HL Deb 12 June 1997 vol 580 cc1043-66

7.24 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to support the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and to maintain the common law system in the administration of justice in Hong Kong courts, in accordance with the autonomy accorded to Hong Kong in the Joint Declaration.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is indeed a privilege to raise the question of the unique territory of Hong Kong in the final days of the British administration and in the presence of many of those who have shown such a long and dedicated commitment to its people.

The bequest of the British administration of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China is a thriving economy, the eighth largest trading entity in goods in the world, producing the equivalent of 25 per cent. of China's gross domestic product. The GDP per head of population is up to 207,000 Hong Kong dollars, or £16,640, for the current year. Growth rates have been at an annual average of 5.9 per cent. and are estimated for this year at 5.5 per cent. The reserves stand in excess of the equivalent of £13 billion. We have provided the framework of administration and law, within which the natural genius of the Chinese people for business and for hard work has thrived. Commercial obligations have been entered into and enforced. Law and order have been maintained. Corruption has been checked. Human rights have been respected. These are the conditions within which prosperity and freedom can flourish and be enjoyed. Historically, we have also in Hong Kong offered a haven to those escaping repression and injustice, and many of them and their descendants we leave behind.

With this record, 30th June is a moment for farewell but not for regret. July 1st is a moment for pride. We are proud of our contribution. The British traditions of fairness and justice have not repressed or exploited the Chinese people or in some way distorted their philosophy, as is sometimes claimed. By contrast, representing as they do universal truths and freedoms, British values, liberal values, have been a liberating force.

Our responsibilities for Hong Kong are not over. We have to maintain the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. A clear breach of that declaration was the creation of a "provisional legislature" in the territory. The previous Foreign Secretary, Mr. Rifkind, described it as reprehensible and unjustifiable. Representations were made by the previous government to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and in December last Mr. Rifkind announced that he had sought Chinese co-operation for an independent settlement of the question by the International Court of Justice. But nothing has happened. The first act promised by China after midnight on 30th June, no doubt in the red glare of the rockets, will be to swear in that unconstitutional provisional legislature.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, speaking for the then Labour Opposition a year ago, said that it was beyond doubt that China was breaking the Joint Declaration by setting up the provisional council. His view has been confirmed by the International Commission of Jurists, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the US Senate and, recently, the Australian Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to a commitment by Mr. Major, the Prime Minister at that time: If there were to be any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us". Now that duty falls upon a Labour Government.

The current Legislative Council, as constituted by the 1995 democratic elections in Hong Kong, is in accordance with the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. On the other hand, the Provisional Legislative Council, set up on 21st December last year by the selection of some 60 members by 400 persons appointed, in effect, by the Government of China, has no basis in law. Constitutionally it does not exist. Any ordinances it purports to pass will be illegal. If you look at its make-up you will see that the pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong, who represent 52 per cent. of the current LegCo, would now hold only 8.3 per cent. of the membership of this appointed body.

Why is it illegal? It is illegal because the Joint Declaration provided in its first annex that the legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be constituted by elections. It is illegal because the Basic Law itself, the constitution passed and approved by China, provides in Article 68 that the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be constituted by election, and Annex II of the Basic Law sets out how in its first term the council shall be formed in accordance with the decision of the National People's Congress.

That congress did make a decision, in 1990. It provided that the first council, which would last for two years, should be composed of 60 members, with 20 members returned by geographical constituencies through direct election, 10 members by an election committee and 30 members by functional constituencies. That has not been followed through. We owe it to the people of Hong Kong, the people whom Mr. Major declared would never walk alone, to demand free and fair elections, in accordance with the Basic Law and in fulfilment of the obligations of the Joint Declaration. And let no party in Hong Kong be proscribed from standing in those elections.

As the Harvard sinologist, Mr. Roderick McFarquhar, has pointed out, the notion that whispering to China regarding breaches of the Joint Declaration will have more effect than talking tough in public is a total chimera. He rightly points out that the present Chinese leadership is afraid of international humiliation before its own people. He urges that, to be effective, pressure on China must be firm, public and continual.

I urge upon this new Government that they fulfil the promises they made in opposition. If China refuses to respond to the invitation to take the matter to the International Court of Justice, then let the issue of the provisional legislature be referred immediately to that court for an "advisory opinion". That is what happened in 1971 with the South African occupation of Namibia. The consent of the Chinese Government would not be required. All that is needed is that the United Nations votes to refer the issue to that court. China, as a party to the dispute, though a permanent member of the Security Council, could not exercise a veto. An advisory opinion, although not a binding judgment, defines international law. It would marshall international censure. It is wholly unsatisfactory that we should stand by while the Democratic Party in Hong Kong is forced, as it did this week, to issue proceedings for an injunction in the courts of Hong Kong to challenge the legitimacy of the provisional legislature. Not only are the individual members of that party exposed, but the independence of the new Final Court of Appeal will be under enormous and immediate pressure.

I turn to human rights. A year ago, Mr. Hanley, then a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said that the Government were continuing to press China to ratify a range of international human rights instruments. The President of the International Commission of Jurists, the honourable Justice Michael Kirby, has since called for Britain to join the 92 other countries which signed the first optional protocol of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights so that individual citizens can appeal directly to the United Nations Human Rights Committee which monitors compliance with the guarantees of freedom of expression and of association. As Dr. Robin Fitzsimmons pointed out in an article in the Asian Wall Street Journal on Tuesday last: Dissidents who demonstrate 'illegally' or who are charged with the new crime of 'subversion' against the PRC, could appeal to the committee in Geneva and gain an international audience". In the Hong Kong courts, the common law system preserved by the Joint Declaration for the next 50 years and underpinning the commercial success of the territory is under an unexpected threat. It is the use of the English language and its place in those courts. If international confidence is to be retained, it is essential that Hong Kong's legal system functions in accordance with well tried and tested procedures. The essence of the common law around the world is that precedent will prevail. The precedents of the common law are in the English language. It is unrealistic to suppose that they can ever be translated into the Chinese language. It is obvious that difficulties may arise in the interpretation of precedents in a language which is not the mother tongue for the majority of the population.

In the criminal courts, where the liberty of the subject is at stake, there are compelling reasons why the language used should be Chinese. It is the language of nearly all the defendants and most jurors. But in the civil and commercial courts it is essential that a policy of bilingualism be introduced. That is well recognised by the elected Legislative Council, the Bar and the Law Society of Hong Kong. The outgoing British administration has been hesitant, afraid perhaps to challenge what is perceived to be possible opposition by China and ready in an unthinking way to promote the use of Chinese in all the courts.

The final LegCo meeting on this special subject has resolved to request the Chief Secretary to set up a high level body to monitor and co-ordinate the implementation of a policy of true biligualism at a speed compatible with Hong Kong's paramount interests. The proposal is that the body should be under the leadership of the Chief Secretary, with representatives of the Bar, the Law Society, the judiciary, the universities, the Attorney-General's chambers and consumers of legal services. I urge the Government to give their full support to this proposal in the few days left when executive action can be taken.

I have no doubt that the people of Hong Kong will welcome reassurances from the new Labour Administration that they are determined to uphold their interests and their freedoms. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response in that regard. The best way in which the interests of the new Government can be signalled is by the attendance of the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, at the handover ceremonies on 30th June next. But he must not be there to preside over the swearing in of an unconstitutional legislative council. He is entitled to expect, before he signals his intention of going, that the People's Republic of China will announce a timetable for the implementation of the requirements of the Basic Law for democratic elections and for the creation of a constitutional legislative council.

I am grateful to your Lordships for the time and attention you have given to this Question.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for providing this opportunity for debate. It is an important debate and I look forward to hearing other noble Lords' contributions.

There are only 18 days until the transfer of sovereignty and this Government took office only some 40 days ago. Clearly, the most immediate responsibility of the Government is to ensure that there is a successful transition. But I am sure that in this debate we can and will look further than this immediate responsibility.

For myself, there are two groups of issues which are in a tension with each other. The first is that Britain should work to use Hong Kong as a bridge into China to further its business interests in trade, manufacturing and mineral exploitation. The second group of issues is that we should continue to draw to the world's attention human rights abuses within China and how those rights are to be protected in Hong Kong once the transition is complete. I shall first say a few words about the business opportunities in China.

I have some little experience of that as I worked on oil exploration rigs in northern China in the early 1980s. The lesson I learnt was that when one is investing in China there is infinite flexibility in helping one make the investment. Unfortunately, the exploration programme with which I was associated was unsuccessful, so we never found out whether that Chinese flexibility extended to recovering the fruits of our investment. Nevertheless, that initial encouragement was certainly there.

I should like to give two very minor examples of the flexibility which I encountered. First, we had a couple of small strikes on the rig on which I worked. By "strikes", I mean labour strikes and not oil strikes. The Chinese crews refused to work. We found that we resolved those strikes very amicably with the help of the Chinese authorities. They were speedily and practically resolved and, as far as I am aware, there were no repercussions on the crews concerned.

The second example of flexibility is that on my days off I travelled fairly extensively within China. At the time that was quite illegal and I was told not to do it. Nevertheless, I thought that I knew better and off I went. As I travelled I found that I was accompanied by a series of English-speaking students who attached themselves to me and ensured that I came to no harm. No doubt these students informed others that I had come to no harm and the whole experience was completely unthreatening.

These two small examples showed me that when one is associated with a project which is benefiting China, flexibility is the order of the day. There can be no doubt that there are huge opportunities available for Britain to work through Hong Kong.

The second group of issues, as I have said, relates to the question of human rights abuses within China. Last night I spent an idle couple of hours searching the Internet for information about Hong Kong and China. I have to report to your Lordships that, apart from the immaculately presented website of the Foreign Office, there is a huge amount of information about human rights abuses in China and particularly concern emanating from Hong Kong about how that issue will affect them.

I shall raise just one of these small issues, which has also been brought to my attention by Amnesty International—that is the issue of Vietnamese migrants who, I believe, have been refused refugee status. Many of them are petty criminals and stateless. My understanding is that China does not want to inherit that problem. It is also my understanding that the Hong Kong authorities have promised that the refugee camps, or the camps in which the migrants are kept, will be cleared by 1st July. However, that is unlikely to be the case, or so I am informed. I shall be grateful if my noble friend the Minister can tell me what the fate of those people will be.

In general, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will say that the rule of law is the ultimate protection for the people of Hong Kong and that China has agreed in the Joint Declaration that its version of a socialist system shall not be imposed on Hong Kong. However, I believe that it is incumbent on the Government to do all they can to ensure that all the provisions of the Joint Declaration are met in full and that proper and verifiable reports are submitted to the UN treaty monitoring body. But I go further than that. Quite rightly, Britain will be fully represented in Hong Kong after the transition of sovereignty. The FCO mission statement, about which we have heard so much, must become a tangible working document daily guiding us in developing our relationship with China. We should never shy away from raising our concerns about human rights, while at the same time trying to capitalise on the business opportunities that are available to us.

The unique experiment of managing two systems within one country will be an extraordinary challenge to China. The way in which China handles that challenge will be critical for the future prosperity of Hong Kong and an important test of China's own commitment to human rights. I wish them well.

7.44 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, this debate represents the continuing interest in Hong Kong which Parliament has taken and will, I believe, continue to take. To begin with, I declare that for a number of years I have been an adviser to John Swire and Sons, who have considerable interests in Hong Kong.

For at least the next 50 years the future of the people of Hong Kong will, by treaty enforceable if necessary, as the noble Lord pointed out, in the international courts, be in the hands of the Government and Legislative Council of Hong Kong. Their individual freedoms and rights will be interpreted and adjudicated by the Hong Kong courts. There is in place, I believe, the means to ensure the continuing prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.

The only concerns are therefore on how it will work out in practice. I will confine myself to two aspects of this: first, the coming handover at the end of the month; secondly, the style of government which will follow.

First, the handover. I believe that we should all be delighted that China's top leadership—that is, both Jiang Zemin and Li Peng—will be attending and that our Prime Minister, together with the Foreign Secretary, will he representing Britain, along with the Prince of Wales, who will represent the British Crown. It is also appropriate that among the representatives of other foreign governments will be the American Secretary of State, Mrs. Madeleine Albright.

There will also be in Hong Kong no fewer than 8,400 journalists, all of whom will be as ready as anyone fully to enjoy the festivities (and of course I know a thing or two about how journalists can enjoy themselves) but all of whose editors will be wanting, indeed demanding, a story. Thus in the remaining two weeks before, and for an unquantifiable period after the handover, there will be in Hong Kong a large number of highly intelligent people seeking symbols, signals or tokens to interpret—and, if necessary for dramatic effect, to misinterpret—events. It may not be easy for the Chinese leadership, who have what they at least would still regard as the benefit of a compliant and supportive media, to understand this.

I believe that the position of Hong Kong is fundamentally very strong but temporarily and superficially it could prove fragile. There is one point, increasingly referred to in the press, which does worry me. That is the arrangements for the arrival of the Chinese military forces. Under the Basic Law they are there for the defence of Hong Kong. There is provision in Article 14 of the Basic Law for the Chinese military to be used in aid to the civil power to restore order, but only at the request of the Chief Executive, as has always been the case with the Governor under British administration.

In my view it is inconceivable that such intervention would be necessary under any circumstances which can be foreseen at present. Hong Kong, which is one of the best ordered cities in the world, has an extremely well trained 30,000 strong police force. The necessary advance party of Chinese military has already arrived. I regret, therefore, that it appears to be thought necessary that there should be a large scale "march in" of the People's Liberation Army at midnight on 30th June, complete with a press stand to cover their arrival. It would be still worse if these forces were to be accompanied by armoured vehicles. Frankly, that cannot be the TV image which China, Britain or Hong Kong would wish to see flashed around the world.

I now turn to the style of government. It is clear that the new Chief Executive, Mr. C. H. Tung, has the complete confidence of the leadership in Peking and that he has unfettered access to them. This is a particularly important means of guaranteeing the independence of Hong Kong under the one country-two systems formula.

China will also have two senior representatives based in Hong Kong. One will be Ambassador Ma Yuzhen, formerly Ambassador in London, who will be the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Liaison Office with a staff of some 200. The other will be the Director of the New China News Agency, whose present staff of over 1,000 is expected to be considerably reduced. The present head of NCNA, Mr. Chou Nan, is not expected to remain and he may be succeeded by Ambassador Jian Enzhou, who also, until earlier this year, was China's Ambassador in London. Britain will have a special locus for the next three years through the Joint Liaison Group.

Although there will have to be links at working bureaucratic level between Chinese authorities and the Hong Kong Government, there should be no need whatsoever for there to be any Chinese cadre pressure to be applied to the Chief Executive or members of his office. But we would be naive indeed not to assume that private, commercial and political interests, perhaps even some with allegiance to the Chinese Ministry of State Security, will not try very hard to worm their way into the heart of the new Hong Kong Government. I am confident that Mr. Tung will successfully resist this, provided he is aware of the danger.

One of Hong Kong's great assets is the calibre and integrity of its Civil Service. That integrity owes much to the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, who in the 1970s took resolute and effective action to root out corruption in the Hong Kong police and some parts of the administration. He also set up the Independent Commission against Corruption, which is a formidable enemy of wrongdoers. Conflicts between personal interest and public duty are most rigorously excluded from the Hong Kong Civil Service.

One of the few risks which I would see to the future of Hong Kong, especially as the world's third most important financial centre (and what a prize it is for China, as a third-world country, to be acquiring this) would be the introduction of the corrupt practices which have so plagued China in recent years. It is crucial that Hong Kong, and especially the Hong Kong government, is defended against this. From this it follows that there must be the closest links and mutual confidence between the Chief Executive and the Hong Kong Civil Service.

Hong Kong is extremely lucky to have as Chief Secretary and head of its Civil Service someone of the talent and dedication of Anson Chan. And although, during these twilight weeks when she has been working for the Hong Kong government while it has been under British administration, it may have been difficult to forge the close partnership between Mr. Tung and Mrs. Chan which will be crucial, I hope it can be established from the beginning of next month.

Then there is the role of the Legislative Council. I agree that it is a pity that the "through train" did not apply to all members of the elected council. However, we should at least be glad that 33 of them are members of the new, nominated LegCo.

The final safeguard for Hong Kong's people is the judiciary. Everyone is delighted at the appointment of Mr. Andrew Li as the new Chief Justice. A member of one of Hong Kong's most distinguished families and a former member of the Governor's Executive Council, his reputation for impartiality is equalled only by his proved ability.

The perpetuation of the independence of the judiciary, based on the constitutional position in the United Kingdom, was one of the great achievements of the 1983–84 negotiations for the future of Hong Kong. That the resulting agreement was so good is a great tribute to my noble friends Lady Thatcher and Lord Howe, with their insistence that to be recommended to the British House of Commons any agreement negotiated in Peking must first be acceptable to the people of Hong Kong.

Finally, I would like to say a word of tribute to the last Governor of Hong Kong. I believe history will judge that Mr. Patten has served the people of Hong Kong, and thus the interests of China, well. He has ensured that after Westminster loses its 150 year-old role as the ultimate guardian of Hong Kong's rights and freedoms, the people of Hong Kong are in a much stronger position to speak for themselves.

I returned from Hong Kong yesterday. On Tuesday, an ordinary lower middle class Chinese man said to me, "It will all be OK. The eyes of the world will be on Hong Kong. China will do nothing bad to us." To me that is the real epitaph on Mr. Patten.

7.53 p.m.

Baroness Dunn

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for the opportunity to contribute in this House my brief thoughts on Hong Kong for the last time before it ceases to be a British territory. As the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said, the means and the safeguards are in place to ensure that Hong Kong's rights and freedoms, and the rule of law, will continue. However, the question that goes on nagging so many commentators, particularly in the western world, is: will it all fall apart once the British have gone?

Normal pressure group activities in Hong Kong, an everyday occurrence in any civilised society, are reported as widespread discontent. Innocent comments by Hong Kong's political leaders are scrutinised for nuances to support the thesis that they are China's mouthpieces. The media play up proposals to modify the public security ordinances, but they play down the changes to those proposals resulting from public consultations. They tell us of friction between senior civil servants and the new Chief Executive, but they rarely report civil servants' repeated public pledges of loyalty and support. Far-fetched and irresponsible conclusions are drawn with little or no basis.

Those pessimistic pronouncements remind me of the character in Anthony Trollope who had predicted evil consequences and who then did his best to bring about verification of his own prophecies. Your Lordships will understand how deeply unsettling it is for Hong Kong's people to read such downbeat predictions about their future in the overseas media.

The reality is very different. Hong Kong's stock and property markets are at an all-time high. Hong Kong people who have emigrated to Canada and elsewhere are returning in droves. Hong Kong's economy continues to be the envy of the western world, growing at over 5 per cent. per annum in real terms. The auspicious list goes on and on.

Of course, it would be naéve to suggest that everything will be smooth sailing; nor is it realistic to think that the Hong Kong of tomorrow will be exactly like the Hong Kong of today. The new Chief Executive and his team of advisers will have a crucial role to play in providing leadership to Hong Kong and advice to China. They will have to establish their credibility with the public by clearly demonstrating that they will exercise a high degree of autonomy within the framework of the Basic Law fearlessly and in the best interests of Hong Kong. They will need to establish a close working relationship with Hong Kong's well respected Civil Service, the morale of which has understandably taken a knock in recent months. The Civil Service has a proud record of professionalism and honesty. It is a pillar of Hong Kong's success. It has greatly contributed to Hong Kong's stability. Its members need to be assured by the incoming administration that their service under British administration will not be held against them, that they are trusted, that their professional judgment will be considered seriously and that their integrity will be protected. Those tasks are difficult enough without constant sniping by the media and fireside critics who have no responsibility for the fate of the 6 million people of Hong Kong.

My essential point is this: for the very first time in the history of this remarkable community, Hong Kong people have the opportunity to assume the role of governing Hong Kong's internal affairs. This is a turning point. Hong Kong's people will need time to develop their own style. They will need time for the new systems to bed down. They will need time to develop a relationship of mutual trust and respect with their new sovereign.

Britain has done much to put in place arrangements to enable Hong Kong's way of life to continue. The goodwill and support of this House is always a source of comfort and assurance. But the time has come for Hong Kong people to assume responsibility for their own affairs, and they should be encouraged to do so. They should be encouraged to resolve differences where they exist in their own way, to seek consensus wherever they can, and to seek unity in purpose and vision.

What has been built in Hong Kong from the magic mix of British administration and Chinese entrepreneurial energy and flair is a unique society. When the British flag comes down at midnight on 30th June Britain can feel justly proud that it leaves Hong Kong in good shape with a self-confident community that assumes responsibility for its internal self-government. There is no doubt in my mind that Hong Kong people will rise to this challenge with courage. Let us wish them well and give them our blessing, and let us root for their success.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, this debate gives me the opportunity to thank the Government and people of Hong Kong for inviting me and my wife to visit that jewel of the Far East. I do so most warmly. My wife and I spent five days in Hong Kong just after Easter of this year. Both of us found it enjoyable, interesting and very rewarding. We learned a lot. I was particularly impressed by the Hong Kong civil servants with whom we had meetings. Apart from their warmth and friendliness, I was impressed by their obvious ability and professionalism. I also had meetings with business leaders and was impressed by their entrepreneurial zeal and investment plans for the future—not only investment in Hong Kong but also in mainland China. I also met British diplomats and the General Officer commanding the Hong Kong garrison. I was impressed by their professionalism and frankness in answering my questions.

This debate is about human rights. The opening speaker dealt mainly with classical human rights, that is, the right of freedom under the law, free expression, democracy and so on. I am surprised to learn that the English common law can operate only in English. I would have thought that the principles of English common law would be susceptible to translation into every language in the world. I should like to strike a slightly different note and emphasise the basic rights of human existence: the right to decent housing and the right to the means of sustaining life.

During my visit I was fascinated to learn that during the late 1940s and early 1950s the population of Hong Kong rose from about 600,000 to 3 million in the space of 18 months to two years, and that as a result of a serious fire in a refugee or resettlement camp a major programme of public housing was introduced. It is of interest to reflect that the proportion of the population of Hong Kong then living in public housing was probably higher than in our major conurbations of Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and London.

Two particular aspects struck me about the Hong Kong situation. One was the apparent direction of Hong Kong Government policy to withdraw from public housing. The other was the apparent lack of adequate pension provision for the vast majority of the Hong Kong population. In this country over the past 20 years we have had experience in both areas. The Government in this country have reduced investment in public housing and encouraged the selling off of public housing assets under the right to buy policy. The same Government have also allowed the value of old age pensions to be eroded over the period. One knows that the result of those policies has been an increase in homelessness, due mainly to repossessions because of unforeseen repair bills, massive reductions in income because of loss of jobs and matters of that kind, and poverty in old age. Of course, it is not right for us even in this august Chamber, to lecture the people of Hong Kong on how to run their affairs. However, I hope that they will learn from our experiences in those two areas of public policy and thus try to escape some of the pitfalls into which we have fallen.

I hope that the new Government will build a constructive and positive relationship with the Government and people of China which in the long run will enable us to have influence with them and assist the people of Hong Kong to maintain close links with the rest of the world and also integrate with mainland China.

It is apposite in this House to discuss two elements of the historical perspective. First, I refer to the remarks of a late uncle of mine who took a great interest in Chinese affairs. When I asked his view on what had happened in Tiananmen Square his response was that the Chinese leadership had grown up in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s when the whole of China was a seething maelstrom of disorder. They were terrified of that disorder and the disintegration of the Chinese nation, and the whole of their political life had been shaped by it. That was a salutary message to me. It was not an excuse for what had happened but an explanation of it. Secondly, I believe that recently a film has been made based on what is generically known as the Chinese opium wars. I may not be a very good student of history, but I was amazed to discover that campaigns were mounted by British armed forces to protect capitalist entrepreneurs who were selling opium to the Chinese people. If one thinks of that in the modern context one is absolutely horrified. Therefore, in a historical context, compared with that portrayed over the past 20 to 50 years, Britain's involvement in Hong Kong is not a completely rosy picture.

I hope that as the new Government ascend through their learning curve they will also recognise the lessons of history and relate to the Government of China on the basis of mutual understanding not only of the historical perceptions of our two nations but the possibility of peaceful progress and development with Hong Kong, not just as a jewel sitting in isolation in the Far East but as a gateway for the rest of the world into China and a gateway for the whole of China to the rest of world.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be able to take part in what has been rightly described as the last debate of this kind on Hong Kong under British jurisdiction to take place in this House. I hope that the House, and, in particular, the Minister will forgive me if I have to depart before the conclusion of the debate to catch up with a long deferred engagement. I am privileged also to follow the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, who drew our attention to the lessons of history with regard to Hong Kong and China. I recollect one particularly vivid fact. It is that my opposite number Wu Xuequian, the Foreign Minister with whom I negotiated the Joint Declaration, was separated from his wife and sent into the countryside to work on the land for several years during the Cultural Revolution. That, too, is part of the background to which the noble Lord referred.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, to whom we are grateful, in describing Hong Kong's achievements as those of an historically unique society, and as a magic mix, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, said, between two distinct and ancient cultures, with tremendous achievements. It was a great privilege for me to play any part in helping to negotiate, with a marvellous team of governors and ambassadors, starting with the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, and going through governors Youde and Wilson and ambassadors Cradock, Evans and McLaren, the production of the Joint Declaration which the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, signed in December 1984 on behalf of us all.

If I were required to identify one guiding principle in that negotiation I hope I shall not be counted egocentric when I identify a metaphor of my own when I said that it was as though China and Britain were engaged in running a relay race together in which we had to hand over at the critical point not a baton, but something of enormous value—a relay race run with a Ming vase. Within five years the agreement that we had hammered out had proved astonishingly successful as a means of withstanding the buffeting of the tragic events in Tiananmen Square, proving itself to be an agreement for bad times as well as for good, and remaining the foundation for subsequent agreements.

There was the most remarkable agreement to be laid upon that within 12 months of Tiananmen Square. It was arrived at between my noble friend Lord Hurd and his then opposite number Qian Guichen, and embodied in the Basic Law for the progressive extension of democracy in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, as the noble Lord said, of 60: 20 in 1995 to be elected; 24 in 1999 and 50 per cent. in 2003.

It is remarkable that the relationship proved so strong that that could be agreed between the two governments within less than a year of Tiananmen Square. So was constructed the through train (a continuously evolving LegCo, designed to carry the Ming vase over the historic frontier of 1997). I am not now proposing to review the events since then, still less to apportion responsibility for any mishaps along the way, but to come straight to the present position: it must be acknowledged that the position as it is today is not as it was foreseen by Wu Xuequian and myself in 1984.

We did not visualise the competing existence of two Legislative Councils, both in due course due to disappear. We did not visualise a situation in which the last British appointed governor should have little, if any, contact with Chinese officialdom for probably four years—a situation in which the chief executive designate and the outgoing governor are barely in communication with each other. The latest miracle of that unique society is that it has been so little disturbed by those features that it remains optimistic about its own future, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, described.

How has that been achieved? I think it is because most, if not all, alas, of the key institutions and features that we needed are firmly in place: the economy, the separate currency, the budgetary system, and the financial institutions are prosperous and confident. The laws of course require work still to be done to them, but the laws, the administration (local and central) the legal system, the judges, including the newly appointed Chief Justice, Mr. Andrew Li, to whose appointment we all pay tribute as an outstanding one, are there. Alongside all those institutions there are the people who matter: a Chief Secretary of distinction and integrity, Anson Chan, and all her senior colleagues. Again, I endorse the tribute paid by the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, to the quality and dedication of the civil service.

Last but not least, Hong Kong has enjoyed the benefit of two successive chiefs of high ability, intelligence, sense of duty and integrity, one of them being my most talented and experienced colleague in British politics. I spoke at the last meeting of his, alas, unsuccessful election campaign in 1992. He has been there since his appointment in that year. He is to be followed by one of Hong Kong's most distinguished world-respected citizens with, as my noble friend Lord Marlesford pointed out. real authority and influence in Beijing—Mr. Tung Chee Hwa.

Hong Kong must count itself fortunate. Any democratic society would surely be grateful to have had available the service of two such distinguished people. My only sadness is that their service has not been concurrent—literally running alongside each other: running the relay race together and in step—but very largely consecutive; and, alas, not as fellow drivers of the through train with the Ming vase safely aboard.

Yet I retain my optimism about the future of Hong Kong. What are the features that justify that that will secure her continuing success? The first is the response of the People's Republic of China to the extraordinary challenge identified by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby: the manifest determination of Chinese and Hong Kong leaders to achieve, in self interest and for the sake of self-esteem, the success that they want to achieve. The second is the appointments that have been made of the Chief Executive, the Chief Justice, and the rest. The third is the sustained determination of the Hong Kong people themselves, not deterred by the past 40 years of political uncertainty. Nor will they be deterred in the days and months of possible uncertainty ahead.

I endorse strongly what the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, said about the part that can be played by the world's media in commenting upon these matters. Of course they are entitled to comment and report freely, but responsibly and not in such a way as to create prophecies which will be self-fulfilling.

What more is needed beyond that for success? Most important of all, Chinese understanding, to the fullest extent, that Hong Kong's success depends as much on the continuity of political and social institutions, rights and obligations, as on the economic factors of Hong Kong. Indeed, they are probably more important than the economic factors in the last resort.

In that context—here I join hands with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford—what is needed is the speedy implementation of the Chinese pledge that the provisional Legislative Council will soon abolish itself, and proceed, as swiftly as possible, to the re-election of a Legislation Council, broadly on the basis agreed with my noble friend Lord Hurd, and that, in accordance with Article 26 of the Basic Law, the rights of all Hong Kong residents to seek election will be safely guarded. That is the key question. Will all those who were formerly travelling as elected members on the earlier edition of the through train be free to resume that role in the elections that I hope will soon take place?

What role, finally, for Her Majesty's Government? In that context I congratulate Mr. Robin Cook, on his arrival at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—not an easy perch but a perch with huge challenges. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, on her appearance at the Dispatch Box, in this role on his behalf. I wish them both very well in a fascinating task.

I recognise that some features of the ceremonies that will take place at the end of the month will be less well integrated than some of us would have hoped. Ex-President de Klerk and President Mandela will probably go down in history as having managed the transition a little better at that ceremonial moment. It is important to keep the ceremonial differences to the minimum. It is good news, as the noble Lord pointed out, that both countries will be represented by their senior leaders, alongside each other at the ceremonies. It is important for the sake of Sino-British relations, for the sake of Hong Kong itself and, above all, for the people of Hong Kong, that Her Majesty's Government should now re-establish the continuity and confidence in relations between the two governments. There are many reasons to regret the change of government which took place in this country on 1st May, but here at least may be one area where the change of the political cast can provide an opportunity of help in the future towards restoration as quickly as possible of that confidence, which is so important.

I wish the noble Baroness and her colleagues well in this task. As one who cares passionately about the future of Hong Kong, and about Sino-British relations only second to that, I also wish the people of Hong Kong everything they wish for themselves in the years ahead.

8.20 p.m.

Lord MacLehose of Beoch

My Lords, there is little for me to say. Two of the people I respect most in the creation of the modern Hong Kong are the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon. He negotiated the Declaration, which was a fantastic diplomatic achievement. He was helped by the late Sir Edward Youde and the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn. I am sorry that the noble Lord is not here tonight; he is looking after the electricity supply in the Orkneys. The noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, was a senior member of the Executive Council and took a leading part in the negotiations, not directly with the Chinese but in advice to the government.

I feel humble in following those two contributors to the debate and I am greatly relieved to hear their optimism. That optimism is clearly based on the same features, which encourages me about the future. Much as I love Hong Kong, I realise the anxiety of many people and wonder what we can do about it. I have a horrible feeling that, unless we are very careful, what we shall do is to start this great new experiment with a major row about the Provisional Legislative Council. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, seemed to speak with a strong brief on the subject.

The last time that the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, spoke in this House he begged the Government to face realities in Hong Kong. One of the realities to which he referred was the fact that the provisional legislature would come about. There was no way it could be stopped. I was very pleased that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, explained that the provisional legislature was not something to be frightened of. It consists of some extremely good people who were members of the previous legislature. Its role is to extinguish itself by passing legislation for an elected successor. That is not something to have an enormous row about. I cannot follow the legalities, but it does not seem to me to be anything like as bad as the media and some people in Hong Kong make out.

Anyone who has much to do with Hong Kong is inevitably asked what will happen and will it all fall to pieces. The noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, answered that question in her own way. My way is to say to anyone who asks, "Go to Hong Kong and look around you. Do you really believe that people who can achieve a city of that kind are incapable of managing their affairs and achieving a working relationship with China?". After all, the odds are very much in their favour. Their links with China—commercial, financial and of blood—are close and extensive. Yes, the residue of emigration from China and memories of what has happened in China worry people; they are bound to. However, the population of Hong Kong will find it easier to adjust to a new relationship with China than appears to us here.

It is a unique place in the world and I very much hope that we will not lecture it about what happens there. Our way of doing things is so very different from that of the East Asians, although of course we have a continuing responsibility to ensure that the terms of the Joint Declaration are implemented. We will have to do that firmly if necessary, but, it is to be hoped, discreetly with no return to the mega-diplomacy which occasionally broke the surface in recent years.

Subject to that, prospects in Hong Kong are very good. The economy is right, the relationship of the SAR with China—sadly, not of the British Government with China—can be good and is good. The same applies to relationships with individual members of the community in Hong Kong. So long as the economy—an important aspect of Hong Kong's future—holds up and is linked to the level of world trade, the prospects for these delightful people are very bright. I am extremely glad to think that people such as the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, will continue to play a major part there in one way or another.

Finally, I wish to emphasise the extreme importance of the quality of the public services in Hong Kong. I have served in six different countries and, as far as I am concerned, their quality has not been equalled anywhere. There has been a great deal of anxiety about a through-train of the legislature. I believe that what matters most is a through-train of the public services and, happily, I understand that there have been few defections. Most people are staying on with a degree of excitement to work for the SAR in the same way as they worked for the colony of Hong Kong. They are apolitical and highly professional, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell. Happily, they are clean in their dealings with the public. So long as they and their confidence are maintained, the future of Hong Kong will continue to be bright.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, like other noble Lords this evening, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for introducing this debate at this timely moment. Like the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, who has just spoken, I find that there is very little for me to say. I believe that my speech will be reduced to a number of questions to the Minister.

First, is the Minister able to confirm that the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister will attend the handover ceremony but that he will follow the lead given by the American Secretary of State, and not attend the swearing-in ceremony and thus legitimise the provisional legislative council?

On that subject, I wonder whether the Government have had any contact with our European Union partners to see what is their attitude to that swearing-in ceremony. Will they follow our lead on that? I should be particularly interested to know what is the attitude of the French Government to that because the President of France, M. Chirac, has only just returned to the upright position following a visit to Peking in the pursuit of Airbus orders.

The question of the provisional legislative council has been covered very well already by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. I support him on that. I ask the Minister whether the Government believe that the Joint Declaration has been breached in any way. If so, will they state that very clearly, both in public and in private, to China?

I hope also that the Minister will take the opportunity this evening to confirm that the Government will press for early elections to a properly-elected legislative council, earlier rather than later, in the one-year period which is presently envisaged.

The Question this evening relates to how we can best protect Hong Kong after the hand-over. I should like to touch on that very briefly. When Hong Kong is talked about in certain quarters, there is a tendency to simply shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, we cannot do anything about it. China will do as it wishes". I do not think that that is right. If we accept that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is action that we can take, if necessary, to ensure that Hong Kong receives the deal to which we put our name on its behalf.

If China does not wish the Hong Kong question to be internationalised, that is a very good reason for internationalising it if the case arises. We should not be frightened of doing that. In March of this year, the US Congress passed a resolution authorising the President to impose trade restrictions if China does not honour its promise. That is a fall-back position which I hope will not arise. Nevertheless, it gives some kind of weapon to the international community with which to support Hong Kong. Again, I stress that that is what we are asked to consider this evening in the Question before us.

Lord MacLehose of Beoch

My Lords, what good does the noble Lord think that sanctions on China by America would do for the people in Hong Kong? Surely it would ruin them.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I agree that sanctions should be very much an instrument of last resort and would be very difficult for Hong Kong. But the real point is that there is action that the international community should be able to take if the need arises. I very much believe that it will not. Nevertheless, I do not believe that saying that we cannot do anything is a valid way in which to tell Hong Kong that we shall be looking after its interests after the hand-over.

After all, China wishes and needs to become a full member of the World Trade Organisation. It wishes to host the Olympic Games at some stage in the future; and I hope it does. All those are perfectly legitimate aspirations. But I believe that they come with a price tag. China must understand and accept the constraints of interdependence with the outside world. It must recognise that it must play by the rules of the international game and abide by the guarantees that it has given to Hong Kong, jointly with us.

I conclude with two questions, one of which has been touched on already by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. Will the Minister tell the House what is the state of play in relation to the reporting on human rights to the United Nations under the Human Rights Convention and the Civil and Political Rights Convention? I do not know how that obligation to report will be fulfilled.

Finally, is it the Government's intention to implement the promise made by the previous Administration to report to Parliament at six-monthly intervals on Hong Kong covering the Joint Declaration with special reference to human rights; and that those reports will continue until at least 1st January, 2000?

8.35 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I am in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, this evening that it is difficult to add to the expertise that we have heard this evening. If the noble Lord can add little with all his expertise, knowledge and experience, I can surely add nothing more than a relatively young man's view of Hong Kong's future.

I agree that this debate has rightly struck a note of optimism. There has always been much firmness, strength of purpose and unity in your Lordships' House and another place on the subject of Hong Kong's transfer to China. As we have seen, many of your Lordships have a keen and often personal interest in all matters relating to Hong Kong and certainly your Lordships' House has played its part in writing one of the last chapters about the British presence in the region.

There is consensus to set a smooth and successful transfer of sovereignty. That consensus is underlined by the Government's continuity of policy. Hong Kong remains one of its highest foreign policy priorities, and that is reflected in the expressions of confidence in the work of the Governor, a sentiment which I fully endorse. His outstanding stewardship, his vision and courage in resolutely standing up for Hong Kong and its interests have been second to none. I hope that we shall hear from the Front Bench opposite that that means that there will be no lessening of Britain's commitment to Hong Kong in its new guise as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. I hope that Britain will continue to be committed to its stability, prosperity, the support of its representative government, its rules of law and, of course, its rights and freedoms.

The paramount importance of the interdependence between China and Hong Kong was recognised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, of which we have heard much this evening. In that international treaty, registered with the UN, there is a remarkable series of detailed and binding arrangements which were laid down to guarantee key issues—the rule of law and the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people—in exchange for Chinese sovereignty.

As a result, Hong Kong will and must continue as an international business centre with complete financial autonomy. It needs to continue to have its own government and legislature composed of Hong Kong people. Its capitalist economy, freedoms, currency, customs, legal systems and its financial markets must, and I hope will, remain intact.

As we know, it will continue to be a member of many international organisations from the WTO to the IMF and will be able to develop its own economic and cultural relations. Its cosmopolitan way of life will remain unchanged for 50 years beyond 1997. That was the debt of honour owed to Hong Kong by Britain and the Joint Declaration pays it. It underpins the important Chinese principle of one country, two systems and of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong. It is a framework within which the people of Hong Kong can continue to build on their achievements and can work for a secure and prosperous future.

The Joint Declaration was welcomed in 1984 both in Hong Kong and internationally as the best achievable basis for a secure future for Hong Kong. Its success in that regard has been demonstrated by the fact that the predictions of media prophets of doom, who have been referred to this evening and who foresaw the imminent economic death of Hong Kong have been proved to be utterly without foundation.

Together with the Joint Liaison Group, it has been the cornerstone of British policy since its origin 17 years ago and I am glad to say that it will continue to be so under the new Government. The Joint Declaration is a staggering achievement and it is an honour for me to pay tribute to all those who shaped that document, not least noble Lords present this evening and, notably, my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon.

Central to the topic of today's debate, the Joint Declaration is unambiguous in its vision of the upholding of the rule of law and the protection of the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people. There is strong recognition that the only vehicle for a successful and prosperous future is freedom under the rule of law. The nexus of agreements of laws and treaties, rules and regulations covers almost every sphere of human activity and reflects Britain's greatest and most enduring legacy to Hong Kong and its future success; that is, the rule of law.

The Joint Liaison Group has worked hard to ensure that there will be judicial continuity—the independent exercise of judicial power, the fair appointment of judges—and that the work of the courts will remain free from political interference. The JLG has worked hard to ensure domestic autonomy and jurisdiction of the final Court of Appeal which will replace the Privy Council. This creates legal history in Hong Kong, by allowing it to have its final appellate court within its territory for the first time.

I echo the sentiments expressed by my noble and learned friend Lord Howe, who referred to the appointment of Andrew Li last month as first Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal. It was greeted enthusiastically by all sections of the Hong Kong community. I am sure that your Lordships' House will join me in wishing him well as he undertakes the pivotal role that he will play in navigating the Hong Kong judiciary into the next millennium and, above all, in ensuring that existing rights and freedoms are safeguarded by the fair, efficient and independent administration of justice. The JLG has also worked hard to ensure that Hong Kong's laws will be consistent with the Basic Law, and some 150 United Kingdom Acts have been localised in full consultation with the Chinese. Therefore, by 1st July. the Hong Kong people will possess a comprehensive body of laws which owes its authority to its own legislature.

In the last two minutes available to me, I should like to concentrate on what the Government need to do. The Government face diplomatic minefields ahead.

Politically, ethically and economically the British Government, as co-signatory to the Joint Declaration, with 3.5 million British passport holders resident in Hong Kong, our 12th largest export market, must keep the emphatic promise made by the government of, never allowing Hong Kong to walk alone, after the handover. Britain's Consulate-General in Hong Kong is its largest in the world. It is a physical symbol in bricks and mortar of our continuing commitment to Hong Kong, which cannot and does not end with the transfer of sovereignty at the end of this month.

Having tasted democracy, Hong Kong expects nothing less than open, transparent and accountable government. Public demand for the democratic process to stay on course and develop after 1997 will be irresistible. I should, therefore, like to know the Government's policy towards the provisional legislature after the handover. I should particularly like to hear answers to the admirable questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

In his opening address to the Legislative Council last year, the Governor laid out a series of eminently sensible benchmarks by which to judge events in Hong Kong after the handover. These benchmarks provide a standard by which the human rights performance as well as the legal and judicial autonomy can be measured. I urge the Government to adopt and apply them and to make a firm guarantee that action will be taken if China fails to meet them.

The Government admirably put human rights at the heart of their foreign policy. They correctly point out that China's modern dynamic economy is paralleled by a very unmodern, static attitude to human rights which is sometimes inappropriate for a member of the United Nations. They have indicated that policy towards China will not be one of economic exclusion or cultural isolation, as these options will not be the best way to influence China politically, as the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, stated in his intervention. However, there is an inherent tension in that policy. With Hong Kong in mind, I must ask how the Government will seek to walk the fine line between non-isolation of China and appropriate action taken in protest at human rights violations.

In conclusion, I should like to take this opportunity to wish the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, who will be in Hong Kong for the handover, a very successful trip. This debate has turned on Hong Kong's future. For 17 years, the Joint Declaration has ensured that no gamble has been taken with the lives of millions of Hong Kong men, women and children. The Government must ensure that that continues to be the case through the implementation of the treaty. June 30th 1997 is one of the key dates of this century, a date imbued with both past and future significance. It represents a leap of faith for Britain, for China and for Hong Kong. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what part the Government will play in ensuring that that leap of faith is vindicated.

8.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for providing this opportunity for debate. This House has always paid close and particular attention to developments in Hong Kong. The affection for, and understanding of, Hong Kong shown by all sides of the House this evening is testament, if one were needed, that Hong Kong will not be forgotten after 30th June.

I should like especially to welcome the contributions made by the former distinguished Governor of Hong Kong, the noble Lord, Lord MacLehose, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn. If I may say so, the noble Baroness's elegant, persuasive and very wise advocacy is a reflection of her deep knowledge of Hong Kong and her continuing engagement in developments there.

There are 18 days until the transfer of sovereignty, which the Prime Minister announced yesterday he intends to witness personally. It is only a little over 40 days since this Government took office. One of our first actions was to confirm Chris Patten in his post as Governor until 30th June. He has done, and is doing, a tremendous job and he enjoys our full confidence.

As many noble Lords have noticed, events are moving at a tremendous pace. When I first spoke on Hong Kong in this House, I said that achieving a successful transition was among the heaviest and most immediate overseas responsibilities placed upon the Government. Since then, we have seen the 40th plenary meeting of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, the last before the handover, and numerous other contacts with China at all levels to ensure, as far as we can, that the transition agenda is completed.

That agenda is almost completed. I wish to pay tribute here, as many have done, to the officials of both sides and from the Hong Kong Government who, over the 13 years since the Joint Declaration was signed, have worked tenaciously and tirelessly to turn the high principles enshrined in the Joint Declaration into practical administrative measures; to convert the catch-phrases "one country, two systems" and "a high degree of autonomy" into real life.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was right. The rule of law has been central to Hong Kong's economic and social success. Not just rules; not just law; but the rule of law. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, once said: Be you ever so high, the law is above you". The rule of law means that the government and each individual is equal before the law. It protects individuals against arbitrary interference by the government; against improper influence by the rich and powerful; against corruption; and against abuses of power. It means impartial judges and an independent prosecution service.

The phrase, "One country, two systems" means that Hong Kong will continue to have its own legal system, entirely separate from that of mainland China. One, of course, cannot legislate for integrity. But Hong Kong has one of the finest legal systems in the world, served by some of the best judges and lawyers in the world, as many noble Lords have acknowledged. What we can do—and have done with the agreement of China at every stage—is to ensure that that system and those people can continue to provide the people of the Hong Kong special administrative region with the protection of the rule of law within the common law system. With China's agreement, Hong Kong will have its own Court of Final Appeal—in Hong Kong, not Beijing—replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

The rule of law is the ultimate protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual. China agreed in the Joint Declaration that the mainland's "socialist system", would not be imposed on the people of Hong Kong. To make sure that there is no room for doubt, China listed in the Joint Declaration exactly what it meant by that general undertaking. It promised freedom of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, to join trade unions, of correspondence, of travel, of movement, of strike, of demonstration, of choice of occupation, of academic research, of belief, of the inviolability of the home, the freedom to marry and the right to raise a family freely. These are basic human rights to which many noble Lords have drawn our attention this evening.

China is itself party to neither the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights nor that on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, though it has indicated—and we would welcome this—that it may sign the second covenant this year. But it agreed in the Joint Declaration that the provisions of the two covenants as applied to Hong Kong will remain in force. We firmly believe that that includes reporting to the United Nations treaty monitoring bodies. We will continue to press the Chinese Government to explain how reports on the implementation of the covenants in the Hong Kong special administrative region will be made. We have made clear that, for our part, we would not object to the Hong Kong special administrative region submitting reports itself, and the UN treaty monitoring bodies have indicated that they are also willing to be flexible on this matter.

Many of those who have spoken this evening, including the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, have placed our policy on Hong Kong in the wider context of our relations with China. China is a country of great and growing importance. We will speak up when we should in areas such as human rights, but that should be seen in the context of a much more wide-ranging and constructive relationship than has so far been achieved. We hope Hong Kong will be a bridge between Britain and China, not a barrier. But if it is to be a bridge of friendship and not a bridge of sorrows, the incoming sovereign power must fully honour the undertakings it has made in the Joint Declaration.

Several noble Lords have referred this evening to the plans to swear in the provisional legislature in the early hours of 1st July during the inaugural ceremony of the special administrative region. I do not wish this evening to rake over the past. Our views on this invention of China's are clear. Nothing China does can alter the fact that up to 30th June there can be only one constitutional legislature in Hong Kong—that elected by the people of Hong Kong in September 1995. We are committed to co-operating with it and we will do nothing to undermine it. There has never been any question of British Ministers attending the swearing-in of the provisional legislature. What is essential now is for China to ensure that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government hold free and fair elections as soon as possible after the handover.

I now turn to some of the specific issues raised by noble Lords this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, referred to the International Court of Justice as regards the legality of the provisional legislature and its actions. The previous Government made clear that Britain would be willing to join China in seeking adjudication on the question of the future of the legislature from the International Court of Justice, but it needs the consent of both parties for it to go before the ICJ. China has not accepted our offer but I confirm that it remains on the table. However, a nation state cannot itself ask the ICJ for an advisory opinion.

The noble Lord also asked about bilingualism. Both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law provide for English and Chinese to be used in Hong Kong. The government legislature and the courts use both languages and laws are published in both languages.

I thank my noble friend Lord Ponsonby for his kind remarks about the Foreign Office web site. He raised some important questions about Vietnamese refugees, as opposed to the other problems with economic migrants. The Government continue to support the efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to find resettlement opportunities for the remaining refugees in Hong Kong.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, asked about the transfer of defence responsibilities. We agreed some time ago through the Joint Liaison Group that the People's Liberation Army might station unarmed advance parties in Hong Kong to prepare for the orderly deployment of the main garrison on 1st July. There is no question of Britain agreeing to the deployment of the main PLA garrison in Hong Kong before 1st July. As sovereign, Britain is responsible for the defence of Hong Kong up to the last stroke of midnight on 30th June. At that point China will resume responsibility for the defence of Hong Kong.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, asked about the style of government after the handover. The Government believe that the people will judge Mr. Tung and his government by what happens from 1st July on rather than what is said before he takes up office. If the concept of Hong Kong people running Hong Kong is to work, it will be important for all of Hong Kong's people to stand up for the territory's interests. I believe we would be sensible to listen to the wise words of the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, on that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, asked what was happening as regards some of our colleagues in Europe. It is for our colleagues in Europe to decide what they intend to do about the Chinese swearing in. We have made our views clear to them.

I, like the noble Baroness, Lady Dunn, and the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, wish to thank the Hong Kong Civil Service. 1 pay tribute to those who have fought tirelessly in the cause of more representative government in Hong Kong, many of whom for no good reason will find themselves on the sidelines on 1st July. Hong Kong needs them. I hope their dedication will carry them through to the next round of elections so that they can give the people of Hong Kong the opportunity to vote for openness and for progress.

Britain's relationship with Hong Kong will change in 18 days' time, but it will not end. The promises China made to Britain and to the people of Hong Kong in the Joint Declaration will last for 50 years. The Joint Liaison Group will continue to meet to discuss the fulfilment of those promises until the year 2000. The Government will monitor developments closely. We will publish for Parliament every six months a report on the implementation of the Joint Declaration, with special reference to the protection of human rights in Hong Kong. We will continue to remind all countries with a stake in Hong Kong's future of the importance of their maintaining an active interest in Hong Kong.

As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, told the House, Hong Kong is in great shape. We can be proud of what Hong Kong has achieved under British sovereignty. As many of us know, few, if any, places in the world are more vibrant, more energetic, more open and more prosperous than Hong Kong in 1997.

There can be no doubt about Britain's commitment to Hong Kong after the handover. Britain's commercial and consular interests speak for themselves: there are some 3½ million British passport-holders in the territory, 1,000 British firms operating there and tens of billions of pounds of investment in what is our second largest export market in Asia. We are proud that we shall have—as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said—one of our largest consulates-general at the heart of all this.

We have done our best to secure the best possible future for the people of Hong Kong. Very soon, Hong Kong people themselves will take on the responsibility for guiding their own future development, within the framework of the Joint Declaration, under the late Deng Xiaoping's concept of, Hong Kong people running Hong Kong". I am sure I speak for noble Lords in all parts of the House when I say that we wish them well.