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10 March 1988
Volume 129

1.10 am

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I am pleased to be able to open this short debate on an important topic, which concerns what happens to our largest remaining colony.

With Hong Kong, we have not been able to do what we have been able to do with many of the other countries which were colonies but which, through self-determination, achieved independence and were able subsequently to look after their own affairs. In 1997, Hong Kong will again become a part of China.

Governments of both parties in the United Kingdom have not sought to introduce any form of democracy in Hong Kong, certainly in this century. The reason is probably that it was not expedient to do so. The Administration were more capable, and had an easier time, governing the colony if there was no problem of democracy — because democracy always causes problems. It is not necessarily as efficient as a benevolent dictatorship, and in recent times it was not encouraged because of what might happen on the mainland of China. Whatever the reason, democracy was not the number one priority for the British Government.

All that has changed, or ought to have changed, in the past few years — not because we do not want Hong Kong to be transferred peacefully, properly, efficiently and optimally to China in 1997, but because we should recognise, belatedly, that we owe the people of Hong Kong some democracy. We should leave them with that legacy—a legacy that can be provided by the Basic Law that will be promulgated by the People's Republic of China in two years' time.

The Prime Minister went to China in the early 1980s with a flea in her ear. When she came back, following the new realism, she had realised what was necessary: diplomacy, negotiation and consultation. The result was the joint declaration, which everyone in the House probably agrees is a remarkable document, principally because of what China was prepared to allow. It is clear that, if China wanted Hong Kong back tomorrow, there would be no question but that the United Kingdom would say anything other than "Certainly. Give us three hours to leave." But China has not said that. China was able to negotiate with the present Government and produce a joint declaration. If the next nine years go the right way, that declaration ought to allow Hong Kong to be transferred in the best way possible to become a special autonomous region in China.

Many results flow from the joint declaration, but I want to deal principally with the constitution, the legislature and the elections in the first part of what I have to say. In the second part, I should like to deal with the draft Basic Law, of which I have a more or less up-to-date copy.

The White Paper produced by the Hong Kong Administration said that direct elections for the legislature were to be introduced not this year but in 1991. For the life of me, I cannot understand why that should be the case. On page 12 of the White Paper, it says:
"Nevertheless there is a strong argument against moving too quickly in this direction."
Then it talks about there not being enough official members in the Legislative Council but it really does not give a logical argument why there should not be direct elections introduced for some of the members of the Legislative Council in 1988.

One has to square that with what is in the joint declaration. Paragraph 3(2) said:
"The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be directly under the authority of the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People's Government."
That is absolutely right. I do not think that any hon. Member would dissent from that.

It goes on:
"The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication."
I mention that now because it is an important part of the joint declaration. It talks about the Hong Kong special administrative region being vested with executive and legislative power. It can do that only if the legislature has some of that power.

Of course, there will be a chief executive who will propose, but there must be checks and balances. They may be there now but they must be seen to be there by the people of Hong Kong when the Basic Law is promulgated.

Paragraph 3(4) says:
"The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be composed of local inhabitants. The chief executive will be appointed by the Central People's Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally."
Annex 1, paragraph 3, says:
"The legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be constituted by elections. The executive authorities shall abide by the law and shall be accountable to the legislature."
I hope that hon. Members will bear in mind that the chief executive and the other executive authorities, besides abiding by the law,
"shall he accountable to the legislature."
In particular, the previous sentence says:
"The legislature … shall be constituted by elections."
It does not specify how the elections will take place and what type of elections they will be, but it would be to misconstrue the meaning in the joint declaration if the definition is such that those elections will be constrained so that only a few people in Hong Kong will be able to partake in the election of the legislature or if those who elect the legislature require certain qualifications.

No system of representative democracy is perfect and it is a matter of seeking the optimum that can be achieved. That would be 100 per cent. direct elections based on the principle of one person, one vote. There should be no quarrel with that. It is amazing that the Government have shown such reticence about that, saying that 1988 was not the time but perhaps they might be achieved by 1991. Indeed, the White Paper says that in 1991, 10 directly elected members will be introduced into the Legislative Council.

There may be various reasons for that reticence. One could be that the Foreign Secretary wishes to hand over Hong Kong to Beijing as quietly as possible and at as easy a time as possible. If there was too much discussion about what elections should be held in Hong Kong and there became a desire in Hong Kong to have elections, that might create difficulties.

Another reason could be that the Foreign Secretary is afraid of what China will say. I accept that China has a say in this and that under the joint declaration the Basic Law is solely China's responsibility, but we can try to get the legislature of Hong Kong as close as is possible to the ideal expressed in the joint declaration before 1997. There will he not any direct elections to LegCo this year, but having 10 elected members in 1991 is making haste slowly. That is not understood by many people in Hong Kong.

Even the Hong Kong chamber of commerce said in its submission to the survey office that 80 per cent. of the people who replied wanted some form of direct elections to the legislature. The White Paper suggests merely 10 members in 1991 and no more than that afterwards. Those 10 are in advance of what will be in the Basic Law. I hope that the Basic Law will say that many more directly elected members will be in LegCo in 1997.

I have another disappointment with the White Paper relating to the balance of power. Even in 1991 the number of appointed and official members in the Legislative Council will outweigh those members who are directly elected, or elected from functional constituencies. I know that democracy is inconvenient, but it is carrying it too far for the Government not to allow a majority membership in LegCo in 1997. The White Paper clearly says that it is not envisaged, but the balance will be 30 to 26. It will be at least 1994 before we have a majority of elected members who can speak because they are elected by a functional constituency, or elected directly.

At present the appointed members are not just toadies of the Governor, who put up their hands whenever the Governor suggests something. Of course, they know their own minds and speak independently, so it is no slight on appointed members, but democracy must be seen to exist, and it is not being seen to exist when there is a majority of appointed and official members in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong.

Why the timidity? I can only think that the Foreign Secretary either wants a quiet life and thinks Hong Kong is asleep, that the people who arc questioning are very few and far between and, although they may make a lot of noise, most people in Hong Kong are not listening to him; or perhaps he is scared of what the People's Republic of China might say if he were bold and introduced too much democracy.

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As my hon. Friend has just returned from Hong Kong, and so has been there since the White Paper was published, I am sure that the I louse would be interested to hear his view of the reaction of people in Hong Kong to the White Paper.

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It is difficult to gauge accurately on a short visit the feeling in Hong Kong, but one thing that came through was that the survey by A. G. B. McNair has been largely discredited. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with asking people, "Do you want direct elections?" and asking them to tick "yes" or "no". The second question is, "Do you want direct elections in 1991 or 1998?" and they are asked to tick "yes", "no" or -abstention". That would have been clear. However, I do not want to take up too much time as other hon. Members want to speak. The question was very convoluted and it was clear to me that opinion in Hong Kong was such that if the questions were phrased differently and were clear the chances are that a different result would have been achieved.

While I was in Hong Kong I also felt that there was a greater demand for direct elections. People were thinking and talking about that and the subject appeared more and more frequently in the Chinese press as well as in the English language papers. There were fewer objections to direct elections. In fact, I did not read any objections in the letters columns of the English language Hong Kong press recently. The people to whom I spoke were very receptive to a substantial measure of direct elections in Hong Kong.

I want to consider the Basic Law about which I have some concerns. First, I must repeat that the Basic Law is a matter for China to promulgate. What I have to say is in no way intended to detract from that. However, I am sure that the People's Republic of China will be interested to hear what hon. Members of the British Parliament and indeed, more importantly, what the British Government have to say about their view or the Basic Law, not because the Government or hon. Members want to tell China what to do or because they want to be destructive in their criticism, but simply because we want to help. After all, the British Government have many years' experience of administration in Hong Kong and should be able to help not just through discussions in the joint liaison group—that is perhaps not quite the place where the discussions should take place—but directly, openly and in front of the people of Hong Kong so that they know exactly what is happening. One of my criticisms at present is that the people of Hong Kong do not really know what discussions, if any, are going on between the British Government, the Hong Kong Government and the People's Republic of China.

I have a draft of the Basic Law. It is not an absolutely up-to-date draft. I believe that it is an English translation dated 5 January.

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Hon. Members may be slightly puzzled by the fact that copies of the Basic Law are floating round. We were all given to understand that it would not be available in any final draft to the public until May. Is this generally available, and, if so, why is it not available to the House?

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I received the draft when I was in Hong Kong. I have no reason to believe that the draft is in any way secret. Perhaps the Minister can tell us about that when he replies. The title of the draft reads:

"Collection of draft articles of the various chapters prepared by the sub-groups of the Drafting Committee compiled by the secretariat of the Drafting Committee for the Basic Law, December 1987. Translated by the secretariat of the consultative committee for the Basic Law. 5 January 1988 draft."
I suspect that the draft is available if hon. Members require it. However, we will have to wait and see what the Minister says. The Minister is shaking his head. If it is not available, it should be because the draft affects the future of the people of Hong Kong. It vitally affects how they will be governed for 50 years after 1997. I am not saying that there is anything underhand here or that we are trying to interfere in the Basic Law whose promulgation is the responsibility of the People's Republic of China. We want to help the process so that we achieve as good a Basic Law as possible and ensure that the Basic Law drafting committee has the best possible advice.

I make a helpful criticism: I am not sure that the Basic Law drafting committee has the best advice. Are the British Government in a position to provide advice, which can be considered and, if necessary, cast aside? One cannot ask for more. The Basic Law drafting committee would probably welcome the British Government's advice and experience on administration in general and on Hong Kong in particular.

Article 64 has three options for the election of the legislature of the Hong Kong special administrative region. Option one provides for 50 per cent. to be elected by functional constituencies, 25 per cent. to be directly elected by geographical constituencies and 25 per cent. to be elected by a grand electoral college. That option does not satisfy my interpretation of the draft declaration. In some ways, the draft declaration is vague, but it is clear that the Hong Kong legislature will be composed by election. That must mean that all the people of Hong Kong must have a not too unbalanced say in its composition.

I do not believe that it satisfies the joint declaration to have 25 per cent. directly elected. Fifty per cent. have to be elected by functional constituencies. Such constituencies exist at the moment in Hong Kong. One million or 2 million people may have one seat in a functional constituency and a few hundred accountants or doctors another seat. That would not be accepted by the British people or by the people in any democracy in the world. There is no logic in saying that the people of Hong Kong are different and that their idea of democracy is not the same as ours.

The second option is better—50 per cent. elected by general and direct elections, 25 per cent. by functional constituency elections and 25 per cent. to be selected by regional authority elections, such as elections by the district boards, the urban council and the regional council. Subjectively, that would just about satisfy the joint declaration.

The third option—a dismal one—is for 30 per cent. to
"be selected by an advisory board from non-advisors, of whom at least one-third shall be principal officials while the rest shall be members of the Executive Assembly or members of the public; 40 per cent. shall be elected by functional constituencies; and 30 per cent. shall be directly elected by geographical constituencies."
I hope that the Basic Law drafting committee understands how other legislatures in democratic countries are elected. The joint declaration says that the Hong Kong special administrative region shall enjoy a high degree of autonomy. It can do that only if the people of Hong Kong have that autonomy and give it, through their democratic votes, to the legislature. Options one and three certainly do not do that and I have great reservations about whether option two is the best.

Article 69 refers to the powers of the president of the legislature of the HKSAR. The proposals are that the president shall either be elected by the legislature or shall be the chief executive. The chief executive will have a difficult job because he will have a duty to Beijing and to Hong Kong. Article 69, to which there is no option, gives to the president of the legislature, first, the power to preside over meetings of the legislature and, secondly, the power to decide and control the agendas of the meetings. What would hon. Members say if we gave you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the power to control and decide the agendas of our meetings? No hon. Member would accept that.

Thirdly, the president has the power to decide the times of suspension, adjournment and commencement of meetings. Many hon. Members will be flabbergasted to read this. Fourthly, he can call special meetings between sessions. There are no checks and balances. If the chief executive may also be the president of the legislature, the legislature will be unable to control the executive in any meaningful way.

Article 70 states that the Hong Kong special administrative region legislature shall examine and pass the budgets and final accounts as proposed by the executive authority. In most legislatures, it is not open to individual members to propose new legislation for increasing taxes. However, this House can alter and refuse to pass Budgets and final accounts as proposed by the Executive. But that is not what the draft Basic Law says. The legislature can approve taxation and public expenditure. It should say that the legislature should consider proposals for taxation and public expenditure and pass them if it agrees with them. It will receive the administrative reports of the executive authorities and debate them. It cannot ask for or require reports. It can simply receive them. What a toothless legislature so far.

The legislature can question the work of the executive authorities. That does not go far enough. Annex 1 of the joint declaration states clearly that the executive shall be accountable to the legislature, and I have yet to see any power that will give any accountability to the legislature. The sixth function is to debate any issue relating to the public interest—not to decide anything, but to debate. Anyone can debate, but in a democracy we must be able to decide at the end of the day. Finally, the legislature can assent to the appointment or removal of judges in the court of final appeal and the chief judge of the supreme court.

Article 71 deals with what the members of the Hong Kong special administrative region may do. It states that they
"may, in accordance with the provisions under this Law and legal procedures, separately or jointly present any bills, save for the following three areas which will require the prior written approval of the Chief Executive."
The first is
"Bills relating to taxation and government expenditure."
It is clear that the legislature will be toothless in relation to taxation and Government expenditure unless the chief executive has given written approval. The second category—this is a sweeping restraint on the legislature—is
"Bills relating to Government policies."
After 1997, the legislature will be unable to debate anything that relates to Government policy unless the chief executive has given his written consent. The third category is
"Bills relating to the structure and operation of the executive authorities."
I could mention many other matters, but I think that I have given the flavour of my serious worries, some of which I hope are shared by my hon. Friends and perhaps even by Conservative Members—although I know that there are not many Conservative Members on the Benches at the moment.

There is no doubt that in any democracy there must be an executive that is accountable, and at present the draft Basic Law does not allow for that. I hope that the Government will take on board and will talk to the People's Republic of China offering friendly criticism. Let me repeat this, as I do not wish it to be misunderstood in Hong Kong or in Beijing. Rather than being criticism and interference, I offer this as helpful comment upon the way in which democracies have worked in this country, which has been reflected in the way in which we have administered Hong Kong. Perhaps we have not administered Hong Kong in quite the most democratic way when we should have done so, but the principle has been in place. I believe that the present Government of Hong Kong pay much attention to what goes on in the Legislative Council. However, it is not codified and written down in standing orders, and that needs to be done.

One of the problems is that the Basic Law drafting committee, which by and large comes from the People's Republic of China and from Hong Kong, does not perhaps have the breadth of wisdom and the experience that its members could have. Certainly, from the Hong Kong side, I suspect that many members have the experience of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, but not that much more experience. Again, that is not a slight or a criticism of those members, because I am sure that they are doing their best. However, as a result of the meetings to draft the Basic Law, there are many problems with it, and one cannot help feeling that it has been drafted by a committee of 50 people.

I wish the people of Hong Kong well in the traumatic journey that they must undertake in the next nine years. I know that even now in Hong Kong there is a brain drain because people there do not have confidence that everything will go well. They are wrong, because things can and should go well. With the help of the British Government and the Government of the People's Republic of China, I have every confidence that things will go well, especially if the executive authorities of both countries take the people of Hong Kong into their confidence and discuss with them openly what should be done. They should sample public opinion, and that action should anticipate how public opinion will develop in Hong Kong in the next nine years. Above all, it is most important that there should not be a feeling in Hong Kong that the British Government do not care about the territory and that they want 1997 to come as quickly as possible. The British Government must do their best to stop this feeling from gaining ground.

I have every hope that things will go well. In the next two years there will be much discussion about the Basic Law, which is the most important aspect to be considered in the next nine years. It will govern what goes on in Hong Kong during the next 50 years. The discussions should take place openly. I hope that this debate will arouse inquisitiveness among more people in Hong Kong and will lead them to ask, "What exactly is in this Basic Law, and how does it affect me? Is there anything that I can put into it, or are there representations that I can make to the British authorities or to the Basic Law drafting committee?" If that happens, this debate will have served some purpose.

1.44 am

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The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) for raising this matter again soon after our last debate. In the intervening period the White Paper has been published. Therefore, we can now debate the plans as set out for Hong Kong over the next three years. My hon. Friend has been helpful in setting out some of the proposals in the draft Basic Law.

A number of the basic assumptions that the Foreign Secretary made in our last debate need to be spelt out, clearly understood and largely agreed. The first proposition is that Hong Kong has prospered best when China and Britain have been in harmony, and that is undoubtedly true. The second proposition is that there has to be a degree of consistency in the Basic Law that will govern the future of Hong Kong after 1997.

It is true, as my hon. Friend said, that the Basic Law is a matter for the People's Republic of China. To judge from some of my hon. Friend's remarks, it appears that he was asked by some representatives from the People's Republic of China what on earth this House was doing debating the Basic Law when the matter was solely for China. Indeed, I was telephoned and asked that question. I said that it was a matter for China, but that the House—in common with other free, democratic assemblies—can debate what it likes. It is not dictated to, least of all by the Government, as to what it can or cannot debate.

We must reaffirm that the Basic Law is essentially a matter for China, and any comments that we make should be frank, friendly, I hope outspoken, and, as my hon. Friend said, a reflection of our domestic and constitutional experience here and elsewhere throughout the world. If the essential objectives of our Government and, more important, of the People's Republic and of the people of Hong Kong are to safeguard the future interests of Hong Kong, further thought must be given to the Basic Law. The White Paper proposals are extremely disappointing.

Hong Kong must be governed in a way that works in three essential respects. First, the integrity of the Government must be maintained and free from corruption. The Government must be vested with authority that is respected by the people of Hong Kong. Secondly, that Government must be socially responsible. They must care for the social well-being and welfare of the people. They have already demonstrated that care in a number of ways, and their housing policy, health policy and, to an extent, education policy are quite extraordinary. Thirdly, the Government must be efficient. They must deliver. When one visits the various departments of the Hong Kong Government, one cannot but be impressed with their efficiency. We would look with envy at certain efficiencies.

From our experience and the role of British people in the government of Hong Kong, it is clear that the maintenance of those three characteristics of integrity, social responsibility and efficiency requires constitutional developments of a nature that have not yet taken place. Those characteristics have been safeguarded by the long stop of the responsibility that our Government have had for many years for the government of Hong Kong, during which time Hong Kong has established itself as a community. We have had a democratic tradition that has been brought to bear in the appointment of the Governor, the terms within which he is expected to operate and the tradition that people from this country have gone out to govern Hong Kong.

It is right that that should be changed after 1997. The traditions will then stem from within China, and it is right that that should be so. The great strengths and resources in the history and tradition of China will give new strength to the Government of Hong Kong. Again, if one considers the history of government in China, there must he an awareness of the difficulty, in such a vast continent of peoples, of maintaining the relationships between the centre and the many provinces in a way that preserves the authority of the centre, but enables the special administrative regions, of which Hong Kong will be one, to function efficiently.

Hong Kong is a unique animal which the People's Republic of China will be inheriting. It will have characteristics which, at present, other special administrative regions do not have. It will have overseas links. It will have vast financial and economic power, which will be vested in the hands of some very powerful and rich individuals, who will have a powerful incentive to seek to influence decisions, not only in Hong Kong, but stretching back to Beijing. In the past it has been easy for corruption to seep into the system. One asks the People's Republic of China what defence it has in Beijing to stop corruption from being generated in Hong Kong and spreading back into the Republic.

In our experience, incomparably the best safeguard against corruption in the long term is democracy and a law firmly rooted in the democratic procedures and support of the legislature. That needs to be established in a mode that can cope with the characteristics and complexities of Hong Kong society.

If one considers the behaviour of the stock exchange and of the enormous infrastructural developments that are going on in Hong Kong — for example, the huge contracts that are let — one sees that there is an administrative structure that needs to be monitored, kept in check, and watched by the proper political machinery. That is not yet in place in a way that can survive after 1997.

I say most seriously, not out of any particular respect for the Government or the House, but out of concern for the well-being and good government of China, that it is in the interests of the People's Republic of China to think carefully about how to safeguard its integrity by a proper democratic base within Hong Kong.

The other point that needs to be made, not only about Hong Kong, but about the People's Republic of China itself, is about the quite extraordinary pace of change in the Republic. The rate of change politically, economically and socially is huge. In parts of China it is at least as fast as it is in Hong Kong, and the China of 1997 will be very different from the China of 1988. If we find that Hong Kong is frozen in a mode because it is stuck with the Basic Law which represents a view which, perhaps, has been drawn more from the past of China than from China's future needs, China itself will not be well served.

There is considerable diversity within the present arrangements for the government of provinces and special administrative regions in China. They continue to develop. It is quite wrong to suppose that development will stop in 1997 in China or Hong Kong, or in the way in which China governs Hong Kong. But Britain and the House would not be fair to the people of Hong Kong or the People's Republic if we left things as they are now. We need, rather, to point a way ahead in which developments in Hong Kong and in its relations with China can continue, so that up to and beyond 1997 developments will continue in a way that will give Hong Kong a splendid future and bring China much more fully into touch with the rest of the world. That is something in which Hong Kong has a special role to play.

It would be helpful if the Minister could underline the point about continuing development. The 1997 proposals are by no means the last word on the direction in which things are moving or the distance that we shall travel in that direction. Probably the most important thing that the Government can give now is confidence in continued development.

1.51 am

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Like the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) on raising this debate, which we can view as an extension of that on 20 January. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was in Hong Kong at the same time as the hon. Member for Wrexham, but, unfortunately, because of a long-standing previous constituency engagement he cannot be present tonight. Were it not for that appointment, I am sure that he would have been here, as is his natural wont, at 1·50 am, if only for the pleasure of observing how bright and bushy-tailed the Minister is. This is a natural hour at which to discuss anything.

My hon. Friend told me about his visit, and what he said confirmed me in the views that I expressed in the debate on 20 January. First, there is concern about the delay in securing an elected element in the legislature, as the hon. Member for Wrexham said. The Government have let the people of Hong Kong down in that respect. The shortness of the half-day debate on 20 January prevented a full exchange of views on the many issues involved, but some hon. Members on both sides of the House found the statement that the Foreign Secretary made at the end of the debate unsatisfactory and not entirely accurate. He said:

"We"—

by that he meant hon. Members on both sides—
"agree upon the proposition that in due course we need an element of direct elections — a modest proportion, but certainly not going all the way."
That would certainly not be the view of the hon. Member for Wrexham.
"Thus far there is agreement on both sides of the House." —[Official Report, 20 January 1988; Vol. 125, c. 1017.]
That is not quite accurate.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, South spoke of the need for the Government to work and be efficient, and of course that is true, but it might be read into the hon. Gentleman's remarks that he was, in a sophisticated way, further putting off the idea of elections. He said that it was absolutely right—an expression I always hesitate to use in any aspect of politics—that China should have a complete say in the Basic Law, but it is not absolutely right. This House and people in Hong Kong have a valid democratic entitlement to express views. I do not accept that because a power is great and powerful it is always absolutely right.

Secondly, there was always worry about the ambiguity that it is possible to derive from the word "elected". The hon. Member for Wrexham made this very clear. When I spoke in the debate on 20 January I quoted the Foreign Secretary's response to me on 25 October 1984 in an exchange on the draft Basic Law, when he said:
"The agreement provides for the Legislature of Hong Kong in the future to be on an elective basis and for the Executive to be accountable to that legislature."—[Official Report, 20 January 1988; Vol. 125, c. 991.]
There is little doubt that the use by the Foreign Secretary of the phrase
"in the future to be on an elective basis"
was presumed to mean, and was intended to convey, that it would be on a different basis from the present one; in other words, that there would be direct rather than functional elections on the corporate state basis—sort of Mussolini lines—that already exists. There was no real suggestion of the related device of an electoral college.

Thirdly, I think that we are impeded, naturally enough, in this debate because we do not know what the Basic Law will contain. The production by the hon. Member for Wrexham, calmly as if out of a hat, of the draft copy of the Basic Law was something of a coup. I thought that it was under wraps until May, but the hon. Gentleman produced it with a sort of casual, ingenuous amiability, virtually expressing puzzlement that it was not available in the Vote Office.

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Like the Liberal/SDP joint declaration.

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The hon. Gentleman is being flippant, which is not entirely unexpected at this hour.

What is the status of this document? Perhaps the Minister will tell us. He was making facial, if not verbal, comments during the hon. Gentleman's speech. The Government must know that there is a fear that there could be no directly elected element carry over from before to after 1997.

Fourthly, and lastly, there is already a drain of people from Hong Kong. The hon. Member for Wrexham spoke about that. There is probably nothing that one can do to halt that at this time, but assurances about elections and the protection of the legal people's system would prevent its increasing. I do not suppose that we can affect those who are set on leaving, but we seem to be placing obstacles in the way of their coming to the United Kingdom. That leads to many of them going to Canada, for example. Why should we place barriers in the way of people of talent and resource?

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed told me that his general impression was of a community "anxious but not despairing." If we are to ease that anxiety and fulfil our enduring responsibility to the people of Hong Kong, we must make certain that there is a determining group in the legislature that is directly elected. It does not have to be 100 per cent., but it should be a determining group. The House should never forget its reponsibilities, and that must be reflected in the Minister's reply.

2.3 am

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One piece of advice that could be unanimously offered to the future legislature in Hong Kong is that it must not have a Consolidated Fund Bill. I can think of no more perverse legacy to leave to the people of Hong Kong or to any other country than the prospect of debating matters of crucial importance to people in Hong Kong or elsewhere at 2 o'clock or 4 o'clock in the morning. The sooner we adopt civilised hours so that we can consider these matters at a more appropriate time of the day, the better it will be for all of us.

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Hear, hear.

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An air of unanimity has characterised this brief debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) is, of course, the Opposition spokesman who normally deals with these matters, but owing to the coincidence of this debate with the annual conference of the Scottish council of the Labour party, on whose executive committee he sits—I was once its chairman, but I have now been elevated to higher things—I have replaced him at short notice. But, of course, it is a nostalgic trip back for me, because for a very long time I was the Opposition spokesman on Hong Kong matters. Indeed, I was around at the time the joint declaration was signed.

I believe that that period was a model of bipartisanship. There was a common objective, which was that the steady negotiation towards the joint declaration should take place in secrecy and without party political points interfering with the process, and that occurred. When the joint declaration came forward, we quite rightly recognised the success that it represented for both China and the United Kingdom. I believe that the people of Hong Kong appreciated what happened. Those of us in this Parliament charged with responsibility for their future took that responsibility very seriously indeed.

It is therefore all the sadder that that bipartisanship has to some extent broken down, because I do not believe that it was necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), who obtained this debate in the lottery that goes along with the Consolidated Fund, has returned recently from Hong Kong and he underlines the concern at the delay in progress towards direct elections which was all too apparent in speeches in the debate on 20 January when we were predicting the contents of the White Paper, and indeed in the exchanges that took place in the Chamber on 10 February when the Foreign Secretary brought the White Paper to the House. Therefore, there is this breakdown in the bipartisanship between the Government, who move forward at a snail's pace, and many other people in the House, who believe that a bolder movement towards direct elections is more appropriate.

I recall only too well, at the time of the joint declaration, commenting on and endorsing the idea of a legislature that would be "constituted by elections". At that time, of course, a deliberate vagueness built into that: expression because the people in Hong Kong, Beijing and London did not know precisely where the evolution of that discussion would take us. However, we all knew that eventually we would see a system of representative government in Hong Kong that reflected the intrinsic desire for democratic institutions that lies beneath the surface of all the debates that take place on stability and prosperity.

I believe very strongly that since then the timid approach adopted by the Hong Kong Government, as reflected in the White Paper, has not done much to revitalise Hong Kong or to underline the inherent self-confidence that has been the key to its success in the past. Perhaps that lack of boldness, that timidity, has been one of the reasons why the so-called brain drain, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham referred, has become a phenomenon.

After years of studying and visiting Hong Kong, I have concluded that this is not a permanent brain drain. People are hedging their bets. They are, rightly, taking out an insurance policy, as it were, against what will inevitably be an uncertain future. Because their talents are marketable and they are mobile in a way that many other people in the world are not, they are able to exploit the opportunities available of alternative citizenship in countries as visionary as Canada and Australia. But it is possible, indeed probable, that they will return and remain in Hong Kong so long as that insurance policy is available to them.

The trouble is that a lack of confidence can be infectious and can arise from simple issues, including fears about the way matters are being handled. That is why these debates, at whatever bizarre time of the day they take place, are important. We may not be large in number. Indeed, the Minister is the only Conservative in the Chamber—

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Really!

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—involved in this debate. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones)— perhaps I may call him the hon. Member for Madrid, Central — and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are present, but I question whether their attention was focused directly on the amazing document that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham produced earlier.

I do not draw any conclusions from this lack of interest by Conservative Members. Were we having this debate at a more appropriate hour, I am sure that the Government Benches would be as crowded as they were when this matter was raised on 20 January and 10 February. I am sure that the House will continue to take its responsibilities towards Hong Kong with great seriousness. But the pace of change in that country troubles hon. Members. Conservative Members tend to stand loyally by Ministers when they discuss these issues. But we know that privately many of them also feel that a bolder movement forward would be appropriate in the present circumstances.

I remind the House that, in the exchanges on the statement and on 20 January, the suggestions made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) were modest in the extreme. An additional two directly elected members to the Legislative Council is hardly a revolutionary idea, yet the Hong Kong Government seem unwilling to contemplate such a change; and as that Government is a function of Her Majesty's Government, we must look to the Minister here to defend that view, even if we are critical about it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham questioned whether we should be discussing the Basic Law. He produced what he said was a copy of the draft Basic Law. We look forward to seeing further copies being made available in the Library or the Vote Office. My hon. Friend did not reveal from where he obtained his copy or whether a supply of copies exists. Those who are charged with the responsibility of drawing up the Basic Law are also involved in the debate on direct elections, and that is the great dilemma. We are in the proverbial Catch 22 situation, for the Chinese Government can rightly say that the Basic Law is a matter for them, not for us. The Basic Law was always to be a matter for the People's Republic of China; under the joint declaration, that is their responsibility.

We know that the Chinese Government have a view about the pace of change, especially the proportion of direct election. They do not shirk from expressing that view in private through the people in Hong Kong who speak for them. Yet it is logical, if not politic, for those who say that the Government are responding to the views of Beijing on the pace of change during the period up to 1997 to suggest that, because of that, the Basic Law should be a matter for discussion by the organs of the existing setup there.

I noticed that the right hon. Member for Blackpool. South (Sir P. Blaker), who is the chairman of the all-party Hong Kong group, was recently in Hong Kong and was criticised for what was perhaps an off-the-cuff suggestion that it might be possible for the Legislative Council to give consideration to the draft Basic Law, the document which my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham has been discussing tonight.

We are caught on the horns of a dilemma, and as one former great Labour Member of Parliament said, "When you are on the horns of a dilemma, sometimes it is wise to stay there." The Government must take account of the paradox that is involved. There will be a natural inclination to debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) has this evening, what is gradually becoming known about the terms of the draft Basic Law even before May when it will be published, and even before the four-month consultation period that has been laid down. That is inevitable, and indeed is healthy. Although there will be a change of landlord in 1997, the people of Hong Kong remain the same.

What is being discussed in terms of the pace of change is minimalist. Those who articulate it in Hong Kong are sometimes regarded as agitators by an establishment that want as little change as possible, but by any standards in Britain they would never be described as revolutionary. The movement towards direct election—something that we take for granted in Britain — is modest by any standard. If it is seen to be bold and to break frontiers, that is only because it is judged against the timid pace proposed in the White Paper.

In considering a part of the world that is renowned for its experimentation, its commercial flair and for the fact that it is willing to take risks, we should be looking for a political system that reflects that. The experiment that is being embarked upon is fraught with risks—we know that, as do the Chinese and the people of Hong Kong—but it also has unique opportunities. If its works, for the Chinese perhaps there is the tantalising prospect of Taiwan coming back into mother China. There is the prospect of an example of peaceful coexistence being enshrined in the world as never before.

Risks are not new in Hong Kong. The whole commercial future of Hong Kong is built on risks of great wealth, which many people have, and risks of poverty and despair. The recent collapse of the stock market in Hong Kong made a few paupers out of the great millionaires.

The joint declaration is a blueprint for the future, and it would be well within the traditions of Hong Kong if the Government were to look closely at the way in which people in Hong Kong are talking, thinking and believing and reflected some of that challenging attitude in the political framework that they bequeath to the people of Hong Kong for the future. They have given themselves commercial freedom and a highly regulated infrastructure of housing and education, and we should bequeath to them a political system within which they can exercise democracy with the same flair and success as they deploy in other aspects of life. That is the challenge that faces them and the British Government.

2.20 am

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I join hon. Members in thanking the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) for giving the House the opportunity again to debate Hong Kong. It is understandable that hon. Members should wish to refer to the Hong Kong constitution and the draft Basic Law.

Some hon. Members have asked about the version of the Basic Law to which the hon. Member for Wrexham referred. All versions of the Basic Law that are available to the hon. Gentleman and to others are best described as of uncertain authenticity. They are subject to further revision and elaboration. Versions have been published in the Chinese press in Hong Kong, but the only reliable version will be that which appears in early May, in accordance with the terms of the understanding.

The draft Basic Law is intended to implement the policies that are contained in the joint declaration that forms part of a solemn and internationally binding treaty between the People's Republic of China and the United Kingdom. That treaty was debated in the House. Therefore, it is right that the House should wish to give its views on the implementation of the treaty in the draft Basic Law.

The hon. Member for Wrexham will recall that the debate in this House on 20 January took place following the publication of the 1987 annual report on Hong Kong. It was, by common agreement, a very good debate. It demonstrated yet again that many hon. Members on both sides of the House continue to take an active and informed interest in the future of the territory.

The debate also aroused a good deal of interest in Hong Kong. On that occasion the debate was broadcast live in Hong Kong. Many people in the territory sat up until the early hours of the morning to hear what Westminster had to say about Hong Kong. They would be very pleased to know that it is now our turn to sit up until the early hours to discuss Hong Kong.

It is important to set the debate in the context of the progress that we are making with the Chinese in implementing the terms of the Sino-British joint declaration on Hong Kong. The joint declaration must be the starting point of any consideration of Hong Kong's future development. It is widely recognised that it provides the essential framework for the development of our policy and for our contacts with the Chinese over Hong Kong.

I make no apology for joining the hon. Member for Wrexham in reminding the House of what a remarkable document that joint declaration is. It represents a unique and historic achievement by the British and Chinese Governments. It also marks a degree of bipartisanship on a very important foreign policy issue, which is to the credit of both sides of the House.

The joint declaration represents the determination of both sides to resolve a problem that is deeply rooted in history by producing an agreement, ratified by both Governments and by this Parliament, that is lodged at the United Nations in New York and is internationally binding. It is an agreement that gives to the people of Hong Kong a realistic hope and, I venture to say, a realistic expectation of continuing stability and prosperity after 1997.

We are working now to realise that goal through the full and faithful implementation of all the provisions of the joint declaration. We are collectively undertaking a new and truly unprecedented task. This task requires a spirit of co-operation and good will between Britain and China. It requires a fair measure of flexibility and mutual understanding in overcoming specific problems as they arise, and—as the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) said—in responding to developments both in the People's Republic of China and in Hong Kong, and, indeed, in the United Kingdom. It also requires the proper involvement of the people of Hong Kong in the process, to ensure that their views are fully taken into account at all stages.

The Sino-British joint liaison group set up under the joint declaration is the forum in which our consultations with the Chinese take place. Its task is a daunting one. It has to cope with a plethora of technical and practical detail, all of which needs to be satisfactorily covered before 1997.

I am glad to report that the group has made substantial progress since it began to meet in 1985. We have reached agreement with the Chinese on a number of important matters: for example, on Hong Kong's membership of certain international organisations, such as GATT, on air services and on certain nationality matters. The group is currently holding its ninth plenary meeting in Hong Kong, and has again made useful progress.

From 1 July this year the joint liaison group will have Hong Kong as its principal base, although plenary meetings will continue to take place in rotation in Peking and London, in accordance with the provisions of the joint declaration. The move to Hong Kong will none the less be an important step forward and will signify further intensification of our working contacts with the Chinese on Hong Kong.

Another important step forward took place on 10 February, with the publication by the Hong Kong Government of their White Paper on the development of representative government, which has been referred to in the debate. The House had an opportunity to express its views on 11 February, and the Government have taken very careful note of those views. While some hon. Members took the view that the White Paper should have gone further, many others recognised the major importance of the decisions that it contained. I thought that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) exaggerated slightly the differences that that discussion revealed across the House.

The hon. Member for Wrexham referred, slightly dismissively, to the A.G.B. McNair survey. It must be repeated that that survey represents only one aspect of the review of opinion. The hon. Gentleman asked why direct elections were to be delayed until 1991, and said that the survey used the phrase "delay". Opinions on the timing of direct elections were sharply divided; we believe that the Hong Kong people's views suggested a preference for a continuous and gradual approach. We must remember that there was a major change to the LegCo as recently as 1985.

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Is the Minister saying that the decision was wholly determined by the estimate of the views of the people of Hong Kong, and was in no way influenced by any possible attitude of the People's Republic?

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Obviously, the decision and the publication of the White Paper had to take into account all the various factors. It would be extraordinary if that had not been the case. The people of Hong Kong had considerable opportunities to express their views. I do not want to go over the debate last month, but the reaction of people in Hong Kong to the evaluation of the views that led up to the publication of the White Paper was considerable in terms of the number of people who responded, the degree of the response and the opinion as revealed by opinion polls of one form or another.

It is also fair to say that the general reaction to the White Paper by people in Hong Kong has been most encouraging. There are, of course, some who are critical of it, just as there are some who think that it is right. If one were to try to make a judgment, it appears that the majority of people have welcomed the White Paper as a balanced response to the wide-ranging consultation process that went on.

The reaction in Hong Kong reinforces my view that the White Paper represents a balanced and reasonable response to the views of the community. The White Paper will serve to maintain an enhanced confidence in the future because it offers the clear prospect of continuity in the development of Hong Kong's system of government up to and beyond 1997.

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That was not the view that I formed in Hong Kong. There was much more apprehension about the White Paper. People in Hong Kong are prepared to accept it, but there is a movement towards the introduction of direct elections. Next time the Minister visits Hong Kong, I hope that he will listen without prejudice. If he does, I think that he will come back with a feeling closer to that which I got when I was there.

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I respect the hon. Gentleman's view, but he himself said that it was difficult to form a judgment during a brief visit to Hong Kong.

One cannot for a moment pretend that anybody can make an entirely accurate prediction of exactly what the views are at any one point in time. After all, I suspect that on the night of the hon. Gentleman's count after the general election he would not have been able to make an accurate prediction of his majority, despite being a distinguished mathematician and statistician. In other words, there is bound to be an element of subjective judgment. None of us should be under any illusion about that. I have tried to make a fair and reasonable assessment, although I take account of what the hon. Gentleman said.

The next important date for Hong Kong will occur in early May. It is a date to which people in Hong Kong are looking forward with understandable interest, and which has, I suspect, prompted the hon. Gentleman's wish to raise this subject at this time.

In early May the Chinese Government will publish the first draft of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong special administrative region. The Basic Law is the legal instrument whereby the People's Republic of China will implement the policies for the Hong Kong special administrative region as set out in the declaration.

As such, it will enshrine the fundamental principles of the joint declaration — that Hong Kong's capitalist system and lifestyle will remain unchanged for 50 years, and that the special administrative region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, including executive, legislative and independent judicial powers.

The method by which the Basic Law has been drafted reflects the concern of the Chinese Government to ensure that it meets the concerns of the Hong Kong people and for it to provide for a smooth transfer of government in 1997. The Basic Law, as is well known, is being drafted by a Basic Law drafting committee set up the Chinese Government. Almost half the members of the committee come from Hong Kong, which has ensured that the people of Hong Kong have been involved in the drafting process from the start. We have welcomed the extent to which their views have been scrupulously taken into account.

The first stage of the drafting committee's work is nearing completion. The committee will meet in plenary session in Beijing in April. Shortly afterwards, in early May, a first draft of the Basic Law will be published in Hong Kong. Thereafter there will he a period of five months for consultation, to give the people of Hong Kong an opportunity to comment on the first draft and to make their views known. The views will be collected by the Basic Law consultative committee, which has already been established in the territory.

The procedure will give the people of Hong Kong the means to influence the content of the second draft of the law, which will be published in the autumn, before the final version is promulgated in 1990. The House will agree that this demonstrates a meticulous regard for the views of Hong Kong people. I know that hon. Members will join me in welcoming the opportunities for repeated consultations provided by the Chinese Government.

Dr. Bray It would be helpful if the Minister would make it clear that the drafting is not the same as the consideration that would be given to legislation in a Committee of the House, with amendments voted on and agreed. The drafting is done by a secretariat and is then discussed and taken away, and it may or may not be changed, but it is difficult to say that it has the endorsement of a drafting committee.

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Almost half the members of the committee are from Hong Kong, and there are at least two clear stages on two different drafts where the Basic Law will go out for wide consultation. If the Basic Law bears a resemblance to what the hon. Gentleman claims it will bear a resemblance to, people in Hong Kong will make many points, some of which may or may not be similar to the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

At the end of the elaborate consultation process we will wish to see—and I am confident that we shall see—a Basic Law which fully implements the terms of the Sino-British joint declaration. The drafting of the Basic Law is the sovereign right of the Government of the People's Republic of China, but the implementation of the joint declaration through the Basic Law is a matter in which we and the House have a legitimate interest.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary assured the House in the debate on 20 January that it was the solemn responsibility of the British Government to administer Hong Kong up to 30 June 1997 in the best interests of its people. We shall discharge the responsibility to the utmost of our ability. There is no question of Her Majesty's Government in any way letting Hong Kong down.

We shall also seek to ensure that the Sino-British joint declaration is fully and faithfully implemented, so as to preserve confidence in Hong Kong and to create a firm basis for Hong Kong's future stability and prosperity. Those are objectives to which the British and Chinese Governments are firmly committed. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in endorsing those objectives and the policies that we are pursuing in order to achieve them.