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1991 - Mr Major’s Press Conference in Hong Kong

Below is the transcript of Mr Major’s Press Conference in Hong Kong on Thursday 5th September 1991.


PRIME MINISTER:

It is very good to be back in Hong Kong, it is many years since I have worked here and I have been fascinated to see the very remarkable changes that there have been during that period.

Last evening we had the opportunity to fly by helicopter over Hong Kong and the development of Hong Kong is perhaps the most visible evidence of its success as a commercial centre and above all as a place where human enterprise and all other forms of enterprise and ingenuity have flourished in recent years. The people of Hong Kong can justly and rightly be proud of their achievements.

Hong Kong's continued success is one of my government's first priorities, we want to see Hong Kong prosper as a centre of freedom and enterprise up to and beyond 1997, that was why I went to Peking and I should like to report on my discussions there.

I went to China essentially for the sake of Hong Kong and I would like to remind you of what that visit achieved.

First, we have the Memorandum of Understanding on the airport, work can now go ahead on the airport core projects, all of them. The Memorandum opens the way to significantly improved cooperation with China in the interests of Hong Kong.

Second, we have secured clear cut public Chinese reaffirmation of their commitment to honour the Joint Declaration in letter and in spirit.

Thirdly, we have established a mechanism to end the blockage on productive discussions in the Joint Liaison Group.

Fourthly, we have obtained an extremely important agreement in principle on Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal.

And fifthly, we have confirmation of the right of Hong Kong to make its own investment promotion and protection agreements.

And sixthly, we have cleared the way for a new Consulate General, we intend to build such a Consulate and not just to lease premises.

I was accompanied to Peking by the Governor and other officials from the Hong Kong Government. Today I was able to brief EXCO on the outcome and I believe it is fair to say that all the members of EXCO expressed great satisfaction at what had been achieved. I was able to tell them that all the Chinese leaders I had met had volunteered their gratitude for the tremendously generous help which Hong Kong had provided for the victims of the recent floods.

Yesterday I also visited High Island Detention Centre, reading about it is not the same as seeing it. What you realise above all when you go to a camp is that these are not just statistics but fellow human beings, this is a human problem which requires a humane solution.

The influx of Vietnamese boat people has posed enormous problems for Hong Kong. Hong Kong has coped efficiently and above all humanely. It has not been easy for Hong Kong to preserve the policy of first asylum but one of the reasons why so many countries around the world are prepared to speak up for Hong Kong and what it stands for is because of Hong Kong's record on this and on other issues. It is an indictment of the policies of the Vietnamese government that the boat people left their country in the first place, it is a credit to Hong Kong that you have provided accommodation, health care and education for so many people.

A substantial minority of the Vietnamese boat people are refugees. Under the comprehensive plan of action those who are refugees have a right to be resettled elsewhere in the world, and they are. But for most economic migrants Hong Kong does not have the capacity to accommodate them forever, they will have to return home.

But they must be able to return home without fear of reprisals. We are negotiating with the new Vietnamese government for the establishment of centres that would be internationally managed and under the control of United Nations agencies. Those who are screened out as non-refugees will be able to return to those centres in the first instance, that is the best way forward.

Next week there will be elections in Hong Kong. For the first time there will be directly elected members of LEGCO. Also for the first time the new LEGCO will have a majority of elected members. This is the first point in a rising curve of directly elected seats which will, with agreement with the Chinese, continue up to and beyond 1997.

Of course we need to discuss this matter with the Chinese if progress is to be sustained. We shall want to discuss with them at the right time and in the light of the experience gained this year the arrangements for the elections in 1995.

No visitor can fully share the challenge which Hong Kong faces as we approach 1997. The people of Hong Kong have to live with that reality every day, sovereignty will revert to China in 1997 and it is Hong Kong and China who will have to make a reality of the concept of one country and two systems.

But I believe the Joint Declaration agreed in 1984 is the best basis for Hong Kong's future. There will be difficulties, as there are in any relationship, let alone one that requires two different political and economic systems to work together.

But we are not saying to the people of Hong Kong: here is the Joint Declaration, now it is up to you to make it work. Making it work is top priority for me and for my government. That was why we have agreed to intensify our contacts with Peking and raise the level at which they are regularly conducted, that was why going to Peking was necessary and worthwhile.

A week ago I left the world's largest free enterprise economy. Today I shall be leaving a somewhat smaller but equally enterprising market economy. In between I visited Moscow and Peking. One country is exploring the path of political reform, the other is concentrating on economic reform. The fact is that both are necessary and I doubt that one can develop fully without the other.

It is fitting that I should end this eventful week here in Hong Kong where your economy is booming and where you are about to take a first momentous step in the process of representative government. I have found it a most useful and worthwhile visit and am delighted I was able to come. I am now happy to take your questions.


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

QUESTION (South China Morning Post):

Prime Minister, you said that you went to China for the sake of Hong Kong and for two fundamental issues - human rights and democracy in Hong Kong - bearing in mind China's repeated warning that it may repeal Hong Kong's [Indistinct] up to 1997 and China's persistent refusal to recognise the Hong Kong Executive and Legislative Council, did you take up these issues with Li Peng?

PRIME MINISTER:

I spoke specifically to Mr Li Peng about the desirability of meeting EXCO and about meeting OMELCO and the fact that there would need to be a direct relationship between them and I hoped that would come about. This is a matter we have raised with them and a matter we will continue to raise with them.

On other matters, insofar as democracy in Hong Kong is concerned, we are starting off with the first directly elected members in just a week or so. That is a tremendous advance, it is part of a rising curve, I think we will get through those elections, we will see how they are sustained, how they develop, and I think nobody should under-estimate the impact that these elections will make even though on this occasion it is only 18 seats out of the full total of 60.

QUESTION:

What about human rights given that it has been about 7 years now since we signed the Joint Declaration that China has yet to become a signatory to the international Conference on Human Rights, have you actually asked the Chinese leader to take action and if not why not?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think most people will have known from reading the press over the last few days that I certainly did discuss the question of human rights with the Chinese, they are well aware of my view, I doubt they have ever been made so well aware of anyone's views on human rights in the past before. So they are very well aware of my concern in human rights and they are equally well aware in terms of their responsibilities at home and abroad that this is a matter of rising interest around the world, not just in the case of China, but in the case of countries all around the world where human rights are not at the standard that we believe they should be. There is a searchlight of public and international opinion upon the question of human rights, the Chinese are absolutely aware of that and yes I did discuss the matter with them.

QUESTION (Mike Brunson, ITN):

I wonder if I could tempt you to break all the conventions and to discuss British politics while you are on an overseas trip and to say whether after a successful week you are tempted to call an early election when you get back home?

PRIME MINISTER:

You can tempt but I may not rise to the temptation, Michael. I think speculation like that at this stage of a Parliament is always inevitable, I just hope not too many people will take that almost inevitable day to day speculation too seriously. We still have work to do, when I judge it right we will have a General Election. But I do not think it would be in anyone's interest for me to respond to day to day speculation.

QUESTION:

Do you still want to make it your intention to see the intergovernmental conferences through to the end of December as you have said in the past?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have always made it clear that I think the negotiations that we shall have in the two intergovernmental conferences are vitally important for the future of the United Kingdom. I want to be certain that I am in a position to negotiate for my country in those conferences.

QUESTION (Hong Kong Economic Times):

My question is in two parts, first since your visit to China was quite successful and in the Soviet Union, but can I say that you are failing to deliver the G7 message in which the most important and subtle message to China, that is that socialism has no future?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that since we have just been talking about a British General Election I should take you over to Britain and you can explain to the British electorate that socialism has no future, a point that I most assuredly agree with in terms of the United Kingdom.

As I indicated a moment or so ago, I think economic and political reform are inevitable around the world and that they will go hand in hand together. It is for each country to work out its own salvation in that event but that there is a worldwide movement for people to have greater political and economic freedoms I am in no doubt, it is a movement that I welcome, it is a movement the G7 collectively welcomes, it is a movement that we are seeing in all parts of the globe, I think it is irreversible.

QUESTION:

The second part of my question is that the people in Hong Kong are quite concerned about who is the next Governor of Hong Kong, can you confirm that the present Governor, Sir David Wilson, will leave next year and if that is the case who is the best possible candidate for this job?

PRIME MINISTER:

Was that an application? I can confirm to you that there is no vacancy for the Governorship of Hong Kong. Sir David Wilson has done and is doing and will continue to do an excellent job for the people of Hong Kong. Again it is a matter, I know speculation arises from time to time and no doubt whatever is said it will arise again, but I believe he has done an excellent job and is doing an excellent job for the people of Hong Kong and anything beyond that is pure speculation.

QUESTION (Sally Blyth, RTHK)

I wonder if you could reaffirm your government's assurance that you will go back to China to try and increase the number of directly elected seats to the Legislative Council if these elections this year prove to be a success? And secondly, can you define what you mean when the government means a success or whether elections are satisfactory, what do you mean by this, how are you going to judge whether they have been a success?

PRIME MINISTER:

One of the difficulties of judging the future is you have to see what happens and then for a judgment upon it when it has happened. So I think it is impossible to provide a hypothetical answer to that particular question. I think on both parts of your question we have to see what happens in the elections, we have to review what happens, we then have to consider the views of those people who have been elected, their views are very important, and I do not think it is for me to make judgments that are judgments that are properly to be made after people have been elected when I have had the opportunity of hearing their views after that election. That after all is what democracy is about. And I think if I was to say well whatever happens in the election I have made up my mind I am going to do this, that or the other thing after the election, I might legitimately be asked whether I was not going to consult the people who are elected, and I am. So I will have to defer my answer until I have had those discussions.

QUESTION:

Can I follow that up?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think Sally there is nothing more I can say, I think I have covered both parts of those questions and I will have to see what happens in the election and hear the views of the people who are elected.

QUESTION (Brian Barron):

What is wrong with having full elections, full democracy in this colony before 1997, is that a path that you yourself personally would really like to follow, would that not safeguard Hong Kong before Peking's takeover?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have had those discussions previously and we have reached an agreement with the Chinese on the number of people who are elected. I am not going to go back over past discussions, I do not think that is productive. What we actually need to do is to make sure we are on a democratic path and it is sustainable and will be sustained amid general agreement up to the period in 1997 and beyond the period in 1997. It is always an attractive thought to say: what if and could we not have a little bit more? But we have had an agreement that has been determined some time ago, we can look at the matter again after we have had the elections in the way I described a moment or so again.

The Foreign Secretary recalls to my mind that I did not respond to an earlier question on the Bill of Rights, I apologise for that, it was in a welter if I may say of a number of questions under the guise of one.

Hong Kong has persisted with its Bill of Rights and I think that is absolutely right. That has not been questioned or criticised by China during my visit at all and they are well aware of what has actually happened.. And the whole thrust of my discussions in Peking is that the Chinese government are going to have to take great care over human rights generally and respect them, respect them everywhere, but of course that most certainly means respect them in Hong Kong in all their aspects. I am sorry I missed that point earlier.

QUESTION:

Mr. Prime Minister, I believe you have seen the political party protests outside the CGO this morning and I would like to know if you think those radical democracy movements will affect the stability of Hong Kong and also, do you think that the stability of Hong Kong is the most important issue during the transition period?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the stability of Hong Kong is vitally important, stability in the sense of continued investment, stability in the sense of security of mind of the people who live here, stability in the sense of a belief by people both in Hong Kong and beyond Hong Kong that the future prosperity of the Territory is assured. I think that is absolutely critical.

As to the demonstrators who were outside the meeting I had with EXCO this morning, we are in the middle of an election in Hong Kong. I understand that. I have lived through elections before in my own country and all sorts of demonstrations are held during elections and people express all sorts of views in elections. It is very prudent for people who are not part of that particular election and who are not resident in the territory in which the election is taking place not to offer comment on it and I don't propose to comment on the demonstration or on the comments of individual people facing election next week.

RICHARD BESTICK (SKY NEWS):

In very broad terms, do you believe in your stop over here in Hong Kong you have been successful in calming the very real fears about 1997?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think we will have to wait and see how events settle down over the last few days. I can only say in the discussions I have had with people that there has been a very genuine welcome indeed for the fact that I went to Peking and for the outcome of that meeting in Peking; not just the outcome that I mentioned a few moments ago but of course the points that were set out in the joint communique that I signed and Li Peng signed on behalf of the Chinese Government; that reaffirmed the Joint Declaration, it reaffirmed the points that people in Hong Kong are concerned about and we advanced beyond that of course with the Court of Final Appeal which I know from my correspondence in England and discussions and advice I have had from the Governor and others in Hong Kong was a matter of huge concern to people here. I think there is a very warm welcome for the fact that we are now going to proceed with the Consulate and it will be built; it is an indication of the commitment that we have to Hong Kong up to 1997 and beyond 1997 and more than that, it is an indication of the confidence as well as the commitment that we have in Hong Kong.

There are other matters still to be determined; there were expert discussions this morning, as you may know, on defence lands and they will continue; there are other matters like air service agreements which are still to be determined but there is now a continuing debate upon these issues and I believe it fair to say that there has been a very warm welcome for what was achieved in the period up to Peking and at Peking and I think there is enormous relief that we now have a continuing mechanism that will deal with those matters that are currently outstanding and those others matters that are bound to arise and that are not at the moment foreseen between now and 1997.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] on the one hand but they, also feel in Hong Kong that it might give the Chinese more opportunity to get involved with Hong Kong internal matters between now and the hand-over, i.e. some kind of unofficial joint administration. Do you agree?

PRIME MINISTER:

I made the point quite specifically in the speech that I made when we signed the Memorandum when the Chinese Government were there that there is no question of matters like condominium this side of 1997; that point was clearly made in the Report; it was of course originally in the Joint Declaration - that has been reaffirmed and I said that, not hidden away in a corner but actually there with the Chinese leaders beside me.

But there are areas where decisions taken straddle 1997 and are very important and I think people will regard it as wise to consult on some of those issues. That was always foreseen in the Joint Declaration and that is what we are doing. It is in the interests of Hong Kong to make sure there is - to go back to the earlier question - that stability. Everything doesn't suddenly stop and start again in 1997; many things straddle 1997 and we must ensure that stability is genuine and real and that means a degree of consultation. It doesn't mean that the responsibilities have moved away; it means one consults in a practical and pragmatic way.

ANGUS FOSTER (FINANCIAL TIMES):

Prime Minister, can you explain why you seem prepared to stand up to China on human rights but you are not prepared to stand up to them on democracy for Hong Kong and can you or can you not re-state the previous UK policy which was to go to Peking after these elections to negotiate an increase from upwards of 20 seats for 1995?

PRIME MINISTER:

The premise of your question is provocative and wrong. When the agreement with China was reached over 18 seats, you can't sit there in your seat and say China was offering 18 seats for direct elections; that was a matter that we negotiated with China and we got a good deal better negotiation than the Chinese originally expected or that most people expected here, so there was no question of us not, in the emotive terms you put it, standing up to China on that issue.

The people we are standing up for are the people of Hong Kong in a way that is right for Hong Kong and is sustainable for Hong Kong and we are perfectly prepared, as I have said on a number of occasions already in this press conference, after we have had the elections this year to discuss with the people who were elected and review the situation and see what happened and make our judgements there and nothing in our policy upon that has changed.

QUESTION:

You have made a lot of comments about how much you have done for Hong Kong. Would you care to comment on the comments of one of Hong Kong's leading lawyers and the leader of what is almost certainly the most popular political party in this Territory, Mr, Martin Lee, that your Memorandum of Understanding is actually in breach of the Joint Declaration and would you care to comment on the fact that it is now two years since the airport project was first announced and at that time there was no suggestion either from your Government or from the Hong Kong Government that China would even need to be consulted let alone that you would have to go to Peking yourself and sign a statement which Mr. Martin Lee believes is in breach of the Joint Declaration?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have heard many of the things Mr. Lee has said over the last few days and some of them have been very supportive of what we have done and others have been less supportive but as I said to the earlier question, we are in the midst of an election in Hong Kong and I am not going to get drawn into a debate on comments from anyone running for election in Hong Kong, whether Mr. Lee or anybody else who would hold contrary views; that is not for me in the middle of an election period.

QUESTION (ORIENTAL DAILY):

After you signed the Memorandum of Understanding, the Chinese side has said that what is stipulated in the Memorandum will serve as a model for future problems when we want to have solutions. Do you agree with that?

PRIME MINISTER:

What the Memorandum is there for is to enable the airport, which is a huge development that is absolutely critical for the future of Hong Kong, to go ahead with general agreement. The problem is whatever would have happened had there not been general agreement and had not the Memorandum been signed. We could have either continued with the airport unilaterally or we could have scrapped the airport. Many people, if we had scrapped it, would have said; "Splendid! What a wonderfully virile thing to do!" but Hong Kong would have suffered if we had done that. If one hadn't reached an agreement, many people would have said: "Well, there is a huge disagreement between China and Hong Kong and Britain on this issue; is it safe for us actually to invest in the airport?" so one has to deal with the reality and it was wise, in the interests of the investors and in the interests of Hong Kong, to make sure we had an agreement. Now that is enshrined in the Memorandum of Understanding and that means the airport project can go ahead and it is secure in the eyes of the investors and it is welcomed in Hong Kong and welcomed beyond Hong Kong and will have a very practical effect of encouraging people to be more confident about other future investment in Hong Kong but I see no difficulties in the way in which the Memorandum has been reached or signed and I think it is very much in the interests of Hong Kong that we signed it.

TONY YIEWSLEY (AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION):

I have got a very easy one for you. It has been a very hectic week and you have been by all accounts very successful in some areas. Do you think you have finally shrugged off this tag that I keep reading about that your name is Eric rather than John Major? It has been a tag given to you by the British press, not by the Australian press.

PRIME MINISTER:

Not a tag that I had heard, not a tag that I would recognise.

QUESTION (HONG KONG COMMERCIAL DAILY):

Britain and China have agreed to intensify efforts to solve the problem of the Vietnam boat people and will support all steps to help Hong Kong to solve the problem and I would like to know: can Hong Kong decide all by her own to take [Indistinct] steps and if Hong Kong decides a way to solve the [Indistinct] problem, will Britain fully support this decision?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is not for China to stop decisions that are being taken on the question of boat people and China also wants to help and assist with the problem that Hong Kong faces with boat people arriving, some of them of course arriving across the mainland and going straight back, others arriving in the harbours. We are discussing regularly - by "We" I mean the British Government and the Hong Kong Government - how best to deal with it both in the interests of Hong Kong and to deal with the very great human problem of the people who are coming here and I set out in my opening remarks the way in which we feel we should proceed from now on and we are in discussion at the moment with the Vietnamese Government about the establishment under the control and management of United Nations agencies an internationally-managed centre in Vietnam to which those boat people who are not refugees would be able to return and that is the right way - it is the only way - for us to proceed and the only way I think for Hong Kong to proceed that would be acceptable for Hong Kong or for others.

PAUL REYNOLDS (BBC):

Could I pick up on a question which was asked but not, I think, answered and that was to do with the Memorandum of Understanding being in breach of the Declaration and the fact that China has to be consulted now on the airport project when it was not two years ago? These are substantive points.

I wonder how you can persuade people you are not presenting an over-optimistic picture of China's intentions, given your own very strong remarks and worries about human rights there and that to have the Joint Declaration reaffirmed is no great deal when we were told in 1984 this was going to be the deal, so are you perhaps not being over-optimistic and how do you deal with those substantive complaints about the airport agreement giving too much influence to China?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it is a matter of routine to have it reaffirmed and for a variety of reasons and I will set out those reasons for you:

The principal reason is that I have now had the opportunity of going to China, sitting down face-to-face with the Chinese leaders and having them reaffirm the terms of this Joint Declaration to me. If there is any dispute or any difficulties at any stage, I am now in a position to say to the Chinese leaders: "I sat down opposite you and you reaffirmed the terms of the Joint Declaration! No question of misunderstanding; no question of circumstances having changed; no question of changing times and the efflux of time! We sat down together in 1991 and we reaffirmed all the terms of the Joint Declaration!" I don't think that is an insignificant thing and in view of the continuing confidence we have established, I think it was very worthwhile.

One particularly important point of those fresh contacts is the regular contact there will be between the Foreign Secretary and the Chinese Foreign Minister on matters of dispute and of course on wider matters too but if matters get blocked in the Joint Liaison Group, if there are matters that officials find themselves unable to solve because of the political connotation, there is now for the first time a direct link - that direct channel - between the two Foreign Secretaries to sort out that matter and if they are unable to do so, I am in a position to seek to sort it out myself with the Chinese leaders and in a better position to do so because I have sat down opposite them and reaffirmed myself the terms of the Joint Declaration.

The point about the Memorandum of Understanding, which I think is wrong, being in breach of the Joint Declaration: I don't believe that is the case but the fact is in the airport project there is 40 percent of private investment, it is a multi-billion dollar project, 40 percent of it is private investment. Those private investors want to be reassured beyond 1997. That reassurance is there in the Memorandum of Understanding. Without that reassurance, the practical position is that they may not have come forward with that 40 percent of private investment and then there would have been no airport and then there would have been no boost to the confidence of investors in Hong Kong and the people who live in Hong Kong, so it was not in any way a change from the Joint Declaration and it is in my view unwise to say so. It was a practical reaffirmation that it was secure and safe for people to invest in the airport project and it has been enabled to go ahead.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

I answered questions about the Governor earlier and I am not going to enter into speculation either way about the Governor. I don't think that would be at all wise or fair on the Governor.

QUESTION (ATV NEWS, HONG KONG):

A former senior government official here has proposed that the newly-elected Legislature be given the power to ratify decisions reached by the Joint Liaison Group. Do you support that idea?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would want to consider that idea and I would want to discuss it with the people who are elected. I am not going to respond to that without some careful thought.

SAME QUESTIONER:

The United Democrats of Hong Kong are apparently headed for victory in the coming elections. If they gain a significant proportion of the seats, would you agree that the Governor should put either one of their directly-elected members or a liberal voice into the Executive Council here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Two points: firstly, anyone who thinks I am going to anticipate the result of an election in Hong Kong is wholly wrong; and secondly, I am not going to anticipate what the Governor might do on his own authority; that is a matter for the Governor and not for me; that is why he is there.