HL Deb 26 April 2004 vol 660 cc555-8

2.43 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they have had with the Government of the People's Republic of China about constitutional development in Hong Kong.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we are concerned about the interpretation of two of the annexes to Hong Kong's Basic Law which the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress gave on 6 April, and by the further NPC decision on suffrage which was announced today. My right honourable friend Peter Hain raised this issue with Tung Chee Hwa, the Hong Kong chief executive, and the Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister during his recent visit to the region. Further representations have been made to the Chinese Government and my honourable friend Mr Rammell has issued statements on 7 April and again today expressing our views. He is meeting the Chinese Ambassador later this afternoon.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Would she agree that the role of the National People's Congress in the political development of Hong Kong is quite complex and open to ambiguous interpretation? Is it the Government's view that the National People's Congress, in particular regarding its latest decision which, as she mentioned, was taken today, has actually altered the Basic Law? If, as I understand, we are a guarantor of the integrity of the Basic Law, what further measures other than dialogue and discussion could we take to bring some pressure to bear on the situation and resolve it in a sensible way for all sides?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that we will resolve what is undoubtedly a difficult situation through dialogue and discussion. The noble Lord asked what further measures could be taken, but in the first instance we must adhere to dialogue and discussion because in the past it has delivered some helpful measures. The noble Lord also asked whether this has changed the Basic Law. This is an interpretation of the Basic Law, but what is different this time is that this has been a proactive process. The Chinese themselves decided to make this statement rather than being asked for an interpretation by the Hong Kong authorities. We are concerned that it means that the likelihood of reaching universal suffrage before the elections in 2007–08 looks further away, but we shall continue strenuously to argue our case.

Lord Sandberg

My Lords, further to the response of the Minister, does she agree that by and large Beijing has remained close to the agreements regarding the freedom to travel as well as religious freedom and speech, and that we should be fairly glad about what has happened in our former colony?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can agree with what the noble Lord has just said. That is why I was careful to answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, by saying that this is not a change in the Basic Law. We cannot say that a fundamental point in the Basic Law has been challenged. However, it is an interpretation of the Basic Law which is uncomfortable given that the mechanism used, that of a proactive engagement, seems to have brought rather closer together the Chinese way of doing things with the Hong Kong way. That means that the two different systems, which we believe are fundamental to the way the handover was dealt with, have been made at least that much more difficult for future discussions. It is a question of interpretation, but I agree with the noble Lord that, by and large, the handover has been one in which the Chinese have stuck by what they said.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, I believe that I can provide some fortification for the last point made by the noble Baroness. Article 45 of the Chinese Basic Law makes provision for the ultimate aim being universal suffrage and for the gradual and orderly progress towards that aim. Does the noble Baroness further endorse the proposition that the latest announcement from the NPC appears, on the face of it, to represent no change in that direction? However, the noble Baroness may not have seen a statement issued today by the chief executive of Hong Kong asking the Constitutional Development Task Force in Hong Kong, which will submit its third report next month, to take forward actively the next stage of work relating to constitutional development, in a rational, pragmatic and forward-looking manner". Will she therefore ensure that Her Majesty's Government encourage not only the chief executive himself, but also the Chinese Government, to support that objective in line with the provisions of the Basic Law?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has provided a fair summation of the position and I gladly support what he has said. He was quite right in the point he made about Article 45 of the Chinese Basic Law. The eventual target of universal suffrage is enshrined in that article. While, of course, there are no dates in the article, nor any indications about how universal suffrage might be achieved, it was hoped very much that steps would be taken towards universal suffrage before the election of the chief executive in 2007 and the LegCo in 2008. Undoubtedly we have suffered something of a disappointment in that, but none the less the noble and learned Lord is quite right to point out that we still have a great deal to argue for. We believe that the right way to do that involves the points that the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, asked us to look beyond. For the moment, however, we should be engaging in dialogue and discussion.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, has not the problem we are now facing been with us for the entire period since 1949 when the new government of China made it clear that, at the handover of Hong Kong, they would exercise complete jurisdiction as the sovereign power? Some people in Hong Kong find that unpalatable but I think that the attitude outlined by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, is the proper one to adopt. We should stop pretending that we have authority over Hong Kong, which we do not and have not since it was handed back. We may then get a sympathetic hearing, which we will not while acting like a former colonial power.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: the problem is inherent in the very nature of our period of tenure in Hong Kong. The party opposite negotiated the joint declaration in 1984 and I am sure that it did the best possible job it could in the circumstances. I do not blame it for the fact that the joint declaration does not have any hard and fast lines in it about universal suffrage and dates. I do not blame the party opposite for that; I am sure it negotiated in good faith. However, I find the implication that somehow the Government are blameworthy for not being able to push more on the issue of universal suffrage. I know that that was not an implication of the noble Lord's Question, but now and again one hears it from elsewhere. It is not a realistic position to take in view of the fact that all we can do is seek to persuade the Chinese Government in relation to Hong Kong, as a good friend of the people of Hong Kong and, I hope, as an increasingly good friend of the people of China.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, China has, in many ways, observed the joint declaration very well. Nevertheless, is not the decision of the Standing Committee of two weeks ago unsatisfactory? It seems to be saying, from the reports that I have seen, that the Basic Law of Hong Kong will mean whatever the Standing Committee decides it means. Is not that kind of impression, if it is a fair one, likely to make it even more difficult for China ever to recover Taiwan?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I make no bones about it: both the declaration of 6 April and today's further interpretation are, from our point of view, unsatisfactory because they cause concern about the route to democracy in Hong Kong. That is absolutely clear but the point at issue is our locus in trying to do anything about it. We have the joint statement, which gives us at least the right to have discussions on these issues. But the noble Lord, Lord Howell, put it to me that we should be going beyond dialogue and discussion and that is an unrealistic position for the Opposition to take in view of the comments from the Cross Benches which, quite rightly, indicated that we no longer have a locus. Hong Kong is not in any sense a colony; it is not under a governor. We can only proceed by persuasion, dialogue and discussion and we are heavily engaged in so doing.