HL Deb 11 June 1974 vol 352 cc463-76

9.55 p.m.

LORD KENNET rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is the density of persons per acre in the Walled City of Kowloon in the Colony of Hong Kong. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think that many of your Lordships will have been to Hong Kong and those who have not will know the map pretty well. I should like to ask you to imagine yourselves on Hong Kong Island. You then cross the water to the leased territory of Kowloon—a very large city containing a million or more people. In the middle of this city you come to one special enclave, which is the subject of my Question to-night: that is, the Walled City of Kowloon. It is the old centre of Kowloon. It was a Chinese town when Britain leased their Territory in 1898. It consists of 6½ acres only. I set this out in advance because I want the House to be quite clear that I am talking about a very small part of Kowloon, which is itself only a part of Hong Kong—I repeat, 6 ½ acres only.

The first problem in coming to the Walled City of Kowloon is to find the way in. The old mediaeval walls have gone—they were demolished by the Japanese in 1943—but it is visibly a separate and distinct enclave. You walk round the outside; you cannot find a way in at all; and then at last you realise there are certain alleyways which lead in, and they are 2 feet or 3 feet wide. So, if you have a companion, you get into Indian file and walk in. Throughout the 6½ acres, the streets or alleys are nowhere more than 3 feet wide. Mostly they are 2 feet wide, in some places they are only 18 inches wide. This in itself is perhaps not too remarkable in an Asian slum, but what is remarkable about the Walled City of Kowloon is that the buildings standing on these 18 inch-wide alleys are 10, 11 and even 13 storeys high. No wheeled vehicle can get in there—not a lorry, not a car or even a bicycle. Nothing can get in except a pedestrian. The alleyways are unpaved and of earth. Down the middle of each runs an open drain with the sewage running down it, because the site is on a slope; and in the sewage you see very large rats.

The ground floors on either side of you as you walk through the Walled City contain many factories: small spaces, roughly lit. It would not be true to say that the standards in these factories are deficient: the very concept of a standard in a factory comes from another world. You see in them people weaving with looms, doing light engineering, making metal goods or carpentry, or engaged in the preparation of food. The noise, the darkness, the dirt and the dust in those factories are totally unregulated. There is no law to apply to them and the conditions one can see there are beyond description.

There is water in the Walled City of Kowloon. It comes from two sources: either it is brought from municipal standpipes outside the Walled City—that is good water, and it is carried in buckets to the 6½ acres of the Walled City—or else there are illegal wells dug directly under the houses. These wells reach the water-table quite soon, and of course the water there lies directly under, and entirely unprotected from, the open sewers which run down the alleyways. There is light and electric power in the Walled City of Kowloon. How is it obtained? It is stolen from the municipal mains supply outside the city by illegal connections, and wherever you walk, above your head in the alleyways there are "swags" and "festoons" of naked electric cables carrying the stolen electricity.

My question is: What is the density of population in the Walled City? The official figure for the total number of inhabitants in the 6½ acres is 27,000 people. This figure was obtained by the municipal authorities—as they will tell you themselves if you ask them—by the technique of walking around counting the windows and reckoning four, six, or eight people behind each window depending on how far it is from the next. In practice, those same municipal authorities will tell you—and I do not believe that this figure is disputed by the Government here in London—that the true population of the Walled City is 45,000. That gives us a population of 8,500 people per acre. With what shall we compare this? We can compare it with the greatest density of population known in this country. which is about 300 people per acre in our old city centres. New development in this country at the highest density allowed—high-rise buildings—is 120 people per acre. Probably other slums in Asia reach a density per acre of 1,000 or 2,000 people. In the Walled City of Kowloon it is 8,500 compared with 300 which is the highest we can see in our own rundown city centres. There are thus 45,000 people bringing up children in a place where they can never see the sky. You cannot see the sky anywhere in these 18-inch wide alleys.

Those who wish to visit their neighbours in the Walled City walk across a plank at the tenth storey over the street into the window opposite. In some places they do not even need a plank; they just step across. It is as near as one can ever come in this world to the ideal concept of the city of dreadful night. How did this arise? It arose because when Britain leased Kowloon from Imperial China in 1898 an exception was made to the sovereignty granted in the lease for the old Walled City itself. A Chinese magistrate was left there with Chinese jurisdiction by the agreement of Britain. Within about three or four years there was disagreement about his functions and he left or was removed by the Imperial British Government. The history is obscure and I cannot properly go into it.

The present Chinese reéime, as we all know, regard the whole lease of Hong Kong and Kowloon as being virtually null. They regard it as an unequal treaty and do not admit its existence. De facto, as we all know, they do not object; there is a de facto agreement that the economic and political phenomenon of Hong Kong shall continue; they do not seek to upset it. But within their de jure objection to British sovereignty in Hong Kong, there is an area of especial de jure objection, and that concerns the Walled City itself. They say to the whole of Hong Kong and Kowloon. "We do not admit your presence, but in practice we do not object". About the Walled City—this 6½ acres—they say, "This is especially Chinese" although everything around it is also Chinese.

In the modern age with the enormous increase in the population and the prosperity of Hong Kong, the Colonial Government have developed a very effective, a very admirable, slum clearance policy. Great areas of Kowloon, most of it, have been slum cleared and new blocks of flats have been built. They are good, sound blocks. The density of population is much higher than we know in Europe but not higher than is general in Asia. Life there, though not pretty, is certainly quite tolerable and I think there is little ground for complaint. In 1963 the Colonial Government of Hong Kong faced the question of the Walled City, which was then a normal Asian slum. There was no water, no electricity; there were insanitary conditions, open drains, rats. But the buildings were only one or two storeys high and the alleys were the normal width, 8 feet to 10 feet of mud. The Colonial Government began to clear that slum, as they had cleared all the slums round about.

There came rumblings from Peking and London, and the Hong Kong Government desisted from their slum clearance. In effect, this action gave the green light to speculators. The speculators took the message. They realised that here was a place where there was no law, neither British Colonial law nor Chinese law. I have described its outward appearance. Inwardly, perhaps, socially and in terms of social philosophy, we see here what happens when lawlessness meets soaring land values. There is lawlessness elsewhere; there are soaring land values elsewhere, but I believe that nowhere else in the world is there the combination of lawlessness with soaring land values. The result is as I have described it: 13-storey buildings, 18 inches apart. There are no building regulations. Those skyscrapers have been built without foundations—they could fall at any moment. The only law which has been observed by the speculative builders in the Walled City is the law which says they shall not encroach on the approach funnel to the airport. In practice they have not done so. If one approaches Hong Kong by air one flies in a few feet from the top storeys, and looks in at the people having their evening meal. The builders have kept out of the approach funnel.

Within that dreadful place the Colonial Government themselves are not idle—they do not do nothing; they do not stand by. They have recently, under the governorship of Sir Murray MacLehose—and I pay tribute to him in this House for this —begun to do something to help on the flesh and blood level. Social services exist. There is some impact of education services, though not much. The immunisation programme against epidemics is carried out in the Walled City. But that is all. The Government of Hong Kong have not dared physically to clear that awful slum. They know how to; they do it excellently elsewhere. Immediately outside the Walled City the Colonial Government have built modern blocks—excellent modern blocks. One is tempted to say: "Maybe the solution is to build enough good blocks all round and about to draw the people out of the city of dreadful night." But I fear that this is difficult because the rents within the Walled City are about one-third below what they are in the rest of Kowloon. So to draw the people out one would have to bring down the rents, not only in the immediate vicinity of the Walled City but all over Kowloon and all over Hong Kong, by 30 or 40 per cent. It could be done theoretically, but the economic burden would seem to me so staggering that I cannot myself see that as the solution.

At the moment Anglo-Chinese relations are extremely good. They have perhaps never been better at any time since the Communist Revolution in China. One may pay tribute to many people and not least to Mr. Heath for this recent great improvement. The last thing I want to do by raising this Question in Parliament is to upset those relations or to upset the delicate web of forbearance by which Hong Kong continues.

I had the pleasure only six months ago of acting as deputy leader of a Parliamentary delegation to Peking and half a dozen other cities in China. I saw how good relations were and I fully understood the importance of keeping them that way. My question to the Government is this: now that relations are so good, could not the Government take their courage in both hands and for the first time talk to the Chinese Government about this great human tragedy which has arisen in the interstices of these good relations? It has grown up because of the sheer delicacy of the balance. It has grown up because of human politeness and the unwillingness of both sides to raise a potentially embarrassing subject. But there they are—45,000 people in permanent and disgusting night. The good will now existing is great and my question is: has not the moment arrived when the good will is sufficient to bear the burden of an embarrassing conversation with Peking? My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name.

10.11 p.m.


My Lords, the Unstarred Question which is being asked by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, raises issues that go to the very basis on which the Colony of Hong Kong exists. The poverty and squalor which is synonymous with the Walled City of Kowloon has been graphically described to the House by the noble Lord. This tiny area of Kowloon, with its 45,000 inhabitants crowding into about 6½ acres, means that it has a population density of nearly 5 million per square mile. In Europe. 1,000 per square mile is considered gross overcrowding. This slum—for basically that is what it is—has become infamous through its bad housing, its lack of social services, its violent crime and the extensive corruption and trafficking in drugs. For many years the Kowloon police steered well clear of the city. Now they are beginning to enter it, but the influence of the Triads, who control the organised extortion and racketeering, remains almost undisputed. But these factors, like symptoms of a disease, are the result of a long-standing sovereignty dispute between Britain and China.

Under the Convention of Peking in 1898, when the New Territories were leased from China for 99 years, Chinese authority was allowed to continue within the Walled City of Kowloon, except in so far as may be inconsistent with the military requirements of Hong Kong". Although Britain unilaterally invoked this clause and took over the Walled City in the same year, the then Chinese Government never accepted Britain's action. Thus the sovereignty question remains unsettled. The present Chinese Government do not recognise the validity of any of the treaties covering Hong Kong and regard the Colony as Chinese territory. However, they add that the question of Hong Kong should be settled in an appropriate way "when conditions are ripe". The present status quo has many advantages for the Chinese Government. The Colony provides a convenient base from which it can reap the benefits of capitalism while preserving the rest of China from contamination. It is unlikely that they would want to put this in jeopardy.

However, the Hong Kong Government still feels that, if it administered the Walled City of Kowloon in the full sense of the word and so appeared to exercise sovereignty over it, the dispute would once again be re-awakened. While this might not put the whole existence of Hong Kong in question, it might damage the fragile pedestal upon which the Colony and its economy are founded. Thus the Hong Kong Government finds itself caught between the devil of poverty and the deep red sea of Chinese sovereignty. The result of this state of affairs and of the policies that have flowed from it has meant that the Walled City has been left in the control of its own internal affairs, if that is not too much of a euphemism. It has been completely bypassed by the Government's programmes on housing and social services which are being rapidly improved in the rest of the Colony.

Furthermore, Hong Kong's housing and health regulations are totally ignored within the Walled City, thus leading to extortionate rents for slum housing and a high risk of disease. The massive flood of immigrants, which has put a terrible burden on the whole Colony, has worsened the already deplorable problem of the Walled City which, because of its sovereignty boundaries, cannot expand outwards but is forced to grow inwards. Since 1945 the population of Hong Kong has escalated from 600,000 to over 4 million in 1972, with more than one million coming over from mainland China since 1950. Immigration, especially illegal immigration, continues to swell the Colony's population.

With the ending of the 1967 "troubles" and the appointment of Sir Murray MacLehose in 1971 as Governor of the Colony, the long-standing policy of laissez-faire was finally sunk without trace. Ambitious targets have been set in the fields of housing and education. In ten years it is planned to rehouse one and a half million people. The old resettlement blocks, built during the late 1950s and the early 1960s, are either being torn down or modernised to supplement the new housing programme for the all-embracing housing authority which was set up in 1973. Also four new towns are being developed within the New Territories. The rate at which new schools are being built has also been increased and primary education has been made both free and compulsory. Massive investment is being injected into the Colony and China is also taking an increasing part in the financial life of Hong Kong. Furthermore, following the study by McKinsey's in 1972 Central Government has been reorganised to increase its efficiency and to enable it to take better account of the needs of the Colony. Serious attempts are being made to stamp out violent crime and investigations have been started into corruption, especially at official levels.

But all these achievements and their resultant benefits, for which the present Governor deserves full credit, are restricted to the areas of the Colony outside the Walled City. It is as though the city did not exist. But as the Colony is improved so the Walled City sticks out more and more like a rancid sore thumb, allowing no one to forget its existence. It seems that if the inhabitants want to benefit from Hong Kong's economic expansion they must leave the Walled City. The Hong Kong Government's policy appears to be based upon this: hope that the problems of the Walled City will be solved by attracting its population to other parts of the Colony. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, I feel that this is purely wishful thinking on the part of the Hong Kong Government. The problems are far too serious and urgent for such a policy to have any real or lasting effect. I sincerely believe that it is only the sovereignty dispute that stops the Hong Kong Government from clearing this slum and rehousing its population, and is in no way the result of lack of concern for their desperate plight.

The current policy of the Chinese Government towards Hong Kong and its direct economic involvement in the Colony might be conducive towards a solution. The prevailing climate of entente cordiale between China and Britain could not be better, especially after the successful visit of my right honourable friend. Has not the time arrived to open unofficial negotiations between London and Peking to discuss the terrible situation that exists within the Walled City of Kowloon and to find a way whereby the Hong Kong Government can administer the district properly? China's sovereignty rights could be protected by the so called "sovereignty umbrella" and remain unaffected or unrestricted by any agreement arrived at, or by the negotiations themselves.

My Lords, I do not expect any answer on this point when the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, comes to reply to the Unstarred Question. But I sincerely hope that he will seriously look at the suggestion, and perhaps put it to his right honourable friend for further consideration. I think the whole House will agree that the poverty and suffering that exists in the Walled City is a heavy price to pay fora question of sovereignty.

10.20 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has raised a question of acute concern for all of us, and in so doing he has spoken factually and responsibly, having regard for the difficulties as well as the urgencies of this matter. The noble Earl, Lord Cowley, who followed him, in his admirable analysis of the physical problem and the political dilemma, also deserves our thanks for having treated this extremely difficult and sensitive problem in the way that he did. I am inclined to say that I agree with every word that has been said in this very valuable debate. It is only on one or two points of factual detail that I find myself in difference with my noble friend and the noble Earl. As to the purpose of the two speeches, I am in entire agreement with what has been said, and with the motivation.

My Lords, we must all apply ourselves to securing real progress in ameliorating these dreadful conditions in this enclave which, after all, formally, constitutionally and in fact is a responsibility of this country. Of course it would be wrong, as my noble friend Lord Kennet took care to point out, to see this as a lawless enclave outside the control of the Hong Kong Government. It is lawless in the sense that he used the term, but it is an area relatively crime-free and subject to effective police patrol, at least as effective as any that applies to any other district in the Colony. I will not detain the House further by re-stating the details of enormity which my noble friend and the noble Earl, I think very faithfully and exactly, have placed before the House.

I go on to the point that concerns us most; namely, what is being done about this afflicted enclave in this Colony, and what can be done. What is being done, as has been pointed out, is quite considerable—very considerable throughout the Colony as a whole, and fairly considerable against the most intricate difficulties within the enclave of the Walled City. I refer to it as the enclave, which I find a precise term, because this is in actual fact neither a city, nor walled. First of all, on the question of water supply, which I was very glad to hear my noble friend bring forward with such emphasis, there are plans, far advanced now, to put the water supply of the enclave on a more regular basis. This is connected with proper drainage, and the horrifying details to which we have listened emphasise the importance of a proper system of drainage. Pumphouses are being installed and the open ditches have, since last year at least, been cleared twice daily. This is not much by European standards, but it is a great deal by Asian and Kowloon standards; and plans are now being considered to repair the main drainage.

On the subject of sanitation, the Urban Services Department has a large team of sweepers who operate in the city. There are several huge refuse bins, standpipes for street cleaning are now installed, and the Urban Services Department carry out investigation of infectious diseases. My noble friend mentioned this inspection as being pretty efficient. They also have a service for pest control, the daily chlorination of wells and the maintenance of public latrines. This is very basic. Compared with the conditions in the Walled City that preceded this very hopeful and, within its limits, effective series of reforms under the present Governor, it gives cause for cautious optimism.

My noble friend and the noble Earl mentioned the question of fire hazard, deriving in particular from the extraordinary mesh of electrical installation which hang like a web through this enclave. There are now plans to sort out and improve this inadequate and, indeed, hazardous electricity situation. Fire risk, because of the maze-like layout of the Walled City is, of course, very high. Among the essential services, it is difficult to allot priorities to water and drainage, linked as they are to sanitation, and electricity and fire risk. These reforms must go forward together. In 1973, the Hong Kong Government started to clear the sensitive areas on the fringe of the Walled City, and legislation regarding the storing of dangerous goods is also in force. I understand that this is effective.

I think, however, that the point made by both the noble Lord and the noble Earl about housing is probably the key to a real improvement. This is a problem of density, as my noble friend emphasised from the start and, indeed, pinpointed in the phrasing of his Question. It is a problem of housing, the density of housing, and the poor quality of construction in the Walled City. These are matters for grave concern and the ideal solution, I suppose, would be to tear the lot down and start again. But apart from the political problem, to which both my noble friends referred with responsibility and care, which I very much appreciate, of avoiding invoking reactions which might in the event create situations worse even than those we have heard described so precisely tonight, there is the practical question of rehousing, of giving priority to this particular enclave ahead of the rest of the Colony, of indeed getting general acquiescence to such apriorised programme.

I very much liked something my noble friend said on this point. He finally very reluctantly rejected it as a solution, but I think on reflection he, like myself, may find in something like the following a constructive approach to a gradual solution; namely, that the Hong Kong Government should go ahead as expeditiously as ever possible with its massive programme of house building—that is, a programme for building enough houses to rehouse 1.8 million people out of a total population of over 4 million. It is a programme to rehouse over 10 years almost half the population of the Colony. Already a substantial part of this new housing is being located on the very edge of the Walled City.

I understand my noble friend's reservations about whether this in fact may prove to be a solution. I think it may contribute substantially by attracting from inside the Walled City—the "city of dreadful night", as my noble friend referred to it, and as I am quite sure Francis Thompson himself would have done if he had seen Hong Kong—increasing numbers, especially among the young, from this morass of disease and danger into these new flats and houses, so that the density in the Walled City is gradually diluted as the new standards become known to those still remaining, still preferring to remain, in the Walled City. This is the best kind of reform, the reform over a period on the basis of experience and acceptance, although it is always tempting in situations like this to go for the revolutionary change, the instantaneous stroke. I hope that we can all look at this problem as one which may possibly begin to be solved on the basis of this massive housing programme and its location.

I think that my noble friend will be glad to know the position on rents. He said that rents in the Walled City are one-third below those in the rest of Kowloon. I understand that it is not true in relation to Government housing, the rents for which are well below private rents in the Walled City. The answer is, therefore, more Government housing, which we may be sure will certainly be more attractive to many families in the Walled City, and even more economical for them.

So much for the enormous physical problem and the efforts made to tackle it. But I must briefly touch on the second question, to which both noble Lords who spoke, quite properly, drew attention. These efforts are constantly affected, inhibited indeed, by a political situation of a unique character, with its roots in the past and its implications for the present and the future, that we simply must carefully take into account. As I said previously, we must be very careful indeed that we do not, in our genuine desire to improve the situation within the Walled City, so move as to evoke actions which create new and increasingly difficult situations, perhaps less tractable, more dangerous than the one we are considering tonight.

The Chinese have in the past, and do now, claim jurisdiction over the Walled City. In 1963 they protested strongly when the Hong Kong Government attempted to carry out clearance operations. In fact, the reaction was such and the implications were so apparent, that the clearance operation was stopped. The issue is, therefore, sensitive and Her Majesty's Government—not just the present Government but their predecessors—believe that the risks attached to precipitate action might indeed create problems worse than the conditions themselves.

The Governor's aim is to build up a working relationship with the inhabitants of the Walled City itself which will enable specific problems to be discussed on the local level, for there to be acceptance and co-operation in ameliorative policies which in turn will have their effect upon the attitude and reaction of the great People's Republic of China which, understandably, is watching everything that is happening in Hong Kong and in the Walled City.

In the past very dangerous friction has arisen over the question of jurisdiction in the Walled City. I have recently consulted the Governor. He intends to con-tine to improve the areas around the Walled City, so far as possible, in such a way as to avoid friction, and gradually to expand urban services within it, as he and his Government are now doing. It is his and our hope that this policy will generate confidence among the city's inhabitants and, therefore, beyond the boundaries of the city and the boundaries of the Colony, and will produce an acceptance of this policy of social reform and a positive desire to help over the improvement of conditions within the city.

Both noble Lords rightly raised the question of whether the time has not come for a more positive approach to the Government of the People's Republic. I certainly do not rule this out. I do not think that either noble Lord, myself or anybody speaking from London about this extraordinarily difficult problem, would wish on our own account to decide whether to take such a course and when and in what way, except after the closest consultation with those who really have to cope with the problem and with the eventualities which result from such action in Hong Kong itself. I shall be seeing the Governor soon, and I can assure noble Lords that this point will once more be a question for discussion. There are wider considerations to be taken into account, and it would be very wrong of me to enter into any firm commitment that this attractive and sensible suggestion will in fact be implemented.

I have listened very carefully to everything that has been said. I was very glad to hear tributes from both sides of the House to the present Governor, who has indeed done a very great deal already for Hong Kong and for this enclave. I welcome this debate, and particularly I welcome that it should put the facts on the Record of the British Parliament, and reflect how concerned we all are in this House about the future of this enclave and, indeed, of Hong Kong.