HL Deb 21 June 1989 vol 509 cc223-61

2.58 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs rose to call attention to the problems facing the government and people of Hong Kong and to the responsibilities of Her Majesty's Government in this matter; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it was only 10 days ago that Sir David Wilson addressed the Hong Kong Association here in London. He brought three messages from Hong Kong. First he described the depth of shock felt by Hong Kong citizens as they watched incredulously their television screens on that first day of the massacre in Tiananmen Square and listened hourly to their radios to obtain more news. He then spoke of the dignity of Hong Kong's response as, with good order and with great discipline they marched in their thousands—half a million people marched—to show their solidarity. His last message concerned the people's expectations of support in their present perilous position from the British Government.

Significant as the first two messages were, nevertheless it is on the third one that this debate will focus. It is for that reason that I am very grateful that there are so many speakers who have put down their names who have a great deal of experience and knowledge of Hong Kong. I am also very happy that this debate has attracted a maiden speaker. I look forward to listening to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. I should add that when I put down this Motion for debate before the crisis in China erupted little could I foresee the poignant —indeed tragic—significance that the subject would have acquired today.

I should like at the outset of this debate to register my great sympathy—and indeed my feeling of great sorrow—for the people of Hong Kong in their despair and sense of isolation. They had hoped for so much from China after the joint declaration and in one day those hopes were dashed. They now look to Britain to revive their confidence in the future, but so far have found little to relieve those anxieties. Indeed, Britain's standing in the colony—her last colony—is at the present moment at a very low ebb.

Perhaps I may say a few words to give background to our debate today. Starting with China, it is now only too painfully apparent, following the initial massacre, the killings and subsequent stream of arrests, that Deng Xiaoping and China's political leaders are bent on a path of brutal repression. Indeed, the situation is now even more terrifying than the tanks of Tiananmen Square as show trials are shown on television, people just disappear, and families are made to inform on each other. This has shocked countries thoughout the world, and has attracted a great deal of sympathy and concern for the people of Hong Kong preparing as they are for the colony to be handed back to China in 1997. Although it is clear that represssion is the order of the day in China now, there is nevertheless speculation that the leadership struggle is far from over, and it is therefore too early to predict the political path that China may take over the next eight years. It makes decisions regarding Hong Kong's future even more difficult to take at this stage.

Some have called for the cancellation of the Sino-British joint declaration signed in 1984. Fortunately there is now a consensus of established opinion that to leave the colony with no agreement at this point could hardly add to our safety. Next, and most significantly, there is a widespread and justifiable anxiety among the people of Hong Kong regarding their future security should their worst fears be realised and, as the governor described, an Armageddon scenario prevail in the colony. As a result, much pressure is being put on the British Government to take action to safeguard the position of Hong Kong residents by offering a right of abode to holders of British passports. They asked for it as an assurance policy. Much has been said about it. Perhaps I may therefore take one minute to describe the facts of the nationality and immigration position of Hong Kong residents.

Those estimated 3.28 million residents of Hong Kong who are entitled to British dependent territory citizenship were either born in the colony or have a parent or grandparent who were. But of those 3.28 million, only 1.53 million are in possession of British passports at the present time. The other 2.75 million of the Hong Kong population are almost all immigrants, both legal and illegal, from the Chinese mainland. They will become Chinese nationals after 1997. However, in addition there are approximately 10,000 non-Chinese British dependent territory citizens, mainly Asians, who will become effectively stateless after 1997. They are not entitled to become Chinese citizens because they are not of Chinese origin and their BDT passports will not enable them to claim right of abode in the UK. I am sure that the Minister agrees that this minority is the cause of very great concern.

The position on the right of abode at the moment is that only serving or former Crown servants can apply for the right of abode in Britain under Section 4(5) of the British Nationality Act. While approximately 700 people have made applications under this section since it came into effect, only 59 had been successful by March 1989.

Finally, under the present immigration rules, any non-EC resident with capital assets of a minimum of £ 150,000 may be allowed to reside in this country. This could provide an escape route for a well-off Hong Kong businessman in the event of a crisis in relations with China. I ask the Minister to confirm or deny the press report yesterday that there had been a plan to raise the minimum amount of capital required from £150,000 to £200,000.

In addition, in our long colonial history the case of Hong Kong is unique. First, the colony has no option of independence. Secondly, it is the first time that a territory has been handed over to a Communist regime in which, moreover, the situation has changed so dramatically since signing the treaty that if 1997 were today it could not be observed.

What is to be done? The Government face a dilemma. However, we on these Benches believe very strongly that the Government's first priority is to take action to restore confidence in the colony. If this is not done quickly, the position in Hong Kong will become more precarious, possibly even ungovernable, meaning that the prosperity and stability, on which Beijing's tolerance of the colony ultimately depends, would be undermined. There are many voices from Hong Kong, and indeed also in Britain, which say that the only way to restore confidence is to grant the right of abode in the United Kingdom for the 3.28 million Hong Kong passport holders. At the same time, they maintain that the take up would be low.

However, on the one hand, policies cannot be made on the assumption that they will be unnecessary. On the other, if, after amending our nationality and immigration legislation, a large number of Hong Kong people were driven through a worsening situation at home to take up their new rights, a British Government would be in a difficult position facing their responsibilities not only to the people of this small island but also to those other BDT passport holders outside Hong Kong who have been in the queue to enter Britain as well as the relatives of immigrants who have been waiting to come. Above all, therefore, we do not want Her Majesty's Government to enter into a commitment now, at this early stage, that in the end they would be unable to honour.

As George Walden, a former student at the Hong Kong University and diplomat in Beijing wrote in the Independent, With China in turmoil it is the worst possible moment to let British policy swing in the gale of events". For the present time, in order to bolster the confidence in Hong Kong, to relieve pressure, and to help move things forward in the colony, we ask the Government to do the following. First, we ask them to reiterate Britain's unequivocal condemnation of the violent oppression and reign of terror in China and thereby ensure that the colony is left in no doubt as to Britain's view of the Beijing Government.

Secondly, we welcome the Secretary of State's visit to Hong Kong on 1st July, as indeed I believe that he was pressed to do by my right honourable friend Mr. Gerald Kaufman. However, I ask the Minister whether Sir Geoffrey Howe plans a visit to China. In this way he would confirm to the colony that Britain is committing herself to the support of Hong Kong in all the ways possible and within her reach.

Thirdly, will the Government now go further in defining the flexibility mentioned by the Prime Minister on 8th June? She said in another place that the Government were prepared to see whether they can obtain increasing flexibility from the present rules in order to allow an increasing number of people in here under the several different limbs of the immigration rules and the British Nationality Act. Perhaps the Minister will be able to be a little more specific about that now.

Next, from an international viewpoint, we believe that although Britain has a primary responsibility for Hong Kong, Her Majesty's Government should consult with other Commonwealth countries. Some of them, such as Canada and Australia, are better able than Britain to absorb the entry of a considerable number of people. We should also like the Government to consult immediately with our EC partners at the forthcoming Madrid meeting. After 1992—which brings freedom of movement between members states—surely the level of immigration to each country can affect only the other.

I turn to the Basic Law on which negotiations have been suspended, with the resignation of members of the committee in protest at events in Beijing. Although we find that utterly understandable, we now urge that negotiations should resume and the British Government should take a more robust attitude towards ensuring that the Basic Law reflects the joint declaration. There is scope for amending and reinforcing some of the articles, and we hope that that will come about.

With regard to direct elections in the colony, the Labour Party has always advocated that the pace of democratic reform should be accelerated. It is a pity that that was not done earlier. We now ask the Government to give serious consideration to the unanimous view of a legislative council that at least 50 per cent. of the council should be directly elected by 1995 or before. However, mindful of the retaliation which a fully democratic system in Hong Kong might draw from the extremists in Peking, we believe that the actual pace of change should be left to the Hong Kong Government and the people.

In speaking of the need to relieve Hong Kong of additional burdens, I should like to mention the Vietnamese boat people. It is a heartbreaking problem which so far has confounded the international community. It has imposed a heavy cost on Hong Kong. The difficulties in resettling the refugees gives an indication of the kind of problem which will be caused by mass immigration from Hong Kong in the event of a crisis concerning the handover to China.

By 10th June this year 42,766 boat people had arrived in Hong Kong, half of them being under the age of 20. It is a migration of families. The colony is no longer able to find sufficient space to put new camps. It should be remembered that Hong Kong has a population density of over 5,000 people per square kilometre compared with 230 in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, since 1980 offers of resettlement from other countries have steadily fallen. For example, in 1988 over 18,000 Vietnamese arrived in Hong Kong and fewer than 3,000 left for resettlement.

On 13th and 14th June the crisis was discussed at a Geneva conference. The decision was taken that the UNHCR should agree a programme of voluntary repatriation. Will the Minister say whether he believes that the agency has been given enough time and resources to work out a plan to resolve such an enormous problem? Will he also give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will press for an internationally agreed solution involving United Nations member states to receive genuine political refugees; and to move forward towards drawing Vietnam back into the international community and establishing aid programmes with that country?

It must be of benefit to gain the participation of Vietnam both to prevent departures as well as to accept the repatriation of the economic refugees. However, we on these Benches are most concerned about the prospect of forced repatriation towards which the Government appear to be leaning.

Hong Kong is our last colony and in many ways it is the most successful. The purpose of the debate is to express to the people of Hong Kong the concern of this House. It is also to demand an assurance from the Government that they will genuinely do everything within their powers to safeguard Hong Kong's interests in the interim period to 1997 in order to bring Britain's long history as a colonial power to an honourable close. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I am fully aware of the great privilege accorded to me in making my maiden speech in this historic House. I trust that I shall not overstep the boundaries of convention which bind maiden speakers, but I share with the noble Baroness her concern for the future of the people and territory of Hong Kong.

In December 1984, during the debate on the joint agreement with China, my great friend Lord Birkenhead made his maiden speech. Sadly, Robin Birkenhead is now dead but I should like to remind your Lordships of his words. On that occasion he said: we do not have to live, except in our consciences, with the consequences of this agreement; the people of Hong Kong do. Many of them have risked their lives and abandoned everything to escape from Communism. One cannot possibly expect enthusiasm at the prospect of being handed back to a Communist power, however many safeguards are built into their return".—[Official Report, 10/12/84; col. 32.] That was four and a half years ago and today we must address ourselves urgently to the same question.

Appalling as were the recent events in Peking, they should not have come as a surprise. There had already been a dress rehearsal in Tibet for the brutalities committed in Tiananmen Square. On at least four separate occasions during the past three years—and most recently in March of this year—Chinese troops and police opened fire on and killed unarmed demonstrators. That happened in spite of the fact that freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of demonstration are protected under Article 35 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China. But to its shame the world ignored the warnings from Tibet until minds were wonderfully concentrated by the events on 3rd and 4th June. If the mask had slipped in Tibet, it has now been ripped away and the face of totalitarian China has been exposed.

That is the power to which we are to hand over Hong Kong and with no more guarantee than the hope that China will abide by the joint agreement. gut after the experience of the past three weeks the people of Hong Kong need more than hope to persuade them that they are not to be delivered defenceless to the mercies of the People's Liberation Army. They need the assurance that if the worst comes to the worst they have in the last resort somewhere to go; an alternative to the bullet and the confession.

Whereas under the process of decolonisation other Crown colonies were led to or took the path to independence, as the noble Baroness has said, that option was denied to Hong Kong. The right of domicile in the United Kingdom was progressively removed between 1962 and 1981 under the Commonwealth Immigration Act and its subsequent amendments.

Over the past three weeks the people of Hong Kong have experienced kaleidoscopic emotions: first, of pride and happiness for their fellow countrymen in China as the prospect of greater freedom rose before them; then of anger, shock and compassion; and, finally, of apprehension and fear that what happened in China and Tibet today would happen tomorrow in Hong Kong.

What is now needed to restore the confidence of Hong Kong is the recognition that we have certain inescapable obligations and that the necessary steps will be taken to meet them. Speedier progress to democratic government, yes; a Bill of Rights, yes. However, they are the icing and what is needed is the cake. They can be no substitute for the fundamental need for an ultimate sanctuary.

The course advocated by the present Governor, Sir David Wilson, is that we should grant full British passports to the 1.25 million people who currently hold British National (Overseas) passports and to the further 2 million people who are eligible to hold them. I do not believe that such a generous step would mean an unmanageable influx of immigrants from Hong Kong. Their lives are in Hong Kong and they would wish to continue to live there. Paradoxically, the assurance that people could leave would have the effect of encouraging them to stay, for a prison to which you have the key is no longer a prison.

For my part, I do not believe it quite necessary to go so far as to give immediate right of abode to those 3.25 million who are potentialy eligible in Hong Kong. Certainly those most at risk should have that right and I urge the Government substantially to increase the degree of flexibility in awarding full British passports.

If Portugal with its smaller population can give to over 100,000 of the citizens of Macao the right of abode in the EC, we can surely give several hundred thousand passports to the people of Hong Kong. I mention the EC because of course by 1992 a British passport will also be a passport to Europe and not all the Hong Kong people will wish to make their home here in the United Kingdom.

The numbers may seem daunting but this Government have never shirked a challenge. If France has absorbed nearly 2 million immigrants from its overseas territories, we can surely do no less for our subjects in far more deserving circumstances. If Europe's population is increased by a maximum of 1 per cent., that is a tiny price to pay for saving a brave nation from the worst horrors of communism.

I do not say that Armageddon is coming. However, I say that if it does come we should be prepared. I urge the Government to take the decisions which will satisfy both our honour and our responsibility.

3.21 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, from the reception given by the House to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, I am sure that your Lordships will want me to congratulate him on a speech which was both elequent and fell within the conventions of the House. I hope that he will forgive me if my appreciation is somewhat abbreviated by the fact that I have only six minutes in which to speak. That brevity in no way represents a lack of sincerity in the congratulations which I wish to convey.

The subject which we are discussing today is not simple. It requires rather careful and intricate argument. In the time at my disposal I shall concentrate on the central issue of what we are to do for the people of Hong Kong in order to provide them with the assurances which they justly demand for their lives and liberties in the future. If what I say is said in rather crude language, that is simply because there is not the time or the space in which to set the matter forth in all its complexity.

I am one of those who had argued that in this country we were under a moral obligation to offer those people in Hong Kong with British passports an unrestricted right of abode in this country. That view was based on a number of assumptions: first, that the Chinese Government would fulfil their obligations; secondly, that the negotiations on the Basic Law would reach a satisfactory conclusion—an assumption which led one to conclude that, as the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, indicated, relatively few would wish to take up the option to settle in this country. I believed that, by providing that right, we should stem the drain of immigration from Hong Kong which is so serious for its economy.

The events which have been and are taking place in China which were so eloquently described by the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, make one apt to face the fact that some of those assumptions which I and others made have to be called in question. Matters in China are bad and may become worse. We must face the possibility of what the Foreign Secretary calls "a cataclysmic situation" and what the governor calls "Armageddon", or what might be called the worst possible case. It is in such circumstances that an insurance policy is so necessary because in the worst possible case it is conceivable that there may be a mass exodus.

In those situations I do not believe that it is reasonable for the British Government to give an undertaking which, in point of fact, they would be unlikely in the event to be able to fulfil. I do not believe that it is reasonable for this country to undertake that in those circumstances it could accept such numbers. Yet, it is against those very circumstances that an insurance policy is required; hence the demand by the Hong Kong Chinese that their lives and liberties should be safeguarded.

The Prime Minister has suggested that our response should be flexible. Attempts which have been made to get a definition of that flexibility have proved fruitless. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, that flexibility must mean generosity and must mean including more people within the categories of those who can be accepted within this country in the immediate future. It must also not be allowed to be simply a question of money. Public service, intellectual distinction and industrial and entrepreneurial skills must all be regarded as qualifications. It must not be money and only money which is the criterion.

The fact is that in the worst possible case, in face of a mass exodus, it is possible to conceive of only one solution; that must be an international solution, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, suggested. It seems to me a matter of urgency that we should raise this issue with the EC at the summit, with the Commonwealth and with other interested parties at the earliest possible opportunity, so as to prepare a plan which can safeguard and provide the assurances to the people of Hong Kong which they rightly and legitimately demand.

At the same time, we must be prepared to set an example in the numbers and the categories which we are prepared to take. Only by providing such a safeguard can we provide the confidence that the inhabitants of Hong Kong are rightly demanding and on which the maintenance of the prosperity of Hong Kong depends. On that prosperity depends the leverage that we can exercise to ensure a reasonable Chinese treatment of Hong Kong in the long run.

I cannot say more without encroaching on the time of other speakers but I hope that we shall receive from the Government a more positive response to this situation than we have had hitherto.

3.28 p.m.

Lord MacLehose of Beoch

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on his admirable maiden speech. I am very much in accord with his sentiments.

There is some difficulty about the time in speaking in this debate. However, I should like first to say that to overcome the shock of the terrible events in Peking, a great deal needs to be done by the Chinese Government themselves, by the British Government and by the Chinese and British Governments acting together. One way or another, implementation of the joint declaration through the Basic Law will have to be, as the Foreign Secretary said, fortified and buttressed to stand up to the new pressure of credibility under which it is suffering.

In the time available I cannot go into all the details as I should like to do. However, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, on her admirable introduction to this highly topical debate. I shall confine myself only to the demand of Hong Kong people that we boost their failed confidence by a guarantee of an alternative home—the same theme concentrated on by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, although he reached a slightly different conclusion.

There seem to be three levels of responsibility which we should distinguish. There is the Armageddon scenario. That involves mass flight. I do not think we need spend much time on that. I am sure that it is common ground that in such a circumstance the British Government of the day would have to take the lead in the huge international operation which would be necessary. There is nothing that can be done about that now, other than to say so.

There is the second level, which I think is much the most difficult: the smaller number of British nationals in Hong Kong and their demand for recovery of their rights of entry and abode—now called British citizenship—which was lost in 1962. This has now emerged as, I believe, the key, crucial issue. I now believe, and I have not thought this previously, that without satisfaction on this issue faith in the whole enterprise of Hong Kong is liable to fail. It will fail through the uncertainty, disillusion, emigration or preoccupation with emigration, of the people who would otherwise make the Hong Kong of the future. Of course, commercial confidence and support would ebb away with them.

The decisive solution would be to amend the British Nationality Act to provide Hong Kong British nationals with British citizenship. The object of doing that would be an insurance to encourage them to stay at their work in Hong Kong, as most wish to do. In the past I have asked for a home of last resort. Others have asked for the right of entry or the right of abode. It all comes down to the same thing in the end—citizenship. To grant that would be the greatest contribution that the British Government could make to the success of their hitherto very successful policy in Hong Kong. Of course I realise the difficulty, but we should not be outfaced by the numbers. The figure of 3 million potential British nationals is unrealistic. The governor said that at present there are only 1.2 million holders of British passports and only a proportion of those are potential emigrants. Moreover, with the Act amended to give these people citizenship, the freedom of movement provisions of the Treaty of Rome would apply.

I accept that this is a big problem but we have our friends in the Commonwealth and I suggest—like the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter—that we should now start discussions with our partners in the EC and with the potential host countries of the Commonwealth, as well as with the leaders in Hong Kong. With such a group we should be able to come up with a solution, provided we give a clear lead and a clear commitment to take many of these people. However, time is of the essence. These objectives will take a long time to fulfil, and within two years from now there will be only six years to the passage of sovereignty.

The British Nationality Act also provides for flexibility, as do the immigration rules; and yesterday the Prime Minister indicated that the Government are looking at what could be done under them. That, of course, is extremely welcome and I hope that early progress can be made. Nevertheless, I do not think that either morally or practically it offers an alternative to the wider arrangements that I have suggested, though it is some action that we could proceed with now.

In reaction to what has happened in Peking I hope that I have not exaggerated the problem or unnecessarily talked down the bright prospects of Hong Kong as we saw them two months ago. I believe the problem is real and urgent. If the solution I have suggested is judged to be unrealistic I will listen with great interest to what your Lordships have to say in criticism; but I hope that a constructive alternative will be offered because this problem will not wait.

3.34 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for introducing this important debate today and also by congratulating my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke on his maiden speech.

This debate comes almost exactly one year since we last debated Hong Kong and it is difficult to overstate the change in the situation since that occasion. We have all been appalled by the actions of the Chinese Government over the treatment of the peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square, and no one can ever forget the spectacle on our television screens of the Chinese army literally crushing students who were peacefully trying to express their point of view. We are horrified at the death penalties carried out, with more unquestionably to come. Those actions have shocked and appalled the entire world. I express for everyone, I am sure, our deepest sympathy and understanding for the very real concerns of the people of Hong Kong.

Arising from that dreadful background it is all the more important to consider carefully what the reaction of Her Majesty's Government should be to this issue of Hong Kong. I start by placing on record my support for my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary and the measures that he has already taken against China: a ban on arms sales; a suspension of all scheduled exchanges between Britain and China; a suspension of the visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales; and suspension of all high-level military contacts. I also think that we greatly benefit from my right honourable friend's wise counsel on the situation in Hong Kong and his unwillingness, in my view quite properly, to be pushed precipitously into actions which in many cases have not been fully thought through.

I am glad that my right honourable and learned friend is to visit Hong Kong shortly. He can then judge for himself the situation on the ground and, above all, can assure the people of Hong Kong that we shall fulfil our obligations and responsibility for the administration of Hong Kong up to 1997. I also place on record my support for the governor, Sir David Wilson, in these difficult times and for the excellent job that he is doing.

What, then, should we do? The fact is that the historic and geographical realities of the situation of Hong Kong remain. Any viable future for Hong Kong must be dependent upon its co-operation and coexistence with China. Nothing can alter those facts, disagreeable though they may be. Under the lease, 92 per cent. of Hong Kong reverts to China in 1997. I recall, as a Foreign Office Minister, commending to your Lordships the Hong Kong agreement—the Sino-British Agreement on Hong Kong. I believe it to be a good agreement. Some people have suggested that we should either scrap it or try to renogotiate it. I believe that that would be a great mistake. We want to see it implemented. Nor is there any evidence that if we did reopen negotiations we would get a better agreement.

One further positive point remains. It is in China's long-term interests to maintain the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong. As all speakers have said, we must try to keep up that confidence in Hong Kong. I welcome the proposals that have been made for an increase in democracy. I also welcome the fact that the Hong Kong police force has been strengthened under the control of the Hong Kong Government. I hope that on the tragic situation of the Vietnamese refugees there will be some improvement arising from the discussions at Geneva. That seems to be the case.

Attention has focused on the question of whether, given the changed situation, we should give an undertaking of the right of abode to some 3.25 million people from Hong Kong. It is a matter of much regret to me that I have not been able to speak, before this debate, to Dame Lydia Dunn, who I know is in London, and to hear, first hand, her concerns. Of course we all understand their fears. Who could not? I shall therefore listen with great interest to what my noble friend the Minister has to say this afternoon on the point raised about a further examination, particularly under the nationality Acts, of the position of Crown servants and key business people. I was also interested to read what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in another place yesterday, when she referred to increased flexibility under the nationality Acts. Both statements I welcome, and I hope that my noble friend can say something further on this matter.

On the wider issue of whether or not we should give a right of abode to the 3.25 million people in Hong Kong I would like to expand further, but time does not allow. But I say this: it is an immensely difficult issue. The British Parliament must not only consider its obligations to the people of Hong Kong, real and important as those are, but also its obligations to the people of the United Kingdom. Indeed, as the representatives in another place are elected to represent the people of the United Kingdom, their first duty must be to the people whom they represent. In answering this question I believe it must be clear that Britain could not guarantee a right of abode to all these people.

I believe there is a danger as regards the insurance argument because no government could make that commitment without being prepared to make arrangements to receive for right of abode 3.25 million people. It really would not be fair to the people of Hong Kong, let alone to the people in this country, to pretend otherwise. Those who have to take responsibility often have to say things that they would rather not say and that are very painful and disagreeable. I believe that this is one instance of them. That said, we have all referred to what is called the Armageddon situation. We must profoundly hope and pray that it does not happen. From what my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, I recognise that should that situation arise we shall seek the help of the rest of the world in trying to resolve what will be not only a desperately tragic situation for Hong Kong, but a tragedy for the whole world.

3.41 p.m.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, had I just a month ago started my notes for today's most valuable and timely debate with the phrase "whilst there is nothing new or original to add" it would have been largely true though the strength of the argument for the BDTC and the BN(O) right of abode in the United Kingdom would not have been the less. Now, almost daily, there is something new. Even today we have received the appalling information that three Shanghaiese have been executed for setting fire to the train that had killed their companions. That is something new, and it adds to the very real concern expressed in Hong Kong regarding the actions of the authorities in the PRC.

We have heard all the arguments. I suppose that the two principal ones are, first, that 1997 is still eight years away; the second being that the United Kingdom cannot possibly absorb three-plus-million Hong Kong Chinese "just like that". But what if the United Kingdom and effectively all of its population were to be returned, albeit with quite tolerable paper assurances, in eight years' time to an authority from whom over the previous 40 years most of us, or our parents, had fled? Would not we want to know that, if the proverbial push comes to the Sino-shove, we had a haven to which we could escape? We take our full British nationality for granted. Are we happy at the thought of going down in history as the "we are in the boat, shove off" brigade?

As I have said in your Lordships' House on many occasions, Hong Kong has one asset only—and a mighty one that is—which is its people. Without its people having full confidence to remain in Hong Kong, Hong Kong is at best—and I repeat "at best"—nothing. I agree that the arrival of three-plus-million Hong Kong Chinese over a short time period would cause just as many problems in the United Kingdom as that exodus would cause in Hong Kong. But it would not happen. I cannot prove that statement and nor indeed can anyone else prove it. But I have not the slightest doubt in my mind that it is true.

I am delighted that Dame Lydia Dunn is listening to this debate today. She more than any, with her leadership of OMELCO in Hong Kong, is championing this cause. The British Government and the British people have such a burden of responsibility—legal, moral and practical—to Hong Kong that they must take the gamble, or in the words of my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke in his excellent maiden speech, take up the challenge and grant at the very minimum perpetual and indefinite right of entry to the United Kindom for all Hong Kong BDTC and BN(O) passport holders. That would give them the right to earn full British nationality under the rules of domicile without, as I understand it, the necessity to amend the British Nationality Act 1981.

It really is the very least that we can do and, as has been said already this afternoon, we must do it now, before the apparently inexhaustible patience of Hong Kong finally evaporates, and with it the all-important confidence of its people.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, if there is for Hong Kong a silver lining to the ominous cloud that hangs over China, it is that the people of this country can now be seen by the people of Hong Kong to have woken up to their responsibilities for what may happen there after 1997 instead of perhaps giving the impression that the agreement signed with China enabled them to forget some of the intense human problems which might arise when sovereignty is due to pass. I believe that every noble Lord in this House will agree that the people of Hong Kong certainly deserve all the understanding and interest that we can muster since their confidence has been so badly shaken in the arrangements that this country has been making for them.

Much of the interest has centred on the question of nationality and right of abode. I do not discount these issues one little bit. As has been said, they are clearly matters of the utmost significance and urgency to Hong Kong's morale and stability as a last resort measure, if nothing else. But as a former Commander British Forces Hong Kong, I would like to concentrate on the steps that might be taken inside Hong Kong, particularly as they affect security. Surely the greatest service that we can do for the people there is to continue to encourage Hong Kong to prosper, with the citizens, by and large, remaining to maintain its success story and not leaving to bring about an untypical failure. Then we should do everything we can in further bilateral negotiations with the rulers of China and with international backing, to ensure that the spirit of that original agreement on true autonomy until the year 2047 is still achieved. We shall be doing the people of Hong Kong no service to pretend that, because of harrowing events in Peking in 1989, the longer-term future can no longer lie within the orbit of mainland China.

But, equally, no one in their senses can imagine, without more adequate guarantees on the Basic Law and individual rights than we have at the moment, that we could commit over 5 million people to the tender mercies that we saw perpetrated in Tiananmen Square. So we have a considerable job to do to convince Hong Kong that the arrangements being made will provide adequate safeguards within the original spirit of that agreement. To achieve this could it not be that we have advantages that we did not have before? In the past, when negotiating with the Chinese, we convinced ourselves that we had considerably fewer cards to play than they did. But now I suggest that the situation may have changed. The Chinese Government, instead of basking in the goodwill of the international community, are generally condemned. They have lost face and, after the first frenzy of riding roughshod to maintain the power of the existing leadership, they will find that a Pandora's Box has been opened which they can never completely close. They will therefore need friends to help them solve their accumulating problems, otherwise modernisation will be dead for decades.

Therefore our negotiating position should have been strengthened. So cannot now, for instance, the Basic Law which still has a number of ambivalent loopholes, be negotiated, as the noble Baroness said, in a way that will be much more reassuring to the people of Hong Kong? Then there is the question of actually stationing the so-called People's Liberation Army on Hong Kong territory and that must surely be looked at again. From a military point of view, and distances being what they are, it has always seemed quite unnecessary for China actually to garrison Hong Kong which will have its own security force and, with its autonomous status, will be responsible for its own internal security. Very early on in the negotiations it looked as though the Chinese leadership might accede to this point. Therefore it is only right that we should insist on returning to it. After seeing how the PLA dealt with peaceful protest and free speech, nothing could be more guaranteed to destroy confidence and morale in Hong Kong and deter international investment than the prospect of formed bodies of Chinese troops being stationed in Hong Kong itself.

During the period up to 1997 I hope there will be no question of prematurely reducing the garrison or cutting the size of the Gurkha units. The scenarios which could in the interim threaten the stability of Hong Kong are legion, not least the prospect of a greater influx of refugees, not only from Vietnam but from China itself. The Royal Hong Kong Police Force could find itself quite unable to cope without the fullest support of the military. Minimum force has always required maximum numbers, a point seemingly lost on the People's Liberation Army. Moreover, we must be careful to do nothing to indicate any premature weakening of ties with this country or of Britain's resolve to see this thing through to a proper and peaceful conclusion, which is the passing back of sovereignty of a stable going concern, but with the strongest possible guarantees that, for 50 years at least, Hong Kong will co-exist with the rest of mainland China as a separate autonomous area, with the same currency and similar legal rights and freedoms as it possesses at the moment. That was the agreement—no less.

If when the time comes there is no stable central government, or we could not deliver that package with confidence, we must face the fact that all bets might have to be off and we would be honour-bound to do our duty by the people of Hong Kong in whatever way seemed right and appropriate at the time. We should be working out now what that responsbility might entail if Armageddon came, as the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, said in his excellent maiden speech. But first and more optimistically, let us by our deeds in negotiation, the strength with which we play our hand, our leadership, our flexibility and the extent to which we remain actually concerned about and involved in Hong Kong's future seek to reassure its people that we will keep faith with them.

For its part, I hope that Hong Kong will continue to conduct itself with dignity, not interfering outside its borders but confident and fully backed by Britain inside them. Then perhaps common sense and reasonableness in the implementation of the agreement will still prevail, as we always hoped it would.

3.52 p.m.

The Earl of Bessborough

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Baroness has initiated this highly important and topical debate. I congratulate her on her speech and feel sure that my noble friend Lord Glenarthur will give her a sympathetic reply, as he did to me last week in an encouraging Answer in regard to Chinese students in this country. He said that no Chinese national would be required to return to China until the situation there was clarified. I was grateful to him for that statement. It showed the Government's human face and their generosity.

As far as concerns Hong Kong, I was very glad yesterday to attend a meeting with Dame Lydia Dunn, the senior member of the Executive Council, and the Honourable Allen Lee, senior member of the Legislative Council, both highly respected in Hong Kong and here. I have been interested in relations between Hong Kong and the People's Republic for some 25 years—that is to say, since 1963—and more closely since 1977 when I visited Beijing at the time of the return of Deng Xiaoping. That was a time, believe it or not, of euphoric celebration. I also spent some 10 days going round many factories, mainly in the industrial north and the Taching oilfields. Then again in 1984 I was there at the time of the signing of the joint declaration, and on that occasion had many high-tech discussions in the People's Republic as well as in Hong Kong.

When Deng Xiaoping returned, many of us thought that he would liberalise the People's Republic. Never did we imagine the kind of situation occurring as we have seen in the past few weeks, leading to the massacre on 4th June which shocked the whole world. It is also distressing in another way to think how some of the joint ventures and high-tech agreements which we advocated may now in many cases be in a state of limbo. As members of the Executive and Legislative Councils of Hong Kong say: Hong Kong is an economic miracle. It is twice the size of the Isle of Wight yet ranks eleventh in the league of trading nations. It is the largest container port in the world and the largest exporter of watches and radios as well as second in garments and toys. And it is of course one of the leading financial centres of the world with an average per capita income second only to Japan in Asia. It also has a most industrious people.

Although many would like to remain in Hong Kong, it is understandable in the circumstances that many people would like an insurance policy in the form of a second passport so that if the promises of the joint declaration are not kept they will at least have an alternative home. I do not feel that we in Britain should fear that suddenly 3.25 million people will flood into Britain. Many of these will want to continue living in Hong Kong which is their home. Someone has calculated how many Jumbo aircraft would be needed to evacuate 3.25 million people. At a rate of three Jumbos a day it would, I think, take eight years. Of course the immediate flood of refugees will not happen, and any who feel that they must leave, as some have already done, should find jobs in other parts of the Commonwealth as well as in Britain. They have been much welcomed in Canada and in the United States and in other countries of the United Nations. In view of their industriousness they should be welcome in many parts of the world. Am I not right in thinking, like my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke, whom we have all congratulated on his admirable speech, and also in view of what the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, said, that if in 1992 they hold a British passport they would have access to the other 11 member states of the European Community, where I believe they would also be welcome? I hope that my noble friend can confirm that.

So let us not in Britain be too fearful of what may happen. At all events I hope that more Hong Kong citizens will come here and I hope that an organisation might be set up in which people who would welcome them would also help them to find homes.

3.58 p.m.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness on the manner in which she opened her speech. She must appreciate the wide support she received from different sides of the House. Anyone listening to the debate will know that we as a country and as a House are deeply committed to the welfare of Hong Kong.

I should like to take a slightly wider angle in looking at this issue. Anyone who has been for a time in South-East Asia knows that the Chinese are astonishing people. They have enormous ability. They work hard and are people of great courtesy and cleanliness in their way of living. Secondly, they do not want to return to China. I do not know of any other people who do not want to go home. The Chinese do not. This is a feature unique to them. In some countries it is actually a punishment to send people back to the country from which they came.

China has had a bad century. I do not want to go into detail but one can look back to the days of Sun Yet-sen and the revolution of 1911 to see that the hopes of that time have wholly disappeared. The Chinese have been through a period of war. Eventually they seemed to settle for Communism, in about 1948 or 1949. That has been a failure. They tried two things: they tried the "great leap forward" and then they tried the Cultural Revolution. Mao Tse-tung agreed that it was a complete failure. Now, I am afraid that one must say that Deng Xiaoping is using the situation as a sort of smokescreen to explain their further failures.

Of course we see on television programmes that the Chinese want to enter into international trade agreements; they want the benefit of foreign technology, and so on. However, what we do not hear quite so much about—although, the people of Hong Kong know something of this—is iron bureaucracy, both ruthless and determined, which is really running China, very much, if I may say so, as it did in the days of the emperor. This is an issue which we must tackle. I say "tackle", but it is something at which we must look most closely. Nepotism, corruption and control of thought are the objects to which they are working.

I have not lost heart in the matter. I do not think that all is finished and that we can do nothing about it. I think that we can do something about the matter. That is what really matters. The wording of the treaty which we have made is outstandingly successful. I am amazed at what the Chinese have agreed to; and I am amazed at the skill, if I may say so, of the Foreign Secretary, and also that of the present Governor of Hong Kong. I am amazed that they have managed to achieve this agreement. I believe that this should be our primary effort because it is in the interests of the people of Hong Kong. They do not want to come to this country. Have we thought about what the people of Hong Kong would think living in some of our great cities? They would of course have a life; but it would be a disagreeable life for which they would not care in the least.

We find many factors in this whole issue. Some 20 years ago Chou En-lai said that all nations are entitled to fundamental rights and must not be maltreated. Was that statement cynical, or was that a willing hope in regard to that which he had not succeeded in doing? I am inclined to say that we should not exclude the second consideration. For instance, we find China ratifying the convention against genocide. Yet, two years later, Amnesty International reported that 10,000 people were executed in four months. Was that a wishful act or was it a situation that was out of control? Is that an example of iron bureaucracy working, or is it not?

I do not think that we should lose too much heart over the matter. I shall tell your Lordships why. We would like to help China on its way, and that is something we can do. After all, we have made a worthwhile treaty with China. I think that there is at least a chance that the winds of freedom could blow from Hong Kong into China. We should not exclude that possibility. I believe that if we have confidence in the Chinese Governnment in this regard, it is more likely that they will fulfil absolutely what they have undertaken to do.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Saint Brides

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, was quite right in saying during her speech that the agreement which we signed in 1984 with the Chinese was a good and fair one: that is, on the important assumption that the regime in power in Beijing would continue to be a pragmatic and moderate one which did not renege on its promises.

The crucial Chinese promise was, and is, that Hong Kong's capitalist system and lifestyle will remain unchanged for 50 years after the transfer of power, and that for a like period the socialist system and socialist policies will not be practised there.

That highly unusual, but in the Hong Kong context, very helpful undertaking is summed up in Deng Xiaoping's formula of "one country, two systems". Four years ago, in 1985, I visited Beijing with a small team from Stanford University in California. We had a longish talk with the then Prime Minister of China, Mr. Xao Xiyang. He is of course the same moderate leader who fell foul of his octogenarian colleagues over how to handle the student protests and is apparently about to be disgraced. He, and other senior Chinese officials whom we met made no secret of their belief, and hope, that after 1997, if the people of Hong Kong could be kept in a contented and co-operative mood, the colony would continue to play a key role in China's economy. They had clearly concluded—for good Chinese reasons—that this would be much more likely to happen if they gave the undertaking which they did.

Moreover, it was also apparent to the Chinese that the same formula could one day be helpful in persuading the Taiwanese also to throw in their lot with the mainland. Those two long-term pragmatic and commonsensical considerations are just as valid today as they were then for the Chinese. Therefore I see some grounds for hope in the present situation, although I am not starry-eyed about the matter.

However, we cannot disguise from ourselves the fact that on 4th June last, the regime in Beijing was finally provoked into using methods of lawless cruelty against its own young fellow citizens. The massacre of the students has, very understandably, caused the people of Hong Kong to look for reassurance from this country. We are in duty bound to provide it. Indeed, I am sure that there is no disagreement on this point in any quarter of this House. How can we best do so?

Again, like the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I can see no sensible grounds and no demand that I am aware of in Hong Kong, for us to abrogate or seek to re-negotiate the agreement. Indeed were we to do so, Hong Kong's position could well be impaired, not improved. As we all know, what most Hong Kong people do not now have, and fervently hope to be granted, is the right of abode in Britain. That is not so much because they want to exercise that right now, but because they fear that one day they may desperately need to do so.

In my view there are three considerations we would do well to bear in mind when deciding how to respond to the anxious appeals of which a crescendo is currently reaching us. First and foremost, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs quite rightly told us, Hong Kong's situation is indeed unique. Never before during the whole process of British decolonisation did we plan to hand over a sizeable number of British citizens to an uncertain destiny under foreign rule. So we should not consider ourselves as tied to precedent, or inhibited from developing special solutions to a special problem.

Secondly, on balance Britain has gained by taking in people from abroad, and enabling them to blend their talents and culture with our own. Not perhaps all, but at any rate the large bulk of immigration into this country during my life-time has been a success story of which the immigrants and ourselves can be proud. Thirdly, I believe that we have a special obligation to the young people in Hong Kong; namely, those between the ages of 15 and 25, who stand at the threshold of their careers. Their elders have already lived much of their lives under British rule in conditions of freedom and justice. Rightly or wrongly, the young people—and we have all seen their worried faces on television—fear that after 1997 freedom and justice will be denied them.

I should very much like to see a scheme or an organisation—such as the one suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough—brought into being in this instance. It would perhaps be an example of the flexibility which the Government have undertaken to show. By virtue of such a scheme a substantial number of these young people, or perhaps all of them who care to apply—and not on a once-and-for-all-basis, but on an ongoing basis over the next years—would be given the chance of coming to Britain in order to complete their education and to fill their first jobs. They would gain by recovering the hopes of a better life, which many of them now expect to forgo, and we should gain by adding a vigorous, gifted (and incidentally English-speaking) young element to our society. I believe that by encouraging generous private giving by individuals and firms, in order to fund scholarships, for instance, we could add a useful bipartisan element to the scheme. It could also include family hospitality on a nationwide scale. Some such scheme could be made flexible time-wise by phasing, and the incoming numbers could be reviewed and adjusted according to absorbability, into which a special inquiry should be made.

My Lords, as I have said, it is the youngsters in Hong Kong who form a major element in the chorus of dismay that the thought of 1997 is now triggering off. It is clearly in their minds that there is anxiety and fear. It is by easing the plight and reducing the claustrophobia of these young people whose hopes have been so cruelly dashed, that I feel we should now in the first instance proceed.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for enabling us to debate Hong Kong today. I should declare an interest in view of my close association with one of Hong Kong's largest business groups, one controlled by Hong Kong Chinese and one whose commitment to Hong Kong is total.

I should like to comment on only three of the main points, much more ably covered by previous speakers. First, on the moral question, which is loosely called the question of honour: in recent days I have been asked by many noble Lords why we should give to the people of Hong Kong something which we have refused to some of the people from our other colonies. The answer is that our disposal of Hong Kong cannot be compared with our disposal of any other parts of the empire. In all other cases, we have moved towards independence. In this case, we are giving up Hong Kong because our lease of part of the land runs out, and Her Majesty's Government can in no way be criticised for that; but it is the land that is leased, not the Hong Kong people.

Britain has no legal obligation, or moral right, to dispose of the people without taking account of their wishes. We should be conscious that we are handing them over not only to a foreign country but to one from which many themselves and their families are refugees. That is why the British Government have tried so hard to find a formula satisfactory to the people of Hong Kong as well as to Britain and China, and full credit to them. Unfortunately, recent events have caused the Hong Kong people to lose faith in that formula. We cannot salve our consciences merely by pretending that we have no legal choice.

Secondly, I wish to say a word on the issue of democracy. There are many views on how fast it is wise for Hong Kong to move towards democracy. In certain circumstances, too rapid progress could even be counterproductive. However, of one thing I am certain: it is for the Hong Kong people to decide the pace at which they want to move, and it is not for us in Britain to gainsay them. I am therefore delighted that Ministers have committed themselves to give priority to ascertaining the current views of the people of Hong Kong and have indicated that on that issue at least they are prepared to listen.

I now come to the third and by far the most important point upon which I want to comment. Here I speak not for the Hong Kong business community but as one closely involved with it. Clearly, every Hong Kong business wants to keep its executive and workforce in Hong Kong for as long as possible and, it is to be hoped, well beyond 1997. Our group alone has over 50 Chinese managers who already have a right of abode in the United Kingdom. They have had it for years. Not one of them is talking of leaving now. Other firms have a similar experience.

If our other key men go, Hong Kong cannot prosper. Of course, out of self-interest we should not be urging the British Government to give a right of entry to Britain to any of the population if we believed that that would lead to early wholesale emigration. No, the reason that we are so insistent is that we are confronted by a serious situation, not in 1997 but in the immediate future. Many of those most responsible for the success of Hong Kong are looking urgently at whether they should leave now in case they cannot get out later.

Unfortunately, the only insurance policies available today involve moving out of Hong Kong now, for example, to go to Canada to qualify for residence so as to obtain a Canadian passport. That is just what they and we want to avoid. That is why all Hong Kong businessmen urge the Government to provide a safety net now which would allow people to stay. The governor has publicly urged the British Government to take positive steps to restore confidence. Of course it is unreasonable—I wholly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on this point—to try to work out a long-term scheme for the whole population within the next few weeks, although that must clearly be the long-term aim, probably in an international context.

I beg my honourable friends to extend a lifeline now as an interim measure to the key people who keep the territory prosperous. In that category I include those with technical, financial and managerial skills. If we do not do so, I fully endorse the view of those who say that we risk an economic crisis, in one or perhaps two years' time, possibly followed by civil disorder, and long before 1997. If by 1997 Hong Kong is no longer a prosperous international centre, the Chinese Government will have no incentive to abide by the joint declaration. The goose will no longer be laying the golden eggs.

4.17 p.m.

The Earl of Buckinghamshire

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by declaring an interest. I am the managing director of a subsidiary of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. I am of course proud to be connected with that group, but the views that I express this afternoon are mine and mine alone.

The recent tragic events in China have focused attention on the problems of Hong Kong, but there has always been an inherent weakness in the arrangements that we made with China because of the tightening of our nationality regulations from the 1960s until 1981. It is that which has made it inevitable that at some time we would continue to debate what has now become the Hong Kong question.

I should like to make it clear that I believe that we should grant the right of abode to the Hong Kong people who are qualified. The difficulty that we all see and upon which we have touched this afternoon, is how we underwrite that right. Those against have argued on the grounds of practicality: how can we absorb so many over possibly such a short time? But the question is: will they all come, and what are the probabilities of that being a requirement? Is there not some way to combine pragmatism with our obligations, or, as The Times said today, honour and self-interest, can they not go together?". In terms of pragmatism, perhaps I may quote the words of my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary in his evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs earlier this year, when he said: Our objective then as now has been to secure for Hong Kong the prospect of prosperity and stability on an expanding scale into the future". I believe that there is a common acceptance of that objective. The reality of the objective is that in the past few years Hong Kong has experienced a great economic growth. But the reality is also that that economic growth will at some time in the future—we do not know when—possibly be placed in jeopardy.

As noble Lords have heard this afternoon, Hong Kong is losing skilled people. Our own organisation is losing its skilled people to Australia and Canada, and I think that the paradox on which my noble friend Lord Derwent touched is that it is the people without the security of right to abode elsewhere who seek that security, while those who have it remain behind. That point has been made many times to me by my Chinese friends in Hong Kong, sometimes quite heatedly in conversation over dinner. Hong Kong's success depends on its people. Their motivation, their confidence and their view of the success of Hong Kong is critical in the future. I have already said that this motivation and confidence are in jeopardy. The people of Hong Kong have a legitimate right to look to us. The Chinese Government, at least publicly, have said that the right to abode is a question for our own Government to resolve, difficult though that resolution may well be for us.

Since the signing of the joint declaration, the people of Hong Kong have seen a number of events taking place. They have seen the Portuguese agreement with China on Macao. They have heard about the French and, on a small scale, Italy, issuing the right of citizenship to Hong Kong Chinese people who work for their banks and industrial concerns in Hong Kong. More important, they have seen how within the Community we are moving towards freedom of movement of people within our own economic area. They see all this in stark contrast to our own existing policy. Even though in the last few days we have seen some movement within the Government, they have seen it in stark contrast to the policy which we have had in Hong Kong.

The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, in his excellent maiden speech, and other noble Lords have already mentioned that we should not forget that Hong Kong is different from all our other areas in de-colonisation. There is no question of independence for Hong Kong. If one speaks to the Hong Kong Chinese, they do not even contemplate independence. But there is no choice for the majority of the Hong Kong Chinese; the colony will revert to China in 1997. I believe that this is a unique experience for us.

Having said that, I believe that there are sound reasons for reviewing our policy. These encompass generosity and humanity, questions of legality, morality, obligations, practicality and straightforward expediency. These are all difficult areas for my noble friends in the Government to measure and balance, but they need reviewing for these reasons.

If we do not give a lead, then I believe that two events are likely to follow. One is the slowdown in the economy of Hong Kong which is inextricably linked to the economy of South China and will therefore have a poor effect on China itself. Secondly, if we talk about other countries taking part in any agreement with China or Hong Kong, I believe that where we do not lead and take up our obligations, why should others who have no obligations take up where we fail? I urge my honourable friends in the Government then to give the necessary lead.

4.24 p.m.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I rise to put a suggestion: whether it will be of any use, others must judge. What do we all wish to do? We wish to hand over Hong Kong in the best possible state. The people there want to continue with their lives in the splendid manner in which they always have. The Government of China have shown, through many years, one consistent desire only and that is that they do not want just a bit of territory littered with a number of dissident people. They want to receive Hong Kong as a fat and healthy goose, laying golden eggs. They do not want to receive just a dead bird.

Since that is so, it is clearly our duty to carry out the wishes of these people, so far as we can. The difficulty is that the people of Hong Kong have, rather understandably, lost all confidence in the Government of China. Our problem is to give them some confidence: we certainly do not wish to destroy Hong Kong.

If this were a transaction between individuals and not between sovereign states, one could see an answer to the problem. There are many times when somebody has to hand over valuable property to somebody else and finds that, through sudden serious illness or possibly death, the final recipient being a small child, the property cannot be handed over without it being destroyed. In that case, it is invariably necessary to hand the property to trustees.

I suggest that what we should now do is to seek a trusteeship group, under the United Nations, which could sit in, look over our shoulder and possibly take on some functions in the years of the run-up to the handover. I do not have enormous confidence in every single part of the United Nations, but I have far more confidence in any part of the United Nations than I have in the present Government of China. If a group could be put together, it would reassure the Chinese that everything would be in order. It would reassure the people of Hong Kong that everything was being done that could be done, and if it came to any question of there not being a Government of China able to take over, it might be possible to hand over to the trustees for a limited period.

Personally, I do not think that it would come to that because that time is eight years from now. Things are moving very fast in this world; Russia has moved enormously in eight years. The collapse of Communist economies all over the world, including that of China, is going faster and faster, and these events tend to speed up. I believe that within much less than that period of time we shall see a great deal of movement in China. The Government there have even possibly speeded up the process in attempting to switch off the steam of revolt by screwing down the safety valves. That usually leads to rather fast movement shortly afterwards. It is my belief that we shall see a great change in China long before the date that matters. In the meantime, and possibly soon—as noble Lords have said, something needs doing—we should call in all the help that we can get to help reassure the people of Hong Kong so that when the date comes we can hand over in proper form.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton

My Lords, I should like to join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for initiating this short debate. I think it is right and fitting that Her Majesty's Opposition should draw your Lordships' attention to this grave issue, in which the honour and integrity of our country are at stake. I should also like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke on a quite outstanding maiden speech. If I had known what he was going to say I might have kept my seat and shut up, but perhaps I shall say what he said a little more forcefully because mine is not a maiden speech.

Briefly I should like to support those both inside and outside your Lordships' House who believe that a British passport, issued to British citizens in Hong Kong, ought to give those people the right of abode in Britain. As other noble Lords have observed, Hong Kong is not being given independence, and I believe that it is unique among our former colonies. I think we are agreed on that. It is also unique that its people have not been consulted about the sovereignty of the land in which they live. They have no choice in the most fundamental issue of who shall rule them. At present they are part of the leased land on which they live, much as mediaeval serfs were part of their landlords' land. And though they, unlike serfs, are allowed to leave it by the landlord they have no right to go anywhere else, so it appears to come to rather the same thing.

"Britons never shall be slaves" does not apply to them. They are to be handed over in eight years' time to a state in which, as we meet here today, brave young men and women are being persecuted and judicially murdered for the crime of expressing their opinions too openly and forcefully. Even to suggest that we ought to hand over British citizens in such circumstances with their homes, their families, and everything they have, and to lock the door on them with a passport which permits no escape, is a cause of national dishonour and national shame. It is shameful that we should have come to this position. I can only hope that Her Majesty's Government will think again about what they are proposing to do to the honour and good name of this country.

4.33 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the debate this afternoon calls attention "to the problems facing the government and people of Hong Kong". Most speakers have concentrated on the two issues that have now acquired a high profile: the right of abode in this country of Hong Kong people with BDTC and BN(O) passports and the extension of democracy in Hong Kong before 1997.

I intend to leave these two subjects for further reflection over the weeks ahead when it becomes clearer what practical dialogue can be achieved with the new leaders in China. It is, however, a time for reappraisal, and I hope we shall hear that the Government are looking closely at the details of the Basic Law to see whether topics need to be opened up for reinspection again during the remaining negotiation period before enactment by the National People's Congress in 1990. I am delighted that my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary is to visit Hong Kong on 1st July.

Today I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to another difficult and vexing problem facing the government and people of Hong Kong: the Vietnamese refugees. The boat people have been arriving in ever-increasing numbers since the beginning of March, when the weather conditions began to allow the perilous journey. Most of them are economic migrants from the south and the north of Vietnam. Some are fleeing an oppressive regime, but most a bankrupt country.

More than 42,000, we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, are in camps in Hong Kong, having braved the perils of a long journey along the China coast (they call it "coast hopping"), often in open boats, until they reach Hong Kong, the country of first asylum. This concept of the country of first asylum places an immense burden on Hong Kong, an area of high density living. Where can these refugees be housed and contained sometimes for periods of up to six or seven years?

I had the opportunity of visiting Tsham Tsui Po refugee camp in Kowloon earlier this year and saw for myself the cramped conditions in which families have to eat, sleep and multiply without any vestige of privacy. The camps are sad places of wasted lives, broken spirits, exhausted hope. But they are there, and they have to be provided for.

Hong Kong people feel frustrated by this problem, I was told, and, with their own tight control of ethnic Chinese immigration, have no wish to integrate these people into their society. That is also the desire of the boat people themselves, who, in the camp that I visited, living under the flight path of the international airport, dream of getting on a jumbo to California. This is an unwelcome fallout of the war in Vietnam.

The government in Hong Kong have, since June 1988, started to classify the boat people into genuine refugees as laid down by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and mere economic migrants. However correct the asylum rules may be, they allow less than 10 per cent. of the current 42,000 to qualify for refugee status. The rest must be repatriated to Vietnam. This makes the disposal problem of genuine refugees more manageable for the rest of the world to accommodate, and success on this front should not be overshadowed by the weight of the numbers remaining.

I was assured by the immigration department in Hong Kong that the screening process would deter the remainder from setting out if they knew that the only alternative would be repatriation to Vietnam. Herein lies the problem. The fewer recognised as refugees who can be taken by other countries, the greater the number who will have to remain in Hong Kong.

The present rate of voluntary repatriation means that the problem will get worse and worse. The screening process has not deterred, the threat of being interned has not deterred, and forced repatriation is at present unacceptable. I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister whether the Hong Kong government would be prepared to be more flexible in its screening approach.

The reason why this problem must be tackled now is that, as 1997 approaches, more drastic measures may have to be taken in Hong Kong, as it is implicit in the Sino-British joint declaration that the boat people will have been dealt with. If there is to be an end to this misery and suffering it must come from tackling the problem at the source—stopping the exodus; preventing the flow. Steps are currently being taken at international level with Vietnam, America and Britain in an effort to seek the assistance of the Vietnamese government in stopping the outflow, to provide international aid to encourage a more prosperous economy, and to secure a declaration by the government in Vietnam that punitive measures will not be taken against the returnees.

More than that is required, however, to counteract the problem in the short term. China plays a part in this story by allowing the boats to refuel and reprovision in the little ports along its southern coastline. I believe that it is in the interests of all concerned that the Vietnamese and the Chinese, perhaps with United Nations assistance, should effectively police the area of the South China Sea that forms the route from Vietnam so that the boats and their passengers are returned to the starting point almost at once. That would be the best deterrent. That would save the many who would otherwise perish, and it would avoid the misery of years spent in soulless camps in Hong Kong. I ask my noble friend the Minister to encourage his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to press on with the international negotiations required to solve the problem.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Butterfield

My Lords, like so many other speakers in this excellent debate, I too should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for introducing this very important topic, and to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke on his maiden speech. I hope to hear many more speeches from the noble Lord.

My background and interest in this subject stem from 15 or 16 years' involvement in Hong Kong: first with the Government's University and Polytechnic Grants Committee, and secondly with two charitable trusts which are concerned with education and research and the arranging of conferences and collaboration between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China.

I was in Hong Kong when it became clear that we were to be involved in hostilities in the Falklands. It is a very interesting contrast—almost the other end of the spectrum. How wonderfully elated the people of Hong Kong were that Britain intended to stand by international law and act on the invasion of the Falkland Islands! Remarks were occasionally made on the side to the effect, "I wonder what would happen if Hong Kong became involved with the People's Republic of China". I have learnt enough wisdom to know that it is best to keep one's mouth closed under such provocation, and I did my best to do so. However, I wish to make the point that what we do is watched very closely in that far-off colony. I am devoted to the notion that somehow we have to re-establish the confidence of the people of Hong Kong, the colony where the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, served so ably as Governor. I liked very much the idea of the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, of a scheme offering help and hospitality here to people from Hong Kong. I was moved and intrigued by the suggestion of the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, that we needed some form of trusteeship. However, at the end of the line people will be left behind in Hong Kong. It is with them that I am primarily concerned.

I have been to China many times. On one occasion when I was on a steamship in Shanghai harbour, a professor told me that the origins of the stars on the flag of the People's Republic of China should encourage people like me who are involved in educational matters. He said: "That great big star stands for the Communist Party, which was nurtured here in Shanghai. The other four represent the workers, the peasants and the army. The fifth star is concerned with cognoscenti".

I should like to make a declaration. The trusts with which I am concerned hope desperately that we shall avoid the disappearance of that remaining, rather small, cognoscenti star on the red flag. We believe that bringing young people from Hong Kong—and in the past from the People's Republic of China—to the UK to work and study in our universities and polytechnics and to become involved in joint research projects can only increase intellectual traffic and friendship between young people. We believe implicitly that it is imperative that whatever happens we sit tight administratively in Hong Kong and continue to interview people who want to win scholarships or research projects. We believe that it is important to continue visiting the universities and polytechnics, which are increasingly strong in Hong Kong. That is perhaps the only way in which we academic folk, who are relatively impotent in these matters, can convey to the people of Hong Kong our belief in them, and our recognition of their nimbleness of wit and their nimble fingers, which are their greatest heritage. In that way we show them that we can offer them the kind of friendship and support implicit in the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough.

It is important, however, to recognise that the folk we see represent merely the tip of the iceberg. We are very conscious that below the high achievers in the academic and scholastic world there are many who are of less economic significance who we have somehow to reach and help, too, We believe that the best way to help them is in part through language. The Croucher Foundation has joined recently with the BBC and Chinese Central Television to produce an instructional series of television programmes about learning technological and scientific English. It is being shown in Hong Kong in Cantonese, and in the People's Republic in Cantonese and Mandarin.

There is a great deal of long, hard and patient work ahead re-establishing the necessary spirit among the people in that gallant colony.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Fanshawe of Richmond

My Lords, I should like to join with other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, not only on her speech, but also on her initiative in raising this important subject at this very timely moment. I should also like to join in the congratulations on the excellent maiden speech by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke.

Naturally, as a former Minister responsible for Hong Kong between 1970 and 1974, I share the concern expressed by many noble Lords today for the people of Hong Kong and about the deplorable and cruel behaviour by the Peking Government that we have recently witnessed on our television screens during the early days of this month. However, I believe that now is the moment for caution in our dealings with China. Any thoughtless move by the United Kingdom could result in Hong Kong being engulfed, not in 1997 but in 1990 or even this year.

I very much support the words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, who mentioned the defence aspects of the colony and the worrying situation that could arise with regard to security if we do not move with great care.

There is no possibility at this time of reviewing the 1997 agreement with China. Any move in that direction might seriously destabilise Hong Kong as the uproar in China can fall out on the colony at any time. Many of us will remember the events of 1967 when the Cultural Revolution spilled onto the streets of Kowloon. In addition, it is always open to a hostile Peking Government to allow mass immigration from the Guandong Province. That could immediately overwhelm the colony and cause confrontation with the provincial government, affecting food and water supplies, which are drawn from China.

Those of us who, like myself, were in China, Hong Kong, and Macau during the cultural revolutionary period in the 1960s know from first hand how swiftly China can get out of control. However, that does not mean that we should not embark on serious contingency planning immediately.

What areas do I suggest that we cover? There are two that I should like to mention this afternoon. The first concerns our relations with China itself if that great nation deteriorates again into chaos. I believe that the present hardline leadership in Peking will consolidate its control—at any rate until Deng Xiaoping dies. There is little support, perhaps regrettably, in the Chinese countryside for the students' action against the current regime. But one cannot forecast Chinese political developments.

There is one wild card. If the hardliners lose control in Peking, China could revert to the position that it has known for the past 3,000 years, except for the 40 years since the 1949 Communist takeover; namely, real power shifting to warlords in the provinces.

In Chiang Kai Shek's time, there was nominally a central government; but in practice real power lay with different warlords and their armies in those provinces not occupied by the Japanese. I suspect that there has been more "warlordism" under the Communists than has been generally recognised. It was mentioned to me the other day that it was, for instance, curious that Mao Tse-tung, after being ousted by Liu Shao Shi, could live freely in Shanghai for some years, plotting against the Peking Government, and presumably protected by whoever controlled Shanghai. There have now been reports that Deng Xiaoping left Peking for Wuhan to call together the generals and to recall the veterans of the long march who may have influence in particular provinces. If that provincial influence exists, the implications for Hong Kong could be important and possibly positive.

It is also interesting to look at the dogs who have not barked, or perhaps have only whimpered. Taiwan has publicly shown considerable restraint, but the Soviets have taken a subdued and supportive line for Peking, no doubt due to Gorbachev's recent visit. But, as George Walden—an honourable Member in another place and a distinguished parliamentarian who knows China well—wrote in an impressive article in the Daily Telegraph on 8th June: While gun law persists on the mainland, hasty change to the present delicate balance in Hong Kong could inadvertently topple the entire structure". The second point that the Government should cover is possible action on passports for right of abode in a situation of last resort, a subject which has been raised by many noble Lords this afternoon. We have a duty to live up to our moral obligations to the colony, as many who have spoken this afternoon said in the debate in this House on 23rd March. I am encouraged by the Foreign Secretary's recent statement, confirmed by the Prime Minister yesterday in another place, and we must take the lead and conduct urgent negotiations in confidence with our European and Commonwealth friends in order that we can provide succour and relief if the worst happens. That is the grave problem that faces us now and underlines the need for a deep-seated view of the action that we can realistically take, and indeed are duty bound to take, if the situation does not develop in the way that we hoped it would when the agreement was signed in Peking.

Finally, I should like to congratulate the leaders of the Hong Kong community in these dangerous times, particularly Dame Lydia Dunn's outstanding skill and leadership. Hong Kong owes her and her colleagues a great debt.

4.53 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs for enabling us to debate the position in Hong Kong at this crucial time, and for her opening speech. She discussed the major problems facing the colony, and other noble Lords with wide experience of Hong Kong have expressed their concern and made important suggestions. I should like to join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on his well informed and interesting maiden speech. We shall look forward to hearing him again on many future occasions.

My noble friend has been particularly concerned about the boat people and she made a moving plea on their behalf today, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater. That problem of the influx of refugees from Vietnam has grown over the last two years until it has reached its present crisis point. Before I come to the main subject of the debate, I would like first to deal briefly with that point. The Hong Kong Government are no longer able to cope with that problem and the Legislative Council has now refused to approve extra funds to accommodate new refugees. The inevitable result is that those who do come have to live in appalling conditions.

We are aware that those unfortunate people are allowed to sail away by the Government of Vietnam. It comes as a shock when we realise how callous and unscrupulous the leaders of some unhappy countries can be. At the Geneva conference on the 13th of this month, the Foreign Secretary said that mandatory expatriation should be introduced by October if not enough Vietnamese had volunteered to go home by then. The nature of the problem makes an internationally agreed solution essential and we hope that United Nations member states will agree to receive genuine political refugees. As my noble friend suggested, some settlement with Vietnam itself is also probably necessary, although that may not be too easy to negotiate when the time comes. However, we are not attracted to the possibility of enforced repatriation and we shall be glad if the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, will clarify the Government's policy on that point when he winds up.

That leads me to the reaction of the world in general, and of Hong Kong in particular, to recent events in China. Noble Lords with great experience have spoken movingly and have adequately expressed the views of this House. We have been profoundly disappointed. I remember our debate on the Hong Kong Bill on 19th February 1985 and the hopes that we had then that Mr. Deng Xiaoping and his Government would honour the joint declaration in letter and spirit. He then spoke of one country, two systems, as the noble Lord, Lord Saint Brides, reminded us.

Our confidence has been shattered and I hope that the Chinese Government can be made to understand that. I remember Mao Tse Tung's much publicised prophecy that, A thousand flowers would bloom in China under his dispensation. In Tiananmen Square, many more than a thousand flowers—the future hope of China—were mercilessly mown down. The immediate and natural reaction was that we, Britain, should reject the joint declaration. But, as my noble friend and others have said, we should, on reflection, wait to see what government develops in China during the next few years and whether there is a possibility that they will adhere to the agreement and keep their word about the future of Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong know China better than we do. They do not want to leave their homes, and those who have foreign passports still hope that they will not need to use them. They want to continue their lives and businesses so long as that is reasonable and tolerable.

My noble friend and other noble Lords have gone into some detail on immigration and the right of abode. That issue is, of course, central to the debate. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, will explain the Government's policy to us when he replies. We have already had a number of exchanges in this House on the subject and both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made statements upon it. My noble friend referred to what the Prime Minister said in another place on 8th June; namely, that the Government were prepared to see whether they could obtain increasing flexibility from the present rules. That point has been discussed by other noble Lords and particularly by the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, to whom we listen with great respect. He made an important suggestion about the possibility of amending the nationality Act. I am sure that the Government will wish to give very careful thought to his proposal.

The word "flexibility" has been used on several occasions. I wonder whether the noble Lord is able to be more specific about its meaning. On 8th June in this House, he said: all categories—that includes the entire range of people in Hong Kong—will have to be considered in this way".—[Official Report, 8/6/89; col. 942.] He then went on to imply that the matter might be clarified after talks with the governor. Now that those talks are over, perhaps we may be told whether the Government are able to give a definitive reply. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said, we must be generous as well as flexible. We are glad to understand that the Foreign Secretary is to visit Hong Kong next month and we wish him well on that important mission.

There has been a great deal of discussion here and elsewhere during the last few weeks about the responsibilities of the Government in these exceptional circumstances. A good deal of advice has been proffered, most of it with good will. But it is one thing to give advice; it is another to operate a practical solution. I shall come to that in a moment. For my own part I must say that, while recognising our very real responsibilities, I do not think at this time, 8 years before the agreement becomes operative, the Government can grant an immediate right of abode in Britain to 3.25 million people. These islands are small and already over-populated. To grant this right forthwith to so large a number—far more than the population of Wales—is not immediately feasible.

In my view it would be wrong, indeed it would be dishonourable, to say that one is granting a right of abode to 3.25 million people in the hope that they will not come. Because of the numbers which may be involved the problem is huge and the logistics are complex. If, in the last resort, mass emigration became essential, then the international community as a whole would need to be involved in a major planning operation.

I agree again with the noble Lords, Lord Bonham-Carter and Lord MacLehose of Beoch, that we should start talking about a possible scheme now to our partners in the European Community, to our fellow members in the Commonwealth and to the United States of America; and we should also consider whether there are any United Nations channels which might be explored. In my view it is to these possibilities that the Government should apply themselves at this time.

When I was last in Hong Kong I was taken to the border with China to observe the measures taken to deal with illegal immigrants. That problem has now changed in character because the Hong Kong Government must consider what to do about political refugees. The governor said—and I quote him—that "if there are individual special cases, then they will be dealt with individually". We must agree with that. Those who are genuinely fleeing from the terror cannot be sent back.

Lastly, what the Government can now do is to help Hong Kong along the road to fuller, practical democracy. The changed situation calls for new measures and the Hong Kong Legislative Council, whose views we must respect, have come to the unanimous view that by 1995 at least 50 per cent. of the council should be directly elected. If we carry on with our present plan it means that the installation of effective democratic institutions will be postponed until the next century. I believe that most, if not all, of us—and I include the noble Lord opposite—would like to see an effective elected council in place and working by 1997. I do not think that we need to be too sensitive to the Chinese Government's susceptibilities about democracy at this time. The people of Hong Kong have wrought an economic miracle in 40 years and they can teach other lessons as well. We must help them in every way, and specifically by advancing the date of direct elections.

We often debate foreign affairs in this House when our responsibilities on the various issues are limited, shared or in some cases vague. This is not the case with Hong Kong. As noble Lords have said, it is a unique case. It is a British colony and our responsibilities are absolute. They are heavy and difficult, and they call for special measures.

Our objective on this side of the House is to help the Government in every possible way to achieve a just solution to these problems. However, our policies must be clear. They must be practical and just, and we must seek for them the understanding and co-operation of the international community. It is in that spirit that we participate in this debate.

5.4 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I join with all those who have paid tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for providing this opportuniy to debate Hong Kong at a time when the thoughts of so many people in this country are acutely focused on the Territory and her people. The debate has once again demonstrated the experience, concern and sympathy, which your Lordships bring to bear on matters affecting Hong Kong, and has provided much food for thought.

I should like to join all those who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke on an excellent maiden speech which was full of feeling. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, I too hope that we shall have the benefit of his interventions soon and often.

What today's debate has done above all—and I hope this will not be lost on Hong Kong—is to underline the keen commitment of us all to maintain the welfare, prosperity and security of Hong Kong and all her people, safeguarding their achievements and way of life up to 1997 and beyond.

Memories of the appalling and tragic events in Peking are still at the forefront of our minds. My noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke said that all the signs were there when we watched what was taking place in Tibet, Her Majesty's Government made clear their concerns and those of this House. Those concerns were reflected clearly in remarks that I made here on many occasions to the Chinese authorities. We expressed our regret at the imposition of martial law in Tibet and have consistently urged that dialogue should take place between the Chinese authorities and the Tibetan people.

On the 6th June I made clear that the Government condemn unreservedly the indiscriminate massacre of unarmed civilians in China. Now we see policies of systematic repression, such as those described by my noble friend Lord Geddes, following in the wake of the bloody violence in Peking and elsewhere. We deplore these events just as vigorously as those which occurred on 3rd and 4th June. The whole world has been horrified by these developments, but understandably the impact has been felt most in Hong Kong.

Against that shocking background it is natural that many should speak today about ways of helping Hong Kong. It is right that we should help. As the noble Lord, Lord Saint Brides, said, it is a duty on us. Our fundamental objective is to give the people of Hong Kong a future in Hong Kong that they want and deserve.

Much of our debate has focused on what we should do to relieve the most obvious and immediate concerns of Hong Kong people: uncertainties about nationality and right of abode; progress towards democracy; the heavy burden of Vietnamese boat people. It is easy to react emotionally, to say "Something must be done" and to make superficially attractive suggestions. But we should be under no illusion. These are very complex problems and they are made a thousandfold more difficult and pressing by the outrages in China. We must find measures which offer a prospect of practical and durable solutions. When we have decided what is best, we shall not hesitate to act. However, I have to say that we shall shun "quick-fix" options which relieve the anxieties of today only at the expense of storing up chronic distress for the future. I was glad to hear the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, and indeed to have the support of my noble friend Lady Young on that point.

We cannot undo history or geography. Hong Kong's future has to take account of both. I welcome the wholesale support voiced today for the Sino-British Joint Declaration. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, and my noble friend Lord Fanshawe. With its provisions for Hong Kong to keep its freedoms and all its present systems, legal, economic and social, and with powerful international links and a high degree of autonomy, that treaty is the cornerstone of Hong Kong's future.

I noted the suggestion of the noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids, about trusteeship, but the pitfall to that idea lies, I believe, in China's views about its ultimate sovereignty over Hong Kong. That is why we have told the Chinese very clearly that we shall fulfil our obligations under the joint declaration. We insist that they continue to fulfil theirs. Not only is there a solemnly binding international obligation on them to do so, but also it is manifestly in their own interests that they should. But it would be folly to pretend that the current violence and uncertainty in China do not affect our work on the joint declaration and Basic Law. Consultations on the latter have already been suspended. We have also made clear to the Chinese Government that under present circumstances it would not be appropriate to continue normal business connected with the implementation of the joint declaration. Accordingly, the next meeting of the Joint Liaison Group planned for July has been postponed sine die. We have not acted irresponsibly in this matter, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry has suggested. We will meticulously observe our obligations with regard to consultation laid down in Annex II to the joint declaration.

In deciding the way forward—I agree with my noble friend Lord Derwent—we must be careful not to sacrifice good judgment for the sake of speed. Nowhere is this more important than in consideration of Hong Kong's future political system. I can see the attraction of the agreement that now is the time to accelerate progress towards fuller democracy. Even before the events of 3rd and 4th June, opinion on this was clearly evolving in Hong Kong. OMELCO called in May for the proportion of directly elected seats in the Legislative Council to rise to 50 per cent. in 1997 and 100 per cent. by 2003.

If Hong Kong can reach a consensus on faster progress towards representative democracy, then—I say in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn—this would be a significant development to which we should certainly wish to respond. It will be essential that the Basic Law fully reflects the views of the Hong Kong people in this as in all other respects, and that its provisions command their confidence.

But as the governor pointed out on his visit to London last week, the process of crystallising views in Hong Kong is still far from complete. We should not rush to judgment while the people of Hong Kong themselves are still digesting the issues involved. Our aim is to establish a political system in Hong Kong that we can be confident will work in the run up to 1997 and well beyond. Setting up a system that cannot last would be an abuse of our responsibility. It would be a tragic waste of the opportunity we have been offered.

To talk of continuity is to underline the importance of the Basic Law. It is not clear how suspension of consultations on the second draft of the Basic Law will affect the timetable for producing the final version. But as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said, the need to get the law right is now more important than ever. After all, that document will translate the joint declaration into a detailed constitution which will protect Hong Kong's special status. Of itself it may not give Hong Kong's people all the confidence they seek. But it is the bed rock upon which that confidence must be based. The recent events in China have thrown some of the articles into stark relief. As the noble and gallant Lord, and my noble friend Lord Ullswater indicated, stronger safeguards are demanded and we are considering now how those might be taken forward.

Together with the Hong Kong Government, we are looking urgently at ways of giving more detailed and specific legal protection to fundamental human rights in Hong Kong. One possibility would be the enactment in the territory of a Bill of Rights. The precise form of any such legislation and the timetable need to be looked at. But one merit of this approach would be to provide a codified and readily available body of law, giving very clear effect to the international covenants which already apply in Hong Kong.

Some of the strongest feelings in this debate have been expressed on the subject of nationality and the right of abode for Hong Kong people in the United Kingdom. Of course I understand why this should be a subject of the keenest concern in Hong Kong, and why Hong Kong people should be pressing for some form of assurance for themselves and their families. But as well as being an emotive issue with, as some have said this afternoon, moral overtones it is one with the most serious practical consequences on all sides, as we have discussed on many occasions, and as was so eloquently expressed by my noble friend Lady Young this afternoon. I hope that my noble friend Lord Geddes will understand the force of that argument, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, clearly does.

I have listened with care to what has been said today. However, your Lordships will not expect me to make any announcement this afternoon. But I think from what we have heard that we are all well aware of the very real difficulties which would be posed by a massive new immigration commitment for this country. Granting automatic right of abode here to all people from Hong Kong cannot be a realistic option. There may however be scope for arrangements to enhance Hong Kong people's security and indeed their confidence. What I can say is that considerable effort and indeed imagination are being devoted to finding solutions which tackle the problem.

We are well aware of the proposals for international guarantees to provide a home for all Hong Kong people and will give these full consideration, although I have to say that I do not believe that this would be a viable way forward in the present circumstances. I have noted the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, and my noble friends Lord Bonham-Carter and Lord Fanshawe on this point. Some countries are already taking significant numbers of Hong Kong people for settlement, but they also have other immigration commitments of their own. I believe, frankly, that it would be unrealistic to expect other countries to make a commitment of the order of magnitude necessary to accommodate the entire population of Hong Kong. That said, however, we shall be in touch with our partners in the European Community, in the Commonwealth and elsewhere about the developments in China and their implications for the future of Hong Kong.

To answer one point of my noble friend Lord Bessborough, once a Hong Kong British dependent territories citizen has been granted British citizenship, he would then enjoy freedom of movement within the European Community.

Let me also add that if the worst came to the worst, and the future we plan for Hong Kong became untenable—the Armageddon scenario of my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke—then, as my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary said to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of another place recently, the British Government would clearly be under a very strong moral obligation to act. If at some point in the future—although I note the comment of the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, that this is unlikely—people had to flee Hong Kong in great numbers to escape disaster, then we would do everything in our capacity to help them and I am confident that any future British Government would do everything they could to mobilise the international community to provide a response as comprehensive and as effective as the circumstances demanded.

However, while Hong Kong grapples with these anxieties about the future, it faces another very real problem now, described vividly by my noble friend Lord Ullswater. It is no exaggeration to say that Hong Kong is in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by the continuing influx of Vietnamese boat people. Recent arrivals have hit an all time record—on one occasion more than 1,200 in one day.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, has described how the burden that this has imposed on Hong Kong's resources is intolerable, in particular at a time of so many other pressures. We have been keen to help Hong Kong free itself of this burden as fast as possible, and to help in material and practical ways. That is why we have committed over £12 million to help: £6 million towards the capital costs of a new refugee centre at Pillar Point; £2 million in support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees activities in Hong Kong; and £4.5 million for emergency accommodation, including tents and huts.

We have played an active and constructive role in international efforts to promote humane and durable solutions. My right honourable friend and I attended the international conference on Indo-Chinese refugees held in Geneva last week, which marks a very significant step forward.

Generous commitments were made to resettle 57,000 refugees from the region over three years. As part of this effort Britain will take a further 1,000 refugees from Hong Kong in addition to the 1,000 we announced earlier this year.

The Philippines Government have agreed in principle to establish a regional processing centre to which all refugees in the region could be transferred prior to resettlement within three years. We have announced our readiness to contribute £5 million towards the cost of such a centre which would provide early and urgently needed relief for Hong Kong.

The conference also marked international acceptance of the reality that all those boat people who do not qualify as refugees must find their future in Vietnam. I agree with my noble friend Lord Ullswater. What could be more inhumane than the prospect of their indefinite detention in camps in Hong Kong and elsewhere? In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, the task now is to work for arrangements to enable them to return to their country of origin safely and without fear of punishment. Noble Lords will be pleased to hear that we shall be holding talks with the Vietnamese later this month—including during the visit to London next week by the Vietnamese Foreign Minister—with this aim in mind.

There has been criticism that the screening procedures in Hong Kong have been too slow and that there is a need to make them more flexible. The Hong Kong Government have recently introduced a new screening and appeals procedure which will take only three months. It is intended to screen all the boat people currently in Hong Kong within 12 months.

I hope that I have been able to show that the interests of Hong Kong are of the deepest concern to the Government. My right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary will be paying a visit to Hong Kong early next month. He will want to hear at first hand the views of the people of Hong Kong and to seek to reassure them of our continuing commitment and determination to work for their prosperous and stable future. However, I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, that for my right honourable and learned friend to visit China now would be quite wrong and entirely inappropriate in the light of recent events there.

We have been talking today about the practical challenges facing Hong Kong and our efforts to find practical answers. We all know that these are not the only factors involved. The intangible but overwhelmingly important question of confidence is also crucial to our chances of success.

Confidence in Hong Kong has taken a battering in recent weeks. It is not the only rough passage that Hong Kong has been through, but it is a severe one and like no other in its particular complications. Hong Kong has the strength to surmount it, but not without help, and not easily.

Confidence cannot be rebuilt overnight. It cannot even be built on quite the same basis as before. It will depend crucially on how China acts both towards Hong Kong and towards her own people. As a matter of plain fact, confidence cannot be as strong as it should be unless and until China has an open, stable and civilised government which finds peaceful and constructive ways of meeting its people's concerns.

That is one major reason why we have made clear our utter condemnation of recent brutalities in China, both in words and through a series of practical measures. My noble friend Lord Selkirk expressed concern about China's history throughout this century and I agree with many of his remarks. Therefore, it is right that we must use what influence we have to guide China's leaders back on to better paths. It would be wrong as well as defeatist to assume that what we do and say can make no difference. Our actions have, of course, a much better chance if they are not taken in isolation: and that is why we have concerted so closely in this crisis with other EC member states and a variety of western partners.

Our international friends can do much to help rebuild Hong Kong's confidence too. But the first and main responsibility rests with us. That is a responsibility and a faith that we are fully committed to uphold.

5.24 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. Many thoughtful and well informed contributions have been made. Different points of view have been put forward, together with specific proposals and many thoughts and ideas about the situation in Hong Kong. However, I believe that a common thread has run through all the different speeches. It is a firm determination that a fair and equitable solution should be found for the people of Hong Kong.

I hope that those from Hong Kong who have heard the debate this afternoon and those who may read about it will feel that their interests are central to our preoccupations. I believe that today's discussion has paved the way for a further debate on the definite proposals and ideas which have been put forward. We are all aware of the well known determination and vigour of our Prime Minister. Therefore, I cannot believe that she would wish the curtain to be run down on an empire with any accusation of betrayal from the people of Hong Kong. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Back to