HC Deb 06 December 1993 vol 234 cc19-31 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

I will, with permission, make a statement about Hong Kong.

We have an important job to do in the remaining years of British sovereignty in Hong Kong. We intend to carry out those responsibilities, with the support of the House. Part of our task will be to make arrangements for the elections to the district boards, the municipal councils and the Legislative Council in 1994 and 1995.

There is no argument between Britain and China over the principle that Hong Kong's democratic institutions should continue to develop. That is set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. It provides that, by 1 July 1997, Hong Kong's legislature will be "constituted by elections". China's Basic Law for Hong Kong after that date spells out more fully the process of political development.

The issue is how those principles should be turned into practical arrangements. The proposals which the Governor put forward in October 1992, with our full support, were carefully framed to be consistent with the Chinese Basic Law. We have all along wished to proceed in agreement with China, in order to assure continuity. That is why we have put so much effort since April into the talks with China.

The talks have been concerned with complex electoral issues, and I apologise for the complexity of this statement. But the underlying question is simple: will we bequeath to Hong Kong an open and democratic system offering the electorate a genuine choice, or will we settle for a system based on small electorates open to manipulation and corruption?

The answer to this question affects the character of Hong Kong. As many right hon. and hon. Members know, Hong Kong owes its success in large measure to the rule of law, supported by a clean and efficient administration. If that asset is to be preserved in modern circumstances, the territory needs an elected and credible legislature which can stand up for its way of life.

That is why we believe that elections held under British administration in Hong Kong need to be fair and open, and acceptable to the people of Hong Kong. On that basis, we have made a concerted effort through 17 rounds of talks to reach agreement with China. I have discussed matters twice with the Chinese Foreign Minister during this period. The Prime Minister sent a message to the Chinese Premier. We have offered to make important moves to accommodate Chinese views, without compromising our essential requirements, as part of an acceptable overall agreement.

We made it plain from the outset that the talks cannot continue indefinitely and that it must be for the Legislative Council to consider and pass the necessary legislation. This will take time. Some 48 constitutional and electoral instruments in Hong Kong are affected and may need amendment. All the primary legislation needs to be in place by July 1994. Some of the more important measures need to be on the statute book by February.

When time began to press, we therefore explored fully the possibility of an interim agreement, which would enable us to get on with legislation on the more urgent issues, and gain a little more time to resolve the remainder with the Chinese.

I explained to the Chinese Foreign Minister in New York on 1 October that this aim would not be achieved by an interim package limited only to the elections in 1994 —the district board and municipal council elections. To deal with all the more urgent issues, an interim package needs to include the voting age and the voting method for all three sets of elections, and the abolition of appointed membership in the district boards and municipal councils.

The Chinese side evidently had no difficulty of principle with an interim package covering some of the 1995 LegCo issues. The Chinese accepted our proposal that the voting age should be lowered to 18 for all three elections. They also seem to have had no difficulty of principle with our proposal that the voting method should be single seat, single vote. They accepted that this should apply to the district board and municipal council elections. But they refused to accept as part of this possible interim package that the single seat, single vote method should apply to the Legislative Council.

We and the Governor believe that there are compelling reasons for including this proposal on the voting method in the interim package. In practical terms, it would otherwise be necessary to legislate twice on the voting system, using up legislative time which will be in short supply next year.

The single seat, single vote system enjoys widespread support in the Legislative Council. If we had accepted the Chinese position and introduced legislation to apply this voting method to the district boards and municipal councils only, the council might have extended the measure to apply to the elections to its own body, since we know that it is in favour of that. That would have led straight back to further difficulties with the Chinese Government. We would not have saved time: we would have wasted it.

Despite our best efforts, it has not been possible to reach agreement on this issue. The question of abolishing appointed members also remains unsolved. Time has now run out for pursuing these points. The Governor has therefore announced that he will publish draft legislation on the 10th of this month, for introduction on the 15th of this month. That will allow work to begin straight away in a Bills Committee of the Legislative Council.

The proposals on which the Governor intends to legislate this month are largely uncontroversial in Hong Kong. We had thought that they were uncontroversial with China. On a number of them, it was possible to reach a common view in the talks. In those cases, the legislation will reflect that. The Governor is not at this stage legislating on the main issues which remain in dispute—the functional constituencies, the composition of the election committee, and objective criteria for the through train.

We are not breaking off the talks: we have proposed a further round in December to pursue agreement on remaining issues. We are prepared to work seriously and constructively to that end. We strongly hope that the talks will continue in spite of what has been said, because Britain and China have to carry out what they agreed—I repeat, what they agreed—which is to preserve Hong Kong's way of life and success while transferring sovereignty. We all know that that is a unique task and one that we have not had to do in this form before. It is also difficult, and it is best carried out together.

The Joint Declaration makes clear the fundamental British responsibility up to the middle of 1997. We and the Governor are committed to working with China in the interests of Hong Kong, and we look for corresponding commitment from their side.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

The House will welcome the opportunity to question the Home Secretary on his important and rather serious statement about developments over Hong Kong. I reiterate that we have always supported these proposals. Modest though they are, we have given them a fair wind, because, I guess like most democrats, we wanted, albeit a little late in the day, a widening of the franchise and a broadening of the democratic process in Hong Kong.

Given that the Joint Declaration accepts the evolution of democracy and that it is enshrined in the Basic Law enacted by the People's Republic of China, the central question in response to the right hon. Gentleman's statement is, what on earth has gone wrong?

There is quite clearly a fundamental divide between the Government of the People's Republic of China and Her Majesty's Government. I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says, that the dispute is about the detailed implementation of procedures for elections. Everyone accepts that whatever proposals emerge must ensure fair and open elections that are acceptable to the people of Hong Kong; otherwise, there would be no point in going through the process.

Who was suggesting that any counter-proposals from China are not intended to be fair, open and acceptable? Is that the implication of the right hon. Gentleman's statement? Perhaps I had better reiterate something else. I do not have any particularly fond feelings for the perpetrators of the Tiananmen square massacre or other details of human and democratic rights in the People's Republic of China, but it is not conciliatory or constructive to imply, as the right hon. Gentleman apparently did in his statement, that the Chinese are suggesting alternatives that are open to abuse and corruption. If that is not the right hon. Gentleman's intention, he should make that clear to the House.

The statement has serious implications for relations between Her Majesty's Government and that of the People's Republic of China, but they are even more serious for the future of Hong Kong's people. If it is impossible to reach agreement on the simpler details, what real hope can there be for a deal on the more complex issues that have yet to be discussed and negotiated? It seems as though the through train of democratic reform has just come off the rails in these talks.

Why has not it been possible to persuade the Government of the People's Republic of China to accept even these simplest of proposals? There is a great lacuna in the right hon. Gentleman's statement, because nowhere does it say why there has been any disagreement. If it is simply intransigence and obstinacy on the part of the People's Republic, the Home Secretary should say so, especially in view of Mr. Deng Xiaoping's statement in the early 1980s: We hope that the Chinese and British Governments will engage in friendly consultations on this question, and we shall be glad to listen to the suggestions put forward by the British Government.

If that remains the position of the Government of the People's Republic of China, we need to know more about why no progress has been made. Is it, as Sir Percy Cradock suggests, that these discussions got off on the wrong foot in October 1992, and that Her Majesty's Government have been unable to recover the situation since then?

For example, what will the right hon. Gentleman do if, as a result of unilateral action on legislation—I understand the time scale and accept that the Governor cannot wait indefinitely—the Chinese Government refuse to be involved in any further discussions? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that pressing ahead with the proposals will not jeopardise developments such as the new Hong Kong airport and other joint projects?

Is it not clear that China intends to set these proposals aside in 1997 and introduce its own plans? Is it not also clear that, without a substantial recovery of trust and further serious negotiations which end in agreement, there is nothing that Her Majesty's Government would be able to do about that?

Mr. Hurd

The bulk of the right hon. Gentleman's questions should be addressed to the Government in Peking. My responsibility to the House is to explain and justify what the Government and the Governor are proposing. It is for the Chinese Government to explain why, if our proposals were not reasonable—as I believe they are—they have not so far been accepted. In the early autumn of last year, I informed the Chinese Foreign Minister of what the Governor of Hong Kong proposed to say. Weeks passed, with no Chinese reaction except a request that he should not say it. He said it, and then there was a Chinese protest. After several months, the Chinese began the discussions which took the course that I have described.

Issues of very substantial importance remain unresolved. We want the electorates for the functional constituencies to expand. We want the composition of the election committee to be in itself elected. We want an objective-criteria through train, so that the people elected in 1995 know what they have to do—for example, taking an oath to the new special administrative region—in order to stay on the council after the transfer of sovereignty.

Those are all outstanding issues, and on all of them we have put forward proposals that we think are modest and reasonable, as the right hon. Gentleman has said. What is immediately in question are not those matters but matters that, until recently, we thought were not controversial.

The right hon. Gentleman talked in very gloomy terms, but he will have noticed the very robust confidence of Hong Kong in recent days and weeks, which is a change from when I first began to deal with these matters some years ago. The people of Hong Kong know what is going on, because Hong Kong is not a place where matters are long or successfully concealed, but they have not allowed it to deter the colony from going ahead. That is a change from the days when the slightest rumblings of differences between Britain and China caused a great deal of gloom and despondency in Hong Kong. It is very much a change for the better.

The right hon. Gentleman's basic point is right. Some people—for example, Sir Percy Cradock in his article yesterday—talked as if we were running up against a Chinese reluctance to contemplate future democracy. The scheme is that, in 1999, two years after the transfer of sovereignty, the number of directly elected members should rise from 18 to 24 and then to 30 in the year 2003. The functional constituencies should rise to 30, and members of the LegCo appointed by the Governor should disappear altogether. Whose scheme is that? That is in the Basic Law.

We are not talking about a difference of principle; we are talking about the way in which to move towards implementing the principles in the Chinese Basic Law.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the erosion of the development of a trustworthy system of democracy in Hong Kong will also erode the whole basis of law—including law affecting commerce and business—on which Hong Kong's prosperity has been built, and will continue to be built? Will not that be greatly to the disadvantage of the business community, and, indeed, that of Beijing?

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is no suggestion in any of the evidence that we have been able to muster in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs—evidence from independent and expert witnesses—that any of Governor Patten's reform proposals have in any way violated the Joint Declaration, the Basic Law or the exchange of letters between himself and the Chinese Foreign Minister?

In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend accept that he has my full support in making every effort first to explain to Beijing—with the backing of many others in Asia—that it is vital in the long term for the reforms to proceed steadily, and secondly to ensure that everything possible is done to maintain friendly talks and arrangements with Beijing? It must be brought home to Beijing that its benefit, and that of Hong Kong, will be at stake if the talks break down completely, and obstruction replaces consultation and co-operation.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. His Committee is carrying out a thorough investigation, and we look forward very much to its report. I am also grateful for the issue today of what I suppose is in part an interim report.

My right hon. Friend has put it exactly right. It is in the interests of China, Britain and, above all, Hong Kong for Hong Kong to retain its character—which, as all who visit it will know, is capitalist. Recently—in the past decade or so—there has been an increasing and justified demand in Hong Kong for democratic institutions: that, too, is now part of its character. Mr. Deng Xiaoping—who has already been quoted—is, after all, the author of the concept of two systems in one country. It is in the interests of all concerned that that concept exists not as just a phrase, but as a reality.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the Governor and indeed Her Majesty's Government have been reasonable with the Government of China, almost to the point of being unreasonable with the people of Hong Kong? As one who knows China, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it too has changed dramatically over the past decade? It is no longer a political or an economic monolith; the provinces have all developed in different ways.

What can the right hon. Gentleman do to reassure the Chinese that the same would be true of Hong Kong, and that the idea that it would be used as a base for undermining the system of government in Beijing is an entirely unreal fear?

Does the Foreign Secretary also accept that, if we compromise too much on elections to the legislature, we shall undermine the very foundation of the rule of law in Hong Kong?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with those points. I think it wise for the Governor to continue to operate and to make proposals to the Legislative Council—which will make decisions accordingly—within the scope of the Chinese Basic Law. As the right hon. Gentleman says, China is changing very fast. No one can say quite how far those changes will go between now and midnight on 30 June 1997, and it is therefore right to maintain the line that we have been taking—the principle of "two systems, one country".

That implies that, if the Chinese wish to intend to continue on a communist line inside the People's Republic, that is a matter for them and not for Hong Kong—and equally that, within Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong should be free to retain its own character.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Is it not the case that, although the holding of the elections is contained in the Sino-British agreement, the form in which they should be held is not detailed? That being the case, surely doing nothing is not an option. It is incumbent on the Government of Hong Kong to introduce some measures to explain how the elections shall be held. The Governor can hardly be accused of being precipitate, after waiting 12 months and engaging in 17 rounds of talks. Will my right hon. Friend assure him that he will have the support of many hon. Members in proceeding with his very modest proposals?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that that is exactly right. We have not gone into some stampede, and certainly have not tried to bulldoze proposals through. The original proposals were modest and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) said, were in line with the Basic Law, with the correspondence that I had with the Chinese in 1990 and with the Joint Declaration.

We have discussed them at great length with the Chinese Government, and hope to discuss them further concerning the main issues that are still in dispute. There comes a time when elections have to be held and, as the House knows, if they have to be held, electoral law must be passed.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

Will the Foreign Secretary agree that, after the Tiananmen square incident and the response of the people of Hong Kong and the rest of the world to those events, it was necessary to rebuild the confidence of the Hong Kong people in their future in China?

Does he agree that the October 1992 proposals were consistent with that, and that the subsequent developments and the improved atmosphere in China in its attitude to Hong Kong in comparison with even a year ago is such that we can look forward to a continuing, smooth transition? Does he agree that the Governor should have the support of all hon. Members in making the wishes of the people of Hong Kong paramount in the context of the debate on the Joint Declaration?

Mr. Hurd

I think that, over the next months, we shall have some bumping and grinding on that issue, such as we have today. However, I am optimistic about the remaining period of British sovereignty over the following three and a half years.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Would my right hon. Friend accept from me, as a recent visitor to Hong Kong, that the economy of the colony is thriving, not only internally but due to the great amount of direct investment in China? Will he therefore impress on the Government of China that it is contrary to their own interests to stifle the democratic and thus entrepreneurial spirit of the colony, as democratically expressed through the Legislative Council; and will he encourage the Governor to continue the work that he is doing?

Mr. Hurd

I will indeed do that. The Chinese Government, the Government of the People's Republic, will make up their own mind about their own interests, but the evidence pours in all the time that the relationship between Hong Kong and China, instead of weakening, is developing fast in the economic field. That development enriches both sides. Hong Kong is growing as an asset, but the growth of that asset depends on it being an effective channel, an outlet, for China to the outside world. That in turn depends on retaining, ensuring, the present characteristics of Hong Kong, which are unique in the world and make it, in my view, the most exciting place that I visit.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there will be widespread support for his declaration that the Government stand in defence of democratic principles, and that they wish those principles to be pressed through the ballot box, if necessary with the backing of international opinion, to ensure that the will of the greater number prevails?

Mr. Hurd

That is an admirable general principle, which the right hon. Gentleman and I had an opportunity yesterday to express in another context. I am glad that we agree as widely on that issue as we did yesterday morning.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that there is not only support in the House for his statement, but considerable rejoicing that the Government and the Governor are taking these steps, because there appears to be a degree of intransigence—not the most diplomatic term, but one that many of us may use—on the part of the Chinese Government?

There appear to be delaying tactics which could continue for a long time and which would work against the best interests of the people living in Hong Kong. If that intransigence continues, will my right hon. Friend ensure that it is given a great deal of publicity? The rest of the world needs to know exactly what we are doing, and what the Chinese are trying to do.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. There is always a difficulty, when one hopes to continue discussions with somebody, deciding how much one says about the discussions that have taken place already. We have to strike that balance. I believe that the reason why the Governor and his proposals continue to enjoy such wide support in Hong Kong is that he is no slouch in explaining them in terms that people in Hong Kong readily understand and accept.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that what worries the Chinese Government is not that there will be capitalism in Hong Kong, but that there could be democracy in Hong Kong? Does he accept that, although the House should accept and support the Patten package, it is a watered-down version of the consensus of the Office of the Members of the Legislative and Executive Councils? After 14 months of negotiations, we shall have a watered-down version of the watered-down version.

Will he therefore press ahead with what he has announced today? Will he press ahead as soon as possible with the rest of the Patten package? With only three and a half years to go, unless action is taken quickly, it will not be worth taking at all.

Mr. Hurd

Action has to be taken in time to provide for greater democracy in 1995. The Governor will work out —he has not yet decided it—exactly what package he will put in terms of the main proposals for the elections in 1995 to the Legislative Council. We obviously hope, as I said, that we shall be able to resume discussions with the Chinese Government on some of the outstanding issues. However, that is not sure at present.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Will the Foreign Secretary understand that the modest proposals he has made today will have wide support?

To return to the question of what has gone wrong, which was asked by the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), does the Foreign Secretary recall the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee four years ago? The Committee reported having discussions on that very issue in Beijing. The Chinese officials concerned emphasised that the timetable for the introduction of representative government was a matter for Hong Kong.

Will my right hon. Friend continue to press on the Chinese the fact that many people here cannot understand why it was right then to move more quickly towards democracy, with the support of the Chinese Administration, whereas now, for some reason, the position seems to have changed?

Mr. Hurd

That is a fair question. The agreement that I made with the Chinese in 1990 for the elections in 1991 was for 18 directly elected members out of 60. That is the position in LegCo today. However, the Basic Law proposes to move that figure up to 30 by 2003 and to 24 by 1999. The principle is there is Chinese law—in the Basic Law—which was passed after my right hon. Friend first went to Peking. The question why, in those circumstances, the Chinese Government are not willing to accept the Governor's modest proposals is one to put to them.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept my support for his modest proposals? I believe that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members of all parties support his proposals. Will he pass that support on to the Governor and to LegCo?

Can the Foreign Secretary give an unequivocal assurance to the House? If he is to hold his head up after 1997 as having done his duty for Hong Kong, and if all of us, as Members of Parliament, are to hold our heads up, he and the Governor must not settle for one iota less than a system for the election committee and for the functional constituencies which is democratic, open and incapable of manipulation.

Mr. Hurd

In the end, it will not be for me or for the Governor to decide; the arrangements and decisions on the points that the hon. Gentleman mentioned will be for the Legislative Council. That is a point that the Chinese find it hard to accept, but it is a fact that we constantly press on them.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, if the Chinese Government have the best interests of the people of Hong Kong at heart, the best thing they can do is give the go-ahead for the airport and other projects as soon as possible?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Governor of Hong Kong is pressing ahead with the airport, as anyone who flies over Hong Kong and over Lan Tao island can see. However, it is important that the remaining part of the project receives the Chinese consent which is needed. That is another practical example of an asset which is being created day by day, both on the ground and in the sea. It is powerfully in the interests of China that that should be successfully and rapidly completed.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

To sum it up, could it not be argued that there are all sorts of democracies, which come in all shapes and sizes? When the right hon. Gentleman is negotiating with the Chinese Government, will he perhaps consider that many Opposition Members would like to see a system evolve based on the House of Commons and direct elections? Do not the Chinese Government perhaps want a system based on the House of Lords? As the British Government support the House of Lords, might they not put themselves in a dodgy position?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman has a distinctive view of the House of Lords, which used to be shared widely in the country. However, his view is not shared any more, and the hon. Gentleman is being a little old-fashioned on the matter. I have not yet heard a proposal based on the House of Lords from the Chinese Foreign Minister or from the Chinese Premier. Were we to do so, we would be intrigued rather than persuaded.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to safeguard the human and constitutional rights of the people of Hong Kong under Chinese rule is to ensure that as many as possible of the democratic proposals agreed under the Joint Declaration of Basic Law are implemented beforehand? Given the somewhat questionable record of the Chinese Government in human rights, both in China and in Tibet, is not the Governor wise indeed to push ahead with democratic proposals to ensure that as many proposals as possible are implemented before the changeover takes place?

Mr. Hurd

The Hong Kong Bill of Rights gives effect in local to the provisions in the international covenant on civil and political rights as applied to Hong Kong. The Joint Declaration—that is to say, the declaration which we made with China—provides that the international covenant will continue to apply to Hong Kong after 1997. My hon. Friend is right about the importance of that.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

If we are serious about helping the development of democracy in Hong Kong, does the Foreign Secretary accept that it is not just a matter of electoral mechanics, important though those are, such as the age of voting or the number of elected members? Are not open government and the freedom of information from censorship key elements in underpinning democracy?

Will the Government encourage Governor Patten to look at censorship and self-censorship of the Hong Kong media, and will they give support to the freedom of information Bill which will come before LegCo next spring? If not, and if the Government are solely concerned with negotiating on the mechanics of democracy, will not their rhetorical support for the widening of democracy be somewhat hollow, as it is not just a matter of electoral mechanics?

Mr. Hurd

No, indeed it is not. I do not know the details of the Bill which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I will certainly pass on the message to the Governor. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is not a mechanical matter. We have seen relatively recently the growth of a democratic spirit. Until recently, the pressure for that spirit did not exist. However, there is that pressure now. We all have ideas about how that spirit arose and why it is now so strong, but it is there. Therefore, it is not a matter of mechanics. The mechanics are finding the machinery through which that spirit can find expression.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not only in the interests of China to see the continuing success and prosperity of Hong Kong for the value which Hong Kong can bring to China, but also for the international community to see that an agreement can be reached, so that trade can be opened up with China and that future British investments in China will go ahead? That is something of great value. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we maintain a working dialogue throughout all the difficulties, small and large, which may occur in future negotiations?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend. The consensus may be broken immediately, but it is notable that every single right hon. and hon. Member on both sides of the House—even, I think, the idiosyncratic hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—has supported what the Government are attempting to do and the way in which we are seeking to handle this matter. There may be criticisms of the way in which the matter has been handled in the past, but, as regards the path that we are now on, there has been unanimous support, and that is extremely helpful to Hong Kong.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Welcome though the Foreign Secretary's decision to introduce some form of limited democracy in Hong Kong may be, does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that we suffer from something of a credibility problem in that regard? I say that because we have had 100 or so years to sort out democracy: if it is such a good idea, we could presumably have done so some years ago. Now that we are to stand up to the Chinese on this issue, will we be adopting a less supine attitude to one or two other important human rights issues in China, particularly in relation to Tibet?

Mr. Hurd

I do not think that our attitude to Tibet has been in the least bit supine. The way in which we have taken the matter up and our discussions with the Dalai Lama prove the reverse. I think that I answered the hon. Gentleman in one of my earlier answers. I first went to Hong Kong in 1954. No one who knew the colony then —or for many years thereafter—would have sensed a pressure for democratic institutions. Everybody knew that Hong Kong was in a unique position.

That has changed, however. It has changed since 1989 in particular, but it had begun to change before that. We are therefore responding, as the colonial power, to a change in the feeling and wishes of people in Hong Kong. That feeling and those wishes are now part of the character of Hong Kong, which has to be respected, and is respected, under the Joint Declaration and, indeed, the Basic Law.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

May I revert to the question posed by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who spoke for the Opposition, about what has gone wrong? When members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs visited Beijing a few weeks ago, we unfortunately found a mood of complete intransigence on these issues. I suggest that that is what has gone wrong.

Does my right hon. Friend share my view that it is important that the House should have an early opportunity to express in a formal way what I believe is our overwhelming support for the Governor of Hong Kong —particularly in the light of what I fear are considerable attempts among some business men to undermine his position in Hong Kong itself?

Mr. Hurd

I note my hon. Friend's point, and will draw it to the attention of the House authorities; it may be a matter for the usual channels.

May I also say in passing that I hope that the Select Committee will not include among its recommendations the use of the word "Beijing". I know that it is a matter of personal taste, but I do not talk about "Roma", Bruxelles" or "Moskva", and I do not see any reason to abandon a perfectly reputable English word for a very distinguished Chinese city.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Is not the beauty of democracy the fact that it is open-ended and can encompass moves to the left or the right in different circumstances? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that democracy in Hong Kong should not be regarded as a defence of capitalist arrangements, as those arrangements have often been defended by methods that are far from democratic?

Mr. Hurd

I think that even the hon. Gentleman would agree that, in most societies, there is a link—although not an absolute link—between the free market and free political institutions. What has happened is that, after many years of practising with unique success the principles of the free market, Hong Kong has in recent years developed an appetite—a pressure—for free political institutions.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, during my recent visit to Hong Kong, I encountered precisely that growing confidence and self-assertiveness of which he spoke, and also a great groundswell of support for the Governor's general approach to all the affairs of the colony, and specifically to democracy for the colony? Does my right hon. Friend not think that one of the most effective ways in which Peking could demonstrate that it has the best interests of Hong Kong at heart is to enable more rapid progress to be made with the negotiations surrounding the work of the Joint Liaison Group?

Mr. Hurd

In addition to the constitutional talks that I have described to the House, there is, as my hon. Friend says, the work of the Joint Liaison Group and the airport committee. The JLG is trying to carry through a whole series of changes, many of them completely technical and legal—legalistic, even—to enable the law of Hong Kong to pass without difficulty into the period following the change of sovereignty. It is important for things such as air services out of Hong Kong that that technical legal work should continue, and, indeed, accelerate.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Although I have only contempt for the manner in which China treats its citizens—the complete denial of all democratic rights—is the Secretary of State aware that we should be careful not to adopt a "holier than thou" attitude, and that some sort of apology is due to the people of Hong Kong, because previous Governments, including this Government in the past 14 years, did not take steps to establish the form of democracy that we are now talking about, and are right to talk about? If those democratic steps had been taken in the past, China would have little to criticise.

Mr. Hurd

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have dealt with that point twice already. It is not historically correct.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the understandable concerns of the business community in Hong Kong? Notwithstanding that, does he agree that we should give priority to protecting those institutions that have made Hong Kong special, and in particular to the rule of law?

Mr. Hurd

It is right that someone in these exchanges should mention the anxieties of the business community, and my hon. Friend is quite right to do so. He is right also to put it in context and draw the conclusion that he has.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

My right hon. Friend reminded the House, through his liking for the word "Peking", that he was once based there. He knows that the Chinese will not respect us if we do not fulfil our commitments under the agreements with China to hand over in 1997 with still strong economic and social stability. It must be the Government's judgment, with the Governor, how that can best be fulfilled. The previous Foreign Affairs Select Committee, of which I was a member, wanted us to go faster on democracy so that the Governor's current proposals should have the full and whole-hearted support of the House, and the Chinese should understand why.

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend is right in his history, and I agree with his latter point.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does my right hon. Friend think that it is a question of the Chinese not understanding, or not wanting to understand, that greater democracy is an essential guarantee of the British legacy to the Chinese after 1997, particularly the rule of law, the efficient and relatively corruption-free administration, and the free enterprise system that prevails in that colony?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend. In trying to answer the questions that have come from many parts of the House about the reasons for the Chinese attitude, in fairness one must say that they feel a good deal of suspicion that, with its institutions, Hong Kong could become a centre for what they would regard as subversion, of advocating violent change in China. They feel a certain suspicion of the British Government and of the Governor.

It must be our job and the job of the people in Hong Kong over the next three and a half years to get those suspicions put on one side and pushed into the history books, because the present interests of Britain, Hong Kong and China in all those matters coincide to a remarkable extent.