HL Deb 26 March 1931 vol 80 cc605-9

THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the attention of the Secretary of State for the Colonies has been called to a statement made at a recent meeting held at Reading, presided over by the right hon. Member of Parliament for Spen Valley, to the effect that slavery is condoned in Hong Kong and that there are some 10,000 child slaves owned by the Chinese in the Colony, and, if so, whether the statement is true and what action His Majesty's Government proposes to take in the matter.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, my attention was called to this matter by a pamphlet which I hold in my hand. It says that 4,000 of these girl slaves are registered in Hong Kong, and that the orders given by the British Government on August 22, 1929, that machinery should be set going forthwith to ensure their inspection, control, remuneration, and, when desired, their release, have not been carried out by the Hong Kong Government. It further states that in the White Paper, Cmd. 3735, December, 1930, the Governor of Hong Kong said:— I do not consider that any further measures are at present required to promote the policy expressed in the existing law. It gives the translation of the actual deeds of sale, and it goes on to say that, during the year 1929, 1,851 dead bodies of children were found by the police in the streets and elsewhere in the Colony of Hong Kong. That is quoted from a letter from the Secretary of State for the Colonies on February 18, 1931. In the years 1925 to 1929 inclusive, it is stated, 6,708 dead bodies of children were picked up in the streets and elsewhere in the Colony of Hong Kong. That is from the report of the British Inspector-General of Police in Hong Kong for 1929. In view of these statements, and in view of what was said at Reading on the 16th of this month by Sir John and Lady Simon, I think that some inquiry is called for.


My Lords, the statement reported to have been made at the meeting to which the noble Lord has referred, that slavery has existed in Hong Kong and has been condoned by the Government of Hong Kong, is, of course, absolutely untrue, and I am surprised to learn that such a statement should have been made. I can only suppose that the allusion is to the Chinese system of adoption of young girls known as mui-tsai. The possible abuses of that system, though they are very far from amounting to slavery, attracted the attention of the late Government, and indeed of several Governments in succession. I can best give the facts by reading to your Lordships the Despatch which I addressed to the Governor of Hong Kong in August, 1929:— Sir, I have had under my consideration the correspondence relating to the mui-tsai question in Hong Kong ending with your Despatch of the 16th of May. 2. The question is by no means a new one. It attracted the attention of my predecessors, Mr. Churchill and the Duke of Devonshire, and also of the House of Commons as far back as 1922. In reply to a Question in the House of Commons Mr. Churchill stated in a reply which was communicated to your predecessor in a telegram of 21st of March, 1922: 'I desire to make it clear that both the Governor and I are determined to effect the abolition of the system at the earliest practicable date, and I have indicated to the Governor that I expect the change to be carried out within a year.' 3. In pursuance of this policy an Ordinance was passed on the 15th of February, 1923, entitled 'The Female Domestic Service Ordinance, 1923.' The first part of this Ordinance negatived the idea that rights of property in a female child could be conferred on a third person by payment to the parent or guardian of such child. The second part, amongst other things, provided that no person should hereafter take into his employment any mui-tsai, and for bade the transference of an existing mui-tsai from one employer to another. If effect were given to these provisions, it is clear that the mui-tsai, being only recruited from those brought into the Colony from outside, should steadily decrease in numbers. 4. Part III of the Ordinance provided for the registration, inspection, and control of mui-tsai, and forbade under penalty any person having in his employment an un-registered mui-tsai. Further, it was laid down that no person should have in his employment any female domestic servant under the age of ten years unless such servant was a registered mui-tsai, and that every mui-tsai over the age of ten years should be entitled to such wages for her services as shall be prescribed. 5. In view, however, of the representations of the Governor as to the opposition of the Chinese population to the enactment generally, and particularly to Part III, the Duke of Devonshire in his Despatch of the 2nd of May, 1923, wrote: 'I concur in your suggestion that the question of registration and of payment of wages may be left in abeyance for the present, and that Part III of the Ordinance should not be brought into operation unless and until it is shown to be necessary.' 6. It now appears, however, that after six years from the passing of the Ordinance the most that can be said (vide paragraph 6 of your Despatch of 22nd of February) is that there is no reason to believe that the number of mui-tsai in the Colony has increased. 7. After making all allowance for the difficulties in bringing the system to an end which are described at length in your Despatches, it is my duty to inform you that public opinion in this country and in the House of Commons will not accept such a result with equanimity, and that I feel my self quite unable to defend a policy of laisser faire in this serious matter. 8. I must, therefore, direct that the third part of the Domestic Service Ordinance should be brought into force forthwith, and special care must be taken to inform the population generally that it is in force, and that it will not be allowed to be a dead letter. You should also at once proceed to make Regulations under Section 12 of the Ordinance for the keeping of the Registers, for the remuneration of mui-tsai, and for their inspection and control. It will be doubtless necessary for you to appoint additional officers in the Department of the Secretary for Chinese Affairs to carry out the work of registration and inspection. 9. Further, I consider that Part II of the Ordinance should be amended so as to for bid the bringing into the Colony of any mui-tsai. There can be the less objection to 6uch provision inasmuch as I learn from your Despatch that the status of mui-tsai has been abolished by law in China. 10. I fully realise that time will be required to make the law effective, but I am not prepared to acquiesce in a merely nominal enforcement of the law. Any offence against the Ordinance which comes to light should be made the subject of prosecution without regard to the position of the offender, and a full report should be furnished every six months on the working of the Ordinance and of the proceedings taken under it. 11. Whilst feeling bound by the traditional policy of this country in regard to any institution that savours of slavery to take steps for the abolition of the mui-tsai system notwithstanding any opposition in the Colony, I need hardly remind you of the desirability of enlisting as far as possible Chinese opinion in favour of the change. This will be the less difficult since it is clear from your Despatch that the best opinion in China itself is opposed to the institution, as is evidenced by the law which has been passed abolishing it. 12. I also strongly approve of the proposals made in your telegram of the 3rd of March for the institution of a Society in Hong Kong on the same lines as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in this country, and I should be glad to learn what progress has been made in this direction. 13. It is my intention to lay the correspondence on this subject before Parliament as soon as it reassembles. I am glad to say that steps were taken accordingly, and the Governor has recently furnished a report on the working of the new regulations. The number of mui-tsai registered is 4,117, which is much less than the number formerly estimated to exist, but which is believed to approximate fairly accurately with the number now existing. Offences against the Ordinance have been prosecuted as occasion required, and there seems reason to believe that the system of adoption as now regulated provides adequately against abuses, and that, in a few years, as existing mui-tsai grow up and are married, the institution will disappear.

I want to say that with reference to the statement that a large number of dead bodies are found in the streets of Hong Kong each year, that ought not to be quoted in connection with this institution of mui-tsai. It is true that a large number of dead bodies—bodies of infants in the great majority of cases—are found in the streets of Hong Kong, the fact being that it is almost impossible to make the large population of 1,000,000 Chinese incur the very slight expense of the burial of their infant children. The infant mortality rate is very high, and the Government has been striving for years, even to the extent of providing for free burial, to prevent this practice. But I would remind your Lordships that the finding of the dead bodies of infants in the streets of a big city is not unknown elsewhere. The number so found in London is very considerable. I have forgotten the exact number. Every case is enquired into in Hong Kong by the coroner, and in hardly any case does he report that there is any reason to suppose that the death has not been due to natural causes.

I should like again to emphasise the fact that this has nothing to do with the mui-tsai. The statement has been made as if the finding of these dead infants had some connection with the custom of adopting girls which is known as the mui-tsai. I can only say that I am sorry that any suggestion should have been made that anything like slavery prevails in Hong Kong, or that steps are not now taken for the registration, inspection, control, and gradual extinction of this system of adoption which is known as mui-tsai.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Lord for his very full reply.