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1996 - Mr Major’s Hong Kong Press Conference

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference, held in Hong Kong, on Monday 4th March 1996.


PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t propose to say a great deal at the outset of this press conference. I have had opportunities elsewhere on this visit to say what I have to say, most noticeably at lunchtime, and I daresay most of you have had the opportunity of seeing that before deciding what questions to ask this afternoon.

Let me just simply say how much I have enjoyed this particular visit to Hong Kong, it is over four years since last I was here. The speed of change here never ceases to amaze me. But I am delighted to have been here again and on this occasion have enjoyed the visit as much as I always do.

We have had a very lively debate on one or two issues over the last couple of days. I enjoyed my meetings with EXCO and LEGCO this morning. And I just want to say one or two general things about the present circumstance and the future.

The first thing I would like to say is just to add to a point I know that the Governor has made on many occasions in the past, and that is just to express my admiration for the way in which the civil service has coped with matters here in Hong Kong over the last few years. I think Hong Kong are extremely lucky in the quality of their civil service, in the apolitical nature of their civil service, and I think that is something that is well understood here and well appreciated also in London.

Let me say a word or two about the natural fears that I think many people may have about the transition. There are some very important issues that I know are of concern to people still in Hong Kong: the question of the future of LEGCO - whether the through-train arrives at its destination or whether there is a stop in 1997, the question of the Bill of Rights. Both of those I touched upon earlier and on earlier occasions, but they may well come up again this afternoon.

When people worry perhaps about those problems, I wonder if I might just remind everybody of the problems in the past that seemed insoluble and yet now are behind us, they have been solved - the Court of Final Appeal, airport contracts - a range of other things in the past that were a matter of huge concern at the time but where satisfactory solutions were in the end actually found.

We are going to have to be both persistent and persuasive in our negotiations with China on the problems that remain. We will be so in private and we will express, wherever it seems to be of advantage to Hong Kong for us to do so, our views on those matters in public as well. What I do want to reiterate as an assurance to Hong Kong is that Britain’s commitment to Hong Kong, and its future, is not something that is dribbling away with the 450 or so days that remain. There is a commitment that is very deep, very long-standing, and although the legal position may change in June 1997, the practical commitment will not change, the moral imperative will not change, and Britain’s interest in Hong Kong, affection for Hong Kong and trade and commercial relationships with Hong Kong will continue in the future, as they have done in the past.

On the occasions I have been able to speak publicly on this trip I have tried to set out, most obviously in the speech at lunchtime today, some reassurance on five points. I will just remind you of them without going through them at any length I think again:

- firstly, our long-term commitment to Hong Kong, both moral and economic;

- secondly, our pledge to pursue every avenue that is open to us if there is to be a breach of the Joint Declaration, including using Britain’s influence with the international community to ensure that the agreements that were signed are the agreements that are met;

- thirdly, the announcement I made earlier today about visa-free access;

- fourthly, the extra guarantee to the ethnic minorities - the relatively small number of people of Indian and Pakistani ethnic extraction who fear particular difficulties after 1997;

- and fifthly, the commitment I was able to make today to effectively ensure British citizenship for war widows and wives.

Those were the five principal points I have made during this trip.

The next 400 - 500 days are self-evidently going to be a testing time for Hong Kong. Hong Kong has shown its courage and its persistence on many occasions in the past. It will need to do so again over the next 500 days or so. I have no doubt that it will do so. And neither do I have any doubt, if he will permit me to say so, that in the Governor Hong Kong could not have a better representative of Hong Kong’ s views, both with London and with China and with other countries. So I think you will remain in very good hands and the Governor will continue to have the direct and immediate access to London that he has always enjoyed.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:

QUESTION (South China Morning Post):

You just spoke firmly and clearly of the British commitment to Hong Kong. But can you also be equally firm and clear that it is the UK government’ s view that the Chinese plan to set up a provisional Legislature and dilute the Bill of Rights is a breach of the Joint Declaration?

PRIME MINISTER:

I touched upon those points earlier, and I reiterate them again today. I don’t have any doubt at all in my mind that it would be a very grave mistake were LEGCO not to proceed right to the end of their natural elected life. I don’t think we could, or would, understand if LEGCO’s life were cut in half in 1997, and neither do I believe the world at large would understand that. There is now an elective democracy in Hong Kong. The present LEGCO were elected with a very substantial popular vote, they were elected to do a particular job and I believe they should be permitted to see that job through to its conclusion. Those points have long been put privately to the Chinese leaders, I have made the point entirely publicly, we will do all we can to persuade China that that is the right way to proceed, both in China’s interest, for the world would not understand anything else were it to happen in 1997, and also in the interest of people in Hong Kong.

There are of course allied matters on human rights and on the Bill of Rights, and I won’t reiterate what I said at lunchtime, I think it is probably quite clear.

QUESTION (Sally Blythe, Eastern Express):

The guarantees which you gave today to the ethnic minorities, do they actually differ from earlier guarantees which were given by Sir Geoffrey Howe during parliamentary debates about 10 years ago I think when he said that the British government would look favourably upon any application by any of the ethnic minorities here so that they could enter Britain and the British government would look favourably upon that. How does your guarantee today differ from that?

PRIME MINISTER:

The guarantee today is more specific and a good deal harder. What was said in the past that we would look favourably upon those applications, that doesn't necessarily mean in given circumstances that that would be granted in any sense. What I am saying today is that where those people have a well-founded fear that it is necessary for them to leave Hong Kong, we won’t just look favourably upon their application, what I have offered them in those circumstances is a cast-iron guarantee that they will be able to come to the United Kingdom.

QUESTION:

Why not give them British passports then?

PRIME MINISTER:

So it is a good deal firmer than anything we have seen in the past. I am not in a position to go further than that.

QUESTION:

We just heard that we will have visa-free for the SAR passport holders. At present officially the British passport holder, the Hong Kong ones, will not need to have a visa to land in Britain. But your government and the authorities in Hong Kong advise the people of Hong Kong to take a visa first. So will you apply the same sort of policy towards the SAR passport?

PRIME MINISTER:

In future people with an SAR passport certainly will not need a visa when they are coming to the United Kingdom, that is not a short term position, that is the position that I announced today. That was not the position before today, it is the position after today. I think it will make a material difference, a beneficial difference, to many people who visit the United Kingdom from Hong Kong. Nobody should sniff around and try and find something in the undergrowth that is not as it appears on the surface. What I said this morning should be taken at its face value - visas will not be required by holders of an SAR passport visiting the United Kingdom.

QUESTION:

There are many persons and organisations in Hong Kong who have been promoting the democratic movement of China, but you have not promised to give minorities to enter the UK after 1997, what about that group after 1997 because they have every opportunity to be oppressed by the Chinese government?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think if you look at the commitments we have got in the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration, I know people are concerned and I understand the concern that people will have over the changes that are to come. If I may say so, although we have had differences with China from time to time over the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, they have in essence been differences of interpretation over what was meant by the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. And I think it is wise to understand that it has been differences of interpretation, not what both sides could clearly see was a breach of the Joint Declaration, that have been the points at issue. I understand the concerns that people fear about persecution, I have to say I think those fears are greatly overdone. Where we have seen a potential risk, we have acted.

What I would say more generally on the subject is simply this. Those sort of fears sometimes arise because people have the impression that after 1997 in some curious way Hong Kong is going to be entirely on its own. But if there is an open city anywhere in the world upon whom the eyes of the world are constantly fixed, if there is a more open city than Hong Kong, I cannot myself imagine where that city might be. This is the gateway for the whole of Asia, the trade, commercial gateway for the whole of Asia, it is very much in the interests of Hong Kong that it remains that way, but more relevantly from the point of view of your question, it is very much in the interests of China that it remains that way. And I think people often imagine that the sheer impact of the world looking at Hong Kong, and the sheer impact of the nature of Hong Kong, is not going to have any effect upon the future after the end of June 1997. I do not myself believe that and I think the fears that you raise are unfounded.

QUESTION (Francis Moriatty, Radio and TV Hong Kong):

Prime Minister, a subject not on your list of five. You say Hong Kong is not alone but when Mr. Rifkind was here he suggested that when it came to solving the boat people question it was a Hong Kong question.

If I can just for a moment go back to your last press conference in Hong Kong in 1991 in which you said: “We are discussing regularly - by “we” I mean the British Government and the UK Government.” You go on several times to talk about “we” and “us’ so the question is where, when it comes to the Vietnamese boat people, does the British responsibility end and the Hong Kong responsibility begin?

PRIME MINISTER:

Let me tell you exactly what is happening. When I was in Bangkok last week, I saw the Vietnamese prime minister to discuss the specific problem of the Vietnamese boat people. If I can take a little bit of history to that, it was very soon after my visit in 1991 that activity on the boat people began to accelerate; there was clearly a need for decisions to be taken, I agreed with that, the Governor agreed with that, progress began to be made. Progress was proceeding very satisfactorily with volunteers, non-refugees, returning back to Vietnam until there was what I think I might Delphically call “an external intercession from across the water” and I do not mean by that the United Kingdom.

I spoke to the Vietnamese prime minister to see how we can accelerate this process. The objective would be to deal with the problem entirely before the end of June 1997, that is the objective. Satisfying that objective is not wholly in British hands but that is the objective that I seek. With that in mind, I agreed with the Vietnamese prime minister that I would send British officials immediately from London to Vietnam to discuss how we might re-accelerate this programme.

The reason I am sending officials first is that I shall be sending a Foreign Office minister to Vietnam in April and I want the preliminary ground-clearing work done in advance of that so that we may deal compassionately, sensitively but speedily and comprehensively with the problem of the non-refugees who are still here in Hong Kong in camps.

I do see a role for the British Government, we played a role before. I see a role for the British Government, the Hong Kong Government and the Vietnamese Government; I do not see quite such a role for individuals elsewhere but for those three groups I do see a role and we are acting to see if we can get this programme moving again satisfactorily.

QUESTION (Michael Brunson, ITV):

Prime Minister, in your speech, you mentioned in passing that if necessary you would be prepared to take legal action if China is in breach of the Joint Declaration. Will you underline that again but on, the other hand, do you not think that that is likely to anger Beijing as much as it might reassure those people here?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are not in the business of angering anyone. We have had significant discussions and negotiations with the Chinese and that will continue to be the position. We are not in the business of angering anyone but neither are we in the business of not making clear what the options are in certain circumstances and I think it is right that everybody should know what the options are that might conceivably be pursued by the British Government were it necessary to do so and I stress that last point, were it necessary to do so.

What we have said is that if there were breaches of the Joint Declaration we, the British Government, would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us and what I reaffirmed at lunchtime today is that that is precisely what we would do; we would pursue every legal and other avenue open to us and I hope that will be a clear reassurance to people who fear that there can with impunity be a breach of the Joint Declaration with no response.

QUESTION:

Does that mean that you are going to sue China in the International Court if China is going to dismantle LEGCO?

PRIME MINISTER:

I set out precisely what I meant, I am not going to put further flesh on it. What I said was perfectly clear. We will pursue every legal and other avenue available to us but I am not going to sit down and set out in each individual circumstance precisely how we would deal with it. I don’t think that would be productive and what I wish to do is to try and ensure that the circumstance doesn't arise in the first place. By “circumstance” I mean a breach of the Joint Declaration but those options are open to us should we need them.

QUESTION (Don MacIntyre):

Prime Minister, can I return to the ethnic minority question for a moment? Who will decide whether these people are under pressure to leave Hong Kong? Will the burden of the proof be as it were on the individual as in asylum cases?

PRIME MINISTER:

I considered whether we should actually set down a specific series of circumstances that would be met. We could do that and we will consider in the period between now and June 1997 whether that might be an appropriate way to deal with the problem. At this moment I am not convinced that it is, there are many alternative scenarios that may arise.

One thing is certain: these people that we are talking about will not wish to leave Hong Kong of their own volition unless it is absolutely necessary for them to do so; they have their lives here, their businesses here, their interests here, their families here. Every indication we have is that they will wish to stay in Hong Kong if they possibly can but if circumstances arise where it is inappropriate for them to remain in Hong Kong, I think that will be apparent. It is a little like designing an elephant, you are not quite sure where to start the design but by golly you know when you see it and I think it is probably wise to leave it upon that basis because that gives the greatest degree of flexibility which I would anticipate we would exercise benevolently, if there were a risk, to deal with the relatively small number of people who may face this problem. We could, as I say, identify specific sets of circumstances where we would act but without further discussion and consideration, I am not convinced that would particularly be in the interests of the people concerned.

QUESTION (Washington Post):

Do you think there is something that China could be doing right now to help calm some of the anxieties, for example talking to the elected Democratic Party officials and talking to the Government here?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that would be very helpful, yes, I think they could and I very much hope that they will.

If I may return to the point I made earlier, over the last two or three years many issues that looked as though they were going to provoke huge dissent and may be unbrokerable, between Britain, Hong Kong and China have now been solved so I think we may well be able to solve some of those matters that so much concern people at present but yes, self-evidently it would help if there were a dialogue with LEGCO and a further and more comprehensive dialogue with the Governor and I would hope there will be such a dialogue.

QUESTION:

How much have you raised in the past few days for your party in Hong Kong?

PRIME MINISTER:

That is not what I came here for, not what I have done. I didn't come here for that purpose, I haven’t discussed that purpose, it has not been on my agenda neither crossed my mind nor has it crossed my lips. The answer is that is not why I was here. Was that clear enough?

GOVERNOR PATTEN:

But the bet that Martin Lee in the Legislative Council had with Malcolm Rifkind that Britain wouldn't do anything about visa-free access has been handed over.

PRIME MINISTER:

The Governor is holding that and I will take it back to the Foreign Secretary who is a Scot, has won his bet and will receive his winnings.

QUESTION (Robin Oakley, BBC):

Prime Minister, how would you respond to critics at home in Britain and in your own party, some perhaps in your own Cabinet, who are suggesting that the visa-free access for SAR passport holders could be abused by potential political asylum-seekers?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't believe it would have been honourable for us not to act as we have and I know no-one in my Cabinet who is going to dissent from that view because my Cabinet has approved that view.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you have just announced a good deal for the Hong Kong people and I think most of them welcome that but unfortunately there were Hong Kong people who happen to be journalists who were not welcomed by mainland China, they just took away their re-entry permits so can you guarantee to us, Mr. Prime Minister, after 1997 that those with permanent residence in Hong Kong can come back to Hong Kong? Did you get any guarantee from China that they can come back to Hong Kong after 1997?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am not quite sure of the facts of this particular case, I don’t know where these journalists might be at the moment. I am always very protective of the interests of journalists as the travelling party with me from the United Kingdom will confirm but I don’t know the background to this. If it seems as though there is some malpractice of some sort, clearly we would examine it and do what we could to help but without having the details of the particular case I would like to restrict my comment to that. I will make enquiries about it; if you will give the details to the Governor, I will look into it.

QUESTION (Paul Harrington, Agence France Press):

We are all aware, Prime Minister, of the political obstructions to granting more British passports to Hong Kong people but you mentioned the moral imperative that. Britain also had. Do you think that Hong Kong has got everything it deserves from Britain in this regard?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have tried to deal fairly with Hong Kong over the years but the underlying premise of your question seemed to me to be that one is coming to the end of a period in which Britain will have any interest in Hong Kong. That emphatically is not the case. The Governor has been here representing as well as I think anyone could have done the interests of Hong Kong over recent years. Going back even earlier, the negotiation of the Joint Declaration was essential and the determination of Basic Law was essential in the interests of Hong Kong; it was essential that a rule of law continues and I have been here to try and assist with some of the problems that Hong Kong has so I believe yes, we have dealt fairly, honestly and openly with Hong Kong and we will continue to do so both in the short term and the long term.

QUESTION:

You announced with a great flourish the visa-free access decision and yet we all know that that could be revoked within a matter of days if for example the question raised by a British colleague about abuses comes up so shouldn't you have offered some greater guarantee that that visa-free travel requirement can somehow be maintained? What is to stop the British Government from revoking it the moment some abuse is discovered?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t see why we would be likely to do that. I didn't have to offer visa-free access now. I did so because I think it is in the interests of Hong Kong that we do so and I think it is in the interests of the United Kingdom that we do so for a raft of reasons as well so I don’t anticipate a short-term reversal of this.

We have visa-free access for other countries. It would be equally true of you to say to me that we could reverse visa-free access for all those other countries but we have had visa-free access for them for years, it hasn't been reversed.

This is not an offer made in bad faith, this is an offer made in good faith and it is an offer that is going to be maintained. All visa-free access around the world is upon that basis and that is the basis upon which I have announced it today. There is no need and no justification for people to poke around in the undergrowth of this statement to see if there is some trick underlying it - there is no trick.

QUESTION (The Sun):

Prime Minister, a domestic question but one which I think may be of interest in this Crown territory. A number of MPs back home have expressed concern about the royal family including Conservative MPs and including one Minister of the Crown who has asked for a debate on the royal family and the future of the royal family. Are you prepared to have one?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have heard no such comments myself and I am disinclined to comment on domestic matters when I am so far away without having heard the domestic debate. I will happily respond to that point when I am back in the United Kingdom.

QUESTION (The Associated Press):

Prime Minister, could just for the record explain to us whether in your opinion disbanding LEGCO would equal a breach of the Joint Declaration?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have said that, I said that earlier.

SAME MAN:

Not clearly though so that we know, would disbanding LEGCO equal a breach of the Joint Declaration in your view?

PRIME MINISTER:

We believe that the Joint Declaration shouldn't be changed and it is partly for that reason that we have been arguing that LEGCO needs to go right the way through and I made clear the damage that we believe would be done if LEGCO were to be disbanded, damage not just to Hong Kong though certainly to Hong Kong but also to China and that is a point we have made repeatedly to China and will continue to make to China.