HL Deb 15 March 1993 vol 543 cc1240-9

4.31 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows: "With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about political development in Hong Kong.

"There is widespread support in this House for the proposals put forward by the Governor last October. We sought to respond to the wish of the Hong Kong people for a greater say in their own affairs, while staying within the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Basic Law and other relevant exchanges with the Chinese side.

"The Governor's proposals represent our judgment of the right way forward for Hong Kong. But we have said from the start that we are open to alternative ideas, from the people of Hong Kong or from the Chinese side. We have had a wide range of suggestions from people in Hong Kong. The Chinese side have opposed the proposals without offering anything in their place.

"Since last October, we and the Governor have been urging the Chinese side to discuss these electoral issues with us in order to reach an understanding. We are ready to enter such discussions without preconditions. We want to see as much continuity as possible in Hong Kong's electoral arrangements before and after 1997.

"Some two months ago, we renewed our efforts to get talks under way with China. Since then, there have been intensive diplomatic contacts in Peking. It may be useful for the House if I set out the basis on which we were prepared to hold discussions.

"First, we accepted that the talks should be on the basis of the Joint Declaration, the principle of convergence with the Basic Law and the relevant understandings and agreements reached between Britain and China. The Governor's proposals are wholly compatible with these.

"Secondly, as I made plain to the House on 10th March, we told the Chinese side that the British team in these discussions would include representatives of the Hong Kong Government on the same basis as other officials taking part in the talks. Hong Kong officials have participated over the last 10 years in discussions with the Chinese side as members of the British team, including during the negotiations on the Joint Declaration and subsequently as members of the Joint Liaison Group. We cannot and do not accept what some Chinese officials have said in the last few days—that the role of the people from Hong Kong should be downgraded in discussions about Hong Kong's future.

"We received a positive response on the principle of talks from the Chinese side in early February. To help get talks started, we and the Governor therefore decided, with the advice of the Executive Council in Hong Kong, to postpone the original plan to publish the draft electoral legislation in Hong Kong's Official Gazette on 12th February. As the diplomatic contacts proceeded, we held up publication for four further weeks. But we told the Chinese side that it was not possible to delay indefinitely, given the need to pass legislation before the Legislative Council rose for its summer recess in July.

"It is disappointing that, despite all our efforts, the Chinese side were still not able to agree by 12th March to a date for talks—or even to a date on which an announcement of talks could be made. As we had forewarned them, the Governor therefore published his proposals that day. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House.

"Publication in the Official Gazette is only the first step in the legislative process. Introduction of the Bill into the Legislative Council would be a separate step. As the Governor has said, we will have to judge, in the light of developments, when to take that step. Thereafter, I am sure that members of the Legislative Council would want to discuss the draft legislation in great detail, in the light of the various alternatives put forward, before they reach a decision.

"Publication of the legislation should not make it more difficult to begin talks with China. The Bill sets out the Governor's proposals, which have been public since October, in legislative form. This does not affect the basis for talks with China, the need for such talks or our wish to hold them. We have said that if we reached an understanding with the Chinese side we would recommend this to the Legislative Council.

"We remain ready for talks at any time and I hope that the Chinese side will be prepared to settle quickly on arrangements for them. Britain has responsibility for the administration of Hong Kong until 1997. Part of that responsibility is to maintain the steady progress towards democracy in Hong Kong. We are open to discussions about how to achieve that. But the key point is that the electoral arrangements in Hong Kong should be fair, open and acceptable to the people of Hong Kong.

"The Chinese side also has responsibilities and interests as the future sovereign power. Britain and China have every incentive to work together to ensure the future success of Hong Kong. We will continue to pursue steadily the path of cooperation with China: we look to the Chinese side to do the same."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made by her right honourable friend in another place. We on this side of the House welcome the Statement. The Labour Party gave its broad support to the Patten proposals to extend democracy within Hong Kong when they were announced, though we were not perhaps quite so sure that they are sufficient to adjust what I think has been called the "democratic deficit". The proposals could perhaps have been more wide ranging, but despite this caveat we generally support them.

We also believe that these proposals should have been made somewhat earlier. Admittedly Mr. Patten delayed gazetting the proposed Bill in the hope that he could get the Chinese to negotiate; but it would perhaps have been better if the proposals had been announced during the previous governorship.

The Government here must now try to relaunch talks with China as soon as possible. It has, I am afraid, become clear that a gap has developed between the Governor, on the one hand and the Chinese Government on the other. We do not quite understand why that has been allowed to happen; nor, indeed, why relations have been permitted to deteriorate quite so far. Somehow or other they seem to have gone badly wrong almost at a personal level. That will not help the resolution of the difficulties that are to come.

As we all know, the Chinese tend to take a long-term view of things, and are prepared to wait—particularly when they do not have to wait so long, against the deadline of 1997. Our prime responsibility is to the people of Hong Kong. It is to ensure that when 1997 arrives the hand-over of power is peaceful and the transition is smooth. Our first priority now must therefore be to do all that we can to see that sensible negotiations are resumed, and resumed quickly. In so far as the gazetting of Mr. Patten's proposals ends a period of uncertainty, they are to be welcomed. At least both sides now know more clearly what they have to deal with and what they have to negotiate about.

I should like to ask the Government two questions: one of detail and one perhaps more general. I observe in the Statement that the Foreign Secretary uses the words: But the key point is that the electoral arrangements in Hong Kong should be fair, open and acceptable to the people of Hong Kong". Does the use of that phrase add anything to the present position, or is it merely meant to be declaratory of what it is? Secondly, how do the Government now see the immediate future? Mr Li Peng's speech today is not exactly promising. But perhaps the noble Baroness can give the House a more up-to-date appreciation of the immediate situation.

Finally, the people of Hong Kong must themselves be involved in the process to decide the future of the colony and their representatives must therefore have the chance fully to discuss the Patten proposals. The Legislative Council should therefore continue with its consideration of the proposals, which in our view are perhaps somewhat overdue.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I should like to associate myself with the thanks that the noble Lord gave to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made by her right honourable friend in another place. We also welcome the Statement. There are two views about what have come to be known as the Patten proposals. One view is that the Chinese response was foreseeable, indeed inevitable, and that therefore the proposals were foolhardy. The other view—the one which we take on these Benches—is that the proposals were ingenious; that they fell within the terms of the Basic Law, the Joint Declaration and of the conversations held between the two governments at various times.

Thirdly, we take the view that, if anything, the proposals were overdue and that had they been introduced 10 or 15 years ago neither we nor the people of Hong Kong would find ourselves in the uncomfortable situation we are in today. That, I am afraid, is self-evident. But, that having been said, it is a case of "better late than never". It seems to me intrinsically unreasonable on the part of the Chinese Government to demand that the proposals be de facto withdrawn before any discussion about them takes place. It seems to me equally unreasonable for them to demand that it would be improper if any Hong Kong officials were present at those talks—bearing in mind that they have been present at the talks over the past 10 years. In all those respects, therefore, we welcome the Statement read by the noble Baroness. I must say that some of us take the view that what is happening is that the Chinese Government are testing the nerve of Her Majesty's Government. I think that our more open support of the Governor in the difficult position in which he finds himself makes it more rather than less likely that talks will be resumed.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Bonham-Carter, for their welcome to the Statement. In a sense, a lot of people are being wise after the event—I do not mean those noble Lords, but many other commentators outside—when they say, as in the first view presented by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that the Chinese response was foreseeable.

The point that I made in repeating the Statement, which I shall make again now, is that the Governor's proposals on broadening our democracy have, and have always had, our full support. But we have said right from the beginning that we are ready and have always been ready to consider alternative views. The final decisions, rightly, should rest with the Legislative Council. We have said that we respect its judgment, and that judgment is obviously consistent with our own international obligation; namely, the Joint Declaration, the Basic Law.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, asked me why we did not announce the proposals earlier. That question was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. The Government's proposals were made in response to the development in Hong Kong in recent years of a wish for a moderately faster pace of democracy. The point about that is that the Basic Law does not contain practical proposals for that faster pace of democracy. It may indeed be that which is most feared in Peking. When the noble Lord, Lord Richard, asked me how we see the future, we can only say that we sincerely hope that we will have discussion with the Chinese. But as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said, it is quite wrong to try to exclude from the discussions Hong Kong officials who have taken part in the joint liaison group as part of the British delegation with the Chinese, and who have taken part in other talks, and who suddenly now become unacceptable as members of the British delegation.

I say only that in trying to resolve this very serious situation we are absolutely sincere in wishing to see a resolution which meets the needs and aspirations of the Hong Kong people, which is consistent with Basic Law and the Joint Declaration, and which indeed allows those fair elections. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that in the spelling out of the phrase "fair, open elections" there is nothing different from what we have always said in that respect. It may have been phrased a little differently, but there is certainly nothing to be drawn from the use of those words today.

4.47 p.m.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I too would like to thank my noble friend Lady Chalker for repeating the Statement. I endorse very strongly the sentiments expressed in it. When we had the opportunity on 9th December last year to debate the situation in Hong Kong and China a number of varying views were expressed. The remarks that I made on that occasion were interpreted as being in some ways critical of the Governor. If they were so critical, it was criticism of the style of his approach rather than the content of it, and particularly of his taking with him what I and others described as a Westminster approach.

In the Statement repeated today, and indeed in that made by the Governor last Friday to the Legislative Council, everything—with one slight exception, which I shall come to shortly—gave just the facts of the matter. I will not waste your Lordships' time by repeating what my noble friend said, but the efforts to have talks were to be based on the Joint Declaration, the Basic Law and understandings between the parties. The Statement then went on, I think most unfortunately, and my noble friend repeated it, that in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government and the Governor that approach—namely, the Patten proposals—was considered to be "wholly compatible". That may well be, and I am sure that that is the view of Her Majesty's Government and the Governor. But it strikes me that it was gratuitously provocative to make such a statement when everybody knew what the situation was.

Be that as it may, the situation that has now arisen is one that we all feared at the time of our debate last December. There is no excuse for the Chinese to exclude Hong Kong representatives from the talks; there is no excuse to break off the talks if they are "without preconditions". I strongly urge my noble friend to impress on her right honourable friend, and indeed the Governor, to do everything possible to get the talks under way again, basically because, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, it is the future of the people of Hong Kong that is at stake and that is what matters.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend on many matters except for one point. I must repeat a Statement made in another place and therefore cannot change the words said by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. But the difficulty we faced—I remember the debate of 9th December —was that a number of people were inclined to challenge the fact that the Governor's proposals were compatible with the Joint Declaration, the principle of convergence, the Basic Law and the relevant understandings and agreements reached between Britain and China. I am sure it was for that reason that it was written in both to the Statement and to the words used by the Governor on Friday last.

However, we should draw a distinction between the publication of the legislation and its introduction. We can only decide on its introduction in the light of subsequent developments. There is no reason why publication or even consideration of the draft legislation by LEGCO should be a barrier to talks. We know that the legislative process will take months and we hope to get the talks started. But it is absolutely right that we should be discussing the electoral arrangements in Hong Kong not only with the Hong Kong people—because it is in their interests that they should be secured for continuity in 1997—but also with China. We still hope and intend to do so.

Lord Gridley

I rise to support the Minister in the Government's proposals for dealing with the Chinese. For a number of years I have been present in countries about to obtain their independence. I have seen how Britain goes to tremendous lengths to obtain an understanding of those for whose welfare she will soon not be responsible. I cannot see what objection can be taken to a request by Her Majesty's Government that China should discuss their proposals with them.

If I may say so, we got rid of the British Empire without a shot being fired. Surely that is some credit to us. There may have been difficulties in some countries concerning the carrying out of their responsibilities after they accepted them, and they have our sympathy in that regard; but, if the Chinese know anything, they know what it is to shake one's hand over a difficulty, whether in a contract or other situation which they wish to establish with the other side. I ask that we continue in the same constructive and conciliatory manner and try to persuade them to come to the table to discuss the position. Our intentions are to obtain a peaceful settlement, of which we have more experience than many other people in other parts of the world.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for those remarks. It is only when one sits down to understand the issues in detail that one realises how much time and trouble has been taken not only by the British Government but also by the Governor, his staff and members of LEGCO with the draft proposals. I underline that they are "draft" proposals.

Difficulty will always arise when one party approaches an issue with a preconceived idea, which is what I can only conclude must be the situation over this matter. As the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said a few moments ago, it is an attempt to test out the seriousness both of the British Government and of the Governor. But as many noble Lords said, both in this exchange and in previous debates, the essential requirement is that the electoral arrangements shall be fair, open and acceptable to the people of Hong Kong. Without that, the democracy will not be the democracy for which we and they have worked. That is what must be achieved.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the approach towards democracy by Hong Kong has absorbed the interest of this House and another place, the Government and perhaps the British people for some time. That is partly because of the historic role we play in introducing democracy in countries around the world, and in part by the events we saw some time ago in Tiananmen Square and our belief that we had a duty to protect the inhabitants of Hong Kong as far as we could after independence against events which one hopes would not occur in a democracy.

That leads me to wonder whether we are not concentrating too much on the single issue of democracy and whether there is not an important bastion of protection available to the people of Hong Kong in the choice, appointment, powers and independence of the judiciary and the entrenchment of the human rights legislation that it will interpret. Without that, democracy will be a fragile barrier, since I do not doubt that it is one which mainland China could subsequently dismantle, albeit over a long time. Without democracy, it will be the only barrier to protecting the people of Hong Kong from events for which we would not wish to be responsible. Can my noble friend tell us what progress has been made in that direction and what we can look for?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I appreciate the comments of my noble friend. Of course we agree with the view that the strengthening of Hong Kong's democratic institutions is the best guarantee of the freedoms about which he spoke. Hong Kong has been much more fortunate than many other places; it is probably the most free of any in terms of press freedom in Asia. The Hong Kong Government have always taken the view applauded by my noble friend in following the pursuit of justice and ensuring that human rights are maintained, that there are existing and continuing avenues for redressing grievances arising from human rights complaints and the active role being played by the courts. That is what we should be and are doing. But that does not mean that we should not concentrate also on bringing the democratic rights to the people of Hong Kong.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in order to understand the Chinese attitude at the present time, we must be aware of certain domestic political strains between factions inside China, inside Peking, on how China's reconstruction and development should be carried forward? All those who support that reconstruction and development, in which Hong Kong has already played a part and will continue to do, must be sympathetic to that.

Will my noble friend also re-emphasise that there is and has never been any difference between Her Majesty's Government and the Governor on any of the policy initiatives since the Governor was appointed. Britain, Hong Kong and, indeed, China are lucky to have in Mr. Patten someone who is, in effect, a Cabinet Minister resident in Hong Kong to deal with these problems.

Finally, Hong Kong's economy seems to me to be well able to withstand these temporary disputes. But China must be careful not to increase the fears of the people in the street in Hong Kong at the prospect of 1997. It is in that context that I was worried by the comments of Li Peng, the Chinese Prime Minister, in his speech this morning.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I well understand the concern expressed by my noble friend on hearing Li Peng's speech this morning. To some degree we all share it. But I think it is very important to make it clear beyond peradventure that there is not, and has not been, any difference of opinion between Her Majesty's Government and the Governor of Hong Kong. Indeed, I am quite sure that if Mr. Christopher Patten were elected to another place he would no doubt once again be able to contribute to the affairs of our Government.

In relation to the domestic political strains in China, I would simply say that of course we are very well aware of them, but we are also very well aware that the enormous economic improvements in the southern autonomous region have everything to do with the favourable copying of the way in which things are done in Hong Kong. Much of China's new strength comes from the very example set by Hong Kong. That is being used both as an asset taken for granted by Beijing but at the same time it obviously widens the divide between different modes of thought within China itself.

Finally, I believe that the Hong Kong economy is indeed in reasonably good order. While the Hang Seng index may have come down now, it reached an all time high in late February/early March. We know that the Hong Kong economy continues to perform strongly, as was confirmed by Hong Kong's Financial Secretary in his Budget of 3rd March. The GDP grew by about 5 per cent. in 1992 and is forecast to rise by that amount again in this coming year.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, the noble Baroness quite rightly warned against taking too much notice of all those people who had formed their views on the basis of hindsight. That was very fair. But how would she answer the quite considerable number of very eminent members of the business community and very eminent former diplomats who forecast that this would be the situation which we would reach on the existing policies? I raise that simply as a question.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord is perhaps right when he asks why we did not see what was forecast by others. I think indeed that we did, but that does not alter the fact that it is absolutely right that the people of Hong Kong should have a full say in their own democracy. Without being given that opportunity, they would have good cause to complain about the actions of this country. Sometimes there are some very unpleasant stages to be gone through in changing a process, but they have to be faced up to. That is exactly what Her Majesty's Government and the Governor of Hong Kong are doing and are fully prepared to do.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare

My Lords, I confirm my support for the Government and, in particular, for the Governor but add how delighted I am to hear that we are actually waiting for alternative views which are simply not forthcoming. Is it not true that the Governor has to legislate if there are to be local elections in 1994 and Legislative Council elections in 1995, which I understand the Hong Kong people desperately want?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The Basic Law does not contain any practical proposals for either the local elections in 1994 or the Legislative Council elections in 1995. That is why the Governor has had to put forward the proposals to LEGCO.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I wish to raise a point of clarification. I am sorry to come back to this phrase but it worries me somewhat as to what it actually means. I wonder whether the noble Baroness can address her mind to it again.

But the key point is that the electoral arrangements in Hong Kong should be fair, open and acceptable to the people of Hong Kong". What does that mean? If it means anything it means that the Hong Kong people at some stage will be asked whether or not the electoral arrangements are acceptable. I did not know that we were getting into the prospect of tests of acceptability of these proposals in Hong Kong. If it does not mean that, can the noble Baroness tell us what it does mean?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord may be trying to make more out of that than is necessary. We simply mean that the Legislative Council, which represents the people of Hong Kong and which is elected to represent the people of Hong Kong, must have a say in this matter. The proposals must be acceptable to the Legislative Council and the whole system must be fair and open.