

In the McNair survey, between 40 and 45 per cent. could not understand the questions because they were so obscure. I am not suggesting that it was rigged. It was sincere and honest, but severely flawed. In fact, it is the only poll which shows low support for direct elections in 1988. Successive polls, before and since that survey, have shown increasing support for direct elections. The most recent poll carried out by Marketing Decision Research showed that 78 per cent. were in favour of direct elections. That was broken down to 53 per cent. in favour of direct elections in 1988 and confirmed the trend in other polls.

Last week, I spoke to regional and urban councillors, community organisations and trade unions. My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) will be interested to know that the only people I found on the other side of the argument were big business men, who are not often in favour of direct elections anywhere.

Some people argue that the people of Hong Kong are not ready for direct elections. I find that not only patronising, but, from my recent experience, completely untrue. The experience of election to urban and regional councils and now to district boards has already provided an excellent training ground, just as local government elections in the United Kingdom are a good training ground for prospective parliamentarians. When there are elections to the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, I do not believe that political divisions will be polarised in the way described by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East.

Another worry has been expressed about the effect that elections may have on confidence—the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggins) mentioned that. Such a fear is sometimes expressed by people who have shown their faith with direct elections in other countries by taking out dual nationality or refocusing their investments in those countries. However, the converse and more valid, powerful argument is the effect on confidence if the British Government are perceived as abdicating their responsibilities or if it is believed that a promise that was perceived has not been fulfilled.

I reaffirm the advantages of early elections, which I believe will give people the experience of participation in elections for the next nine years. They also provide an opportunity for consultation with directly elected people—people with a mandate. I hope that the Secretary of State will acknowledge that there has been strength of feeling expressed from all parts of the House—Liberal, Conservative and Labour Members—in favour of direct elections in 1988. Even those who did not argue for direct elections in 1988 agreed that a timetable for their introduction must be included in the White Paper. That view was unanimous.

I hope that any statement that is included in the White Paper will be clear and unequivocal so that it does not engender the kind of confusion in the mind that caused the unfortunate division of opinion between the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South and the visiting Delegation for Democracy.

In conclusion—I wish to give the Foreign Secretary time to reply to the points made in the debate—one of the essentials of one country, two systems is the existence of a pluralist democracy in the special administrative region. The overwhelming message to be carried from this debate is that we want that sooner rather than later.

6.52 pm
Sir Geoffrey Howe

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate.

I should like to begin by saying that the debate that we have had today confirms the intensity of interest of Members on both sides of the House in the future of Hong Kong. This deep concern has been expressed by hon. Members with many different points of view.

In the context of this debate a number of what I would term "subsidiary issues" have been raised and I shall be able to deal with them only quickly.

The right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), who represents my old home town with great distinction, raised the question of human rights, with particular reference to press freedom and censorship. The joint declaration is explicit on the importance of that, and recent changes in the law represented the repeal of many previously rigorous censorship laws. The matter still remains under review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Miller) asked about defence costs arrangements and he will be aware that that matter is also under review.

Apart from the central issue, the issue that aroused most concern was that of the Vietnamese refugees. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) made a strong argument on the matter, and he was eloquently supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad). I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup for his tribute to my concern about this matter. None of us in the House who have any familiarity with the topic can be other than deeply concerned about it.

Our record in dealing with Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong is not as bad as all that—we have taken some 13,000 altogether. However, my right hon. Friend is right to urge us to try to do more, not only in respect of our country, but in making attempts in other directions. This is a sustained campaign to which we will remain committed, but it is not easy.

In this context, it is also right to discuss—as we are doing with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—the possible return of some of these people to Vietnam. A number of refugees are now coming from North Vietnam. The return of such people will, of course, take place only under circumstances and conditions that are likely to be acceptable.

The central question in the debate has been the place of direct elections in the future of Hong Kong. The debate has narrowed itself down to the acceptance of the proposition that the principle of direct elections is acceptable to all sides. Indeed, it is contained in the pronouncement of the People's Republic of China and the joint declaration. There is room for argument about how many and in what respect, but the key question has become when we move beyond where we have already moved in that direction. It is important to note that on that key question different views on both sides of the argument have been expressed strongly from both sides of the House. This has not been a party matter and there has been no clear-cut division. Both views have been strongly and rationally supported.

There has been reference to, or, to be more explicit, charges of, bad faith and broken promises. Those charges were dealt with most notably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker). I am grateful to him for his repudiation of those charges. Quite apart from my position and that of the Government, it would be wholly unjustified to leave such charges on the record in face of the devoted work that has been done to secure and implement the joint declaration by many people in Hong Kong outside our Civil Service and diplomatic service. Those people are entitled to have such charges repudiated.

I acknowledge the wisdom of the point made by the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), who said that there was no question of falsehood or concoction about the survey. It is important that that untruth should be laid without doubt on both sides of the House. There is no question of falsehood in that survey. It was undertaken honestly, and the questions were not dictated by anyone to anyone. The questions were based upon the Green Paper—perhaps not the easiest way of doing it—and it was all done in good faith. There was no constraint on that survey.

Let us consider the conclusions that many people have drawn from that analysis. It is believed that there subsists in Hong Kong—not resting on any one survey—serious and big divide in the population's views. Nobody on either side of the debate has said that there is a clear conclusion emerging in favour of direct elections in 1988. That is the key thing. If one looks beyond the surveys and takes account of the debates in the various councils and boards in Hong Kong, it is clear, as expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South, that there is a clear division of opinion—

Mr. Tony Banks


Sir Geoffrey Howe

Forgive me, but I have no time to give way.

One comes back to the question of the pace at which we manage this process of change. Two factors have been commended by both sides of the House: a need to take account of the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government and the responsibility of the People's Republic of China beyond 1997, and the need to take account of the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong and also the style of government thus far in the territory. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) drew attention to the particular features of Hong Kong—the surrogate democracy and the liveliness of democracy. This again suggests that the territory calls for a different conclusion from the conventional one.

The point that we come back to was made by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) in his opening speech, when he said that, in the process of analysis before a conclusion is reached, it is clearly not in the interests of the people of Hong Kong for decisions to be taken that are not, in the broad sense, in line with the destination commended by the People's Republic of China.

The same point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, when he said that it would be wise not to take action in conflict with the new constitution. Such factors must be balanced against each other and account must be taken of the particular features of the Hong Kong people, society and institutions.

I am able to say no more than that the position commended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South was I gather, well supported by the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) and the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds). Unfortunately, I did not hear those speeches. However, I did hear the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, who also endorsed what my right hon. Friend had said.

We agree upon the proposition that in due course we need an element of direct elections—a modest proportion, but certainly not going all the way. Thus far there is agreement on both sides of the House. The question is one of timing, as was emphasised by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes). On that there is a difference of views among the contributors to the debate. Even then the Opposition Front Bench and this side of the House come together. We need to secure a timetable for progress, expressed in clear and unequivocal terms. That is the message that I derived from the debate more clearly than anything else.

There can be no cast-iron guarantees about the future of Hong Kong, but that is true of any country or territory. I believe that Hong Kong is well equipped to face the future and—

It being Seven o'clock, and there being private business set down by direction of THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS under Standing Order No. 16 (Time for taking private business), further proceedings stood postponed.